Over at Tactical Philanthropy, my colleague Sean Stannard-Stockton has suggested a way of dividing philanthropy into four categories. His classification adheres to a typical business school paradigm whose ontology includes a market (the social sector), sellers in that market (social enterprises), and the four kinds of buyers on which the taxonomy is based: Charitable Givers, Philanthropic Investors, Strategic Philanthropists, and Social Entrepreneurs.
It’s always the sociology of a given taxonomical scheme that interests me more than the taxonomy itself, and by this I mean the human context that drives us to categorize the world one way rather than another. For one thing, taxonomies are not “discovered” the way we might discover a new entrance to a cave or a new species. They’re imposed on the world by us and, as such, carry the traces of our aspirations and misconceptions.
I also understand the lure of taxonomies. I didn’t go to business school, so my categories for making sense of the world have come at various times from Aristotle (the eight categories of the subjects of thought), Nietzsche (the Apollonian and the Dionysian), and the Beatniks (hip and square, daddy-o)—among others.
I often find that the failures of our categories are more revealing about the nature of the human condition than their successes. In the taxonomy proposed by Sean, for example, the Charitable Giver allegedly exhibits “classic buyer behavior” as he purchases “nonprofit program execution” whose benefits accrue to the clients of the nonprofit enterprise in question. My lack of business acumen is likely showing here, but wouldn’t the buyer in classic buyer behavior ask, “What’s in it for me (or for those closest to me)?” By casting the giver as a buyer don’t we fail to capture the most telling characteristic of the former: the fact that he responds almost instantly to a request to help another, with no thought of gain to himself or those closest to him?
Sean has his own purposes for the taxonomy he proposes, and most of my criticisms of it will be irrelevant to those purposes. Prima facie there appear to be whole schools of philanthropy not captured by his scheme, among them grassroots philanthropy, in which the design and execution of a philanthropic intervention are determined by the beneficiaries themselves; various traditions of social justice philanthropy; narcissistic flavors of philanthropy shaped entirely by the psychological and emotional needs of the donor; and philanthropy driven not by logic or investment models, but by gut feelings and intuitions. These last two categories might, for all I know, include the bulk of what we now call philanthropic giving.
Much more revealing than Sean’s scheme might be one that divides institutional philanthropy into two categories: in the first we put philanthropy that addresses not just a given social ill but also its causes, seeking not only to provide aid for the poor, for example, but to examine why there are so many poor people in the first place. In the second category we put everything else.
The first category, while vanishingly small, contains, in my view, the heart and soul of philanthropy. To do it well requires all the tools of strategic philanthropy; the investor’s focus on strengthening institutions and social movements; and the empathy of the charitable giver.
I leave much of the second category to historians of 20th century technocracies.