P O S T E D B Y A L B E R T
Philanthropy at its Best, a new report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), has clearly hit a nerve. More interesting than the report itself, perhaps, has been the sociology of its reception: foundations withdrawing their support from the NCRP; powerful men eviscerating the report in prominent journals; associations of foundations releasing carefully worded statements to assuage the report’s believers and detractors.
It’s not nice to kick a publication when it’s down, but I too see its flaws. I understand how literalist interpretations of its text might lead to arguments in the pews.
NCRP’s suggestion, for example, that grantmakers “[provide] at least 50 percent of [their] grant dollars to benefit lower-income communities, communities of color and other marginalized groups” will predictably put off grantmakers whose work focuses on saving the Chesapeake Bay, for example, or protecting Romanesque churches from the ravages of earthquakes. Either that or it will launch us into fruitless discussions about what it really means to “benefit” lower-income communities.
And so on down the list of NCRP’s prescriptions for philanthropy at its best.*
I understand, however, that behind each of these exhortations lies a beating heart. Behind the plea to give more to the poor is the uncomfortably reality of deep poverty in our own country. And set against this poverty, the tens of billions of dollars in philanthropic assets dedicated to eliminating it but somehow failing to do so after all these years.
Where some critics see the NCRP report as a kind of ideological manifesto, I see in it a plea for greater effectiveness in grantmaking. If that’s the case, then perhaps we can fault the report not for its excesses, but for not having gone far enough.
I challenge those of us in the field of organized philanthropy to try the following experiment: Let’s choose 100 foundations at random with assets of $250 million or more, dedicated to eradicating some social ill or other. For these 100 foundations, let’s determine how many:
- Have clearly articulated, reasonable, measurable goals for their grantmaking and publish these on their websites, inviting public comment. And here I don’t mean copout goals like “we aim to improve public education in Anytown.” If I sit down and provide one Anytown student 15 minutes of mentoring in algebra I will have succeeded in meeting that goal. I will also meet the goal if I simply aim to mentor the student in question.
- Have clearly articulated strategies for obtaining their goals, tied to compelling theories of change, and moreover publish the rationales for how they arrived at these strategies on their websites, inviting public comment. Research indicates that this number will be vanishingly small if only because so few grantmakers develop strategies, or take the important step of exposing them to public scrutiny.
- Are fully aware of past attempts to eradicate the social ills they’re now addressing and have incorporated this knowledge into their grantmaking strategies. Generally we are ignorant of the efforts of grantmakers who have gone before us, despite the resources available to us.
- Have trained staff members knowledgeable about the craft and history of grantmaking. We continue to labor under the illusion that we can throw program officers into the deep end of the philanthropic pool without any significant training in the art and science of grantmaking.
- Make significant attempts to increase their impact by partnering with other grantmakers rather than trying to go it alone. The magnitude of the problems we attempt to address requires collaboration in the pooling of resources, the development of strategies, and the due diligence of grantmaking—but this kind of collaboration is the exception rather than the rule. We sometimes (often?) opt for bragging rights rather than greater effectiveness.
- Measure their effectiveness against stated goals and report these results to the public.**
I can simplify the lesson of this list. If you’re a grantmaker, tell any well informed person what you hope to accomplish and how, and I predict that nine times out of ten her response to you will be, “You can’t get there from here, and you wouldn’t know it if you did.”
I’ve argued elsewhere that the concerns for social justice and the demands for effectiveness are congruent, if not actually equivalent, in many important domains. I see the same kind of argument at work in NCRP’s Philanthropy at its Best. It’s the argument that we will never achieve certain kinds of social change without an analysis that takes into account the effects of race and class, among other important social signifiers. It’s the argument that without a thoroughgoing self-criticism, we’re essentially doing philanthropy in bad faith.
I share others’ concerns about the spectre of government regulation. If that’s what the NCRP is angling for, then God help us: the cure will be worse than the disease. That and other issues aside, I welcome the NCRP’s call for foundations to be better than they think they are.
* Some of the NCRP’s recommendations are beyond reproach. Who would argue with the suggestion, for example, that we “[maintain] policies and practices that support ethical behavior”?
** Guilty as charged, by the way: The foundation I direct would get a middling score when evaluated against these criteria. But give us a few years.