Tactical Philanthropy Podcast: Stacy Palmer Interview

Today I’m happy to present the delayed podcast with Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Stacy was involved in founding the paper in 1988, the leading newspaper in the philanthropic sector. During the interview, I ask her about her thoughts on philanthropy blogs, the Chronicle’s plans for their own blogs, the mainstreaming of philanthropy, and whether all of the hoopla over Buffet and Gates is warranted.
You can learn more about Stacy via the background notes I posted last week.

Stacy will be answering your questions and comments in the Comments section of this post, so fire away.

You can click on the link below to read the transcript.

Sean Stannard-Stockton: My guest today is Stacy Palmer. Stacy is the editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which she helped found in 1988. Hi Stacy, thanks so much for joining us today.

Stacy Palmer: Thanks so much for having me.

Sean: I’d like to start of by talking about the emergence of philanthropy blogs. In February of this year, the Chronicle of Philanthropy launched “Give and Take,” a really great roundup of the various philanthropy related blogs. What’s your view of the role of philanthropy blogs, and do you read them yourself?

Stacy: I think they’re extremely important and it’s a wonderful development in the world of philanthropy that people are speaking out in various ways and getting other people involved in the conversation who may have been left out before. We think they are very important, which is why we scan them, but we realize that a lot of our readers don’t have time to look at them. While many of us do try to look at them as much as possible and look for story ideas and thoughts about what people are talking about, in addition to the coverage we give, we do realize that something not everybody has time to do.

Sean: Will the Chronicle ever launch your own blog or blogs, instead of just reporting on other people’s blogs?

Stacy: We have discussed that a great deal, and one of the things the Chronicle feels strongly about is that we are reporters covering this field, we’re not experts on the field, and we love to give other people’s views but we don’t want to ourselves be giving opinions about the non-profit world and for the most part blogs tend to take a position in some way or another. So I think that we won’t, but we may ask bloggers to post regularly for us or something like that. I could see that possibility in the future, much like in our opinion page where we ask people to state their views all the time but we don’t ourselves write editorials.

Sean: That makes sense. One group of philanthropy experts would be foundations themselves. Why do you think more foundations don’t write up their own blogs?

Stacy: The foundation world is often challenged by how public or private they should really be. When we first started our newspaper almost twenty years ago there were many foundations that didn’t take calls from our reporters and didn’t have public relations people and didn’t believe there was any role for foundations to speak out, and that has obviously changed considerably. That’s a welcome development, but I think we are still seeing foundations wrestle with how much should they say in public and how much should they be private about.

Clearly grant seekers want them to talk a lot more and I get questions all the time about whether foundations will become more transparent, disclose more information. I think grantseekers expect that in this day and age, so I think they’ll probably come under pressure to write more and post more information on blogs.

Sean: I find that most of my readers, and from what I can tell most readers of non-profit and philanthropy blogs, are non-profit and philanthropy professionals. My hope is that over time donors are going to become a larger part of the readership because at the end of the day they are really the engine that drives philanthropy. Recently we’ve seen a number of donor focused magazines pop up, but they’ve had somewhat mixed success. Does the Chronicle have much of a donor readership? Do you think donors are interested in philanthropy media?

Stacy: We absolutely think so and we have a number of donors who subscribe to the Chronicle. One of the things we’ve often thought about is that at one point we may spin off some information specifically for them. But there’s not a lot of information available to donors to really enable them to make informed decisions. That’s a big challenge, especially now that people are so interested in the world of philanthropy and giving away more money than ever. The need is certainly out there, so we do hope that there is some way that we can provide this information. We find that already people who are significant donors are subscribed to the Chronicle, not people who give away $100 a year, but nonetheless.

Sean: A spin-off would be great. I’d love to see something that was really focused on donors. You’ve been with the Chronicle of Philanthropy since the beginning in 1988. I have the sense that right now philanthropy is entering the mainstream of American culture in a way that is truly new. Do you agree and what do you think is driving that awareness if you do?

Stacy: I do think so. We’ve seen other waves where philanthropy has been an important topic. Certainly, the beginning of the tech boom, when young people were starting to give away gobs of money, more than we’d ever seen anybody alive give away. There was a lot of attention focused on this area, but now even more attention is being paid, so we are definitely in a new moment. Whether its going to last for a long time is going to depend on whether people start to give some of these very large sums and whether the money is seen to be given away successfully or not. If there are a few too many scandals that means the reporters will focus on that angle, not so much on what is this money doing, what it accomplishes, where it should be going.

Sean: That’s interesting to me that you stake part of how long this is going to last on the perception of successfulness. There’s a project called the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative and Mark Sedway there put on a session at the Council on Foundations meeting in Seattle recently call “Demonstrating Impact” that was really about awareness. My take on it was that awareness is really about transparency at its base because its really about showing people what you are doing and how well you are doing it. You began this conversation talking about transparency. Is transparency something that can really have legs since that is perhaps the whole underpinning to the whole boom in charitable giving?

Stacy: I think it is going to have to in some way, just because donors are demanding it in so many ways. Whenever there are survey done asking, “What holds you back from giving more,” its that they don’t know enough about what the non-profit cause is accomplishing and they don’t feel that they get financial results. I think they’d also like to know more about what the established foundations have found successful, and what they’ve failed at, because a lot of the established foundations have obviously spent a lot of time thinking about things.

I think some of the interesting efforts going on, like the Rockefeller Foundation sort of soliciting ideas from the public about what are good solutions out there that it should consider financing, some of those things, the foundations out there that have money to spend investigating that, that could be useful to all kinds of donors, so there are lots of different ways that transparency can happen and I think people really will come to expect it.

Sean: Obviously one of the important markers of awareness in the general culture was Bill Gates’ and Warren Buffet’s gifts and decision last year to work full time in philanthropy. During a PBS interview you did last year with the Gates Foundation, you talked about how important his decision was to work at the foundation full time. You said, “It’s this idea that he may indeed attract many more people into philanthropy because his image is so important to people. If more people see that this is a vital role, that this is something someone who has had a vital business career has decided he wants to do full time, a lot of other people might think about making that kind of commitment to society.” You said that over a year ago. Now that we are past kind of the euphoric phase of celebrating what Gates and Buffet were doing, is this continuing on? Are people of lesser means making this decision not just to say, “I’m aware of it,” or make a gift, but to actually become involved in philanthropy?

Stacy: I think so. We’re seeing this big societal transformation as the baby boomers reach retirement age and start thinking about what they’ve done with their careers. Many of them certainly aren’t ready to retire, they are going to live healthy lives, we hope, for many, many years. But as they look ahead and ask what they have accomplished, we’ll at least see a growing number of people saying, “I was really successful financially but I didn’t really accomplish what I set out to in life many years ago and now I really want to do something that feels good to me in my heart and my soul,” and they’re looking to the non-profit world to fulfill many of those dreams. So for a lot of people just writing a check doesn’t cut it, they really want to do a lot more. They’re thinking about full time careers in either paid jobs or unpaid positions where they have a little more flexibility is something we’re going to see a lot of. I think that’s why when people did watch Bill Gates give up the business world it made it easier for other people to think about doing the same thing. Certainly, you can do it even if you don’t have the resources of Bill Gates.

Sean: Well Stacy thanks so much for sharing your insights with us.

Stacy: Thank you very much.


  1. Holden says:

    Here’s what has befuddled me since I started getting into this sector: why do discussions of “philanthropy” never seem to involve discussing how to help people?

    Philanthropy blogs talk sometimes about fundraising, sometimes about structural issues, investing, foundations, social media tools, etc. I subscribe to the Chronicle, and it has a lot of stories about how much people give and how to raise money.

    I am somewhat interested in this stuff, as someone who has gotten involved in philanthropy. But I am 800x more interested in questions like, “What works in education? Do extracurricular activities get you anywhere, or do you need to change kids’ school environments to help them learn?” and “What’s going on with malaria? Have we made any progress fighting it? Where is it still prevalent? Are nets the answer, or should we be spraying DDT?”

    These were the only questions I was interested in, back when I was a donor. Now, working for a grantmaker, they are still the main ones.

    I understand that these questions pertain to “subsectors” of philanthropy, so maybe a general philanthropy publication shouldn’t be focusing on them … but who should? Who is? Are these conversations happening anywhere?

  2. Stacy–
    Always good to hear from you. And thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. Quick question, can you elaborate a bit more on your comment: “I think we are still seeing foundations wrestle with how much should they say in public and how much should they be private about.” What are foundations holding back from the public?

  3. Albert says:

    Hi, Stacy. Thanks for doing this podcast, and for lending us Peter Panepento, Ian Wilhelm, and Heather Joslyn. They do a great job with Give & Take.

    You’ve been covering the field for such a long time that I assume there are some aspects of the way foundations do their work that are frustrating to you or that strike you as wrongheaded. I realize that as a journalist you can’t permit yourself to opine, but if you had a “friend” who shared some of your frustrations, what would she say?

  4. Stacy Palmer says:

    Thanks for your comments. I completely agree that more reporting needs to be done on what approaches work and what doesn’t. We hope to do that as the newspaper grows, but I think it is also something that foundations could help publicize. Paul Brest of Hewlett has some interesting thoughts on this in his essay in the new annual report, online at http://annualreport.hewlett.org/statement/index.asp

  5. Stacy Palmer says:

    Bruce, great to have your question. Grant seekers — even very sophisticated ones — continue to be mystified by the process by which grantees are selected so that is a sign to me that grant makers need to be clearer about how they make decisions. And I also think they need to do what Holden is suggesting — talk more clearly about what approaches are working and what ones just don’t make sense. Still, foundations have come a long way since The Chronicle started publishing. Twenty years ago, many grant makers hoped we would not publish lists of grants because they feared that would cause too many organizations to apply for money.

  6. Stacy Palmer says:

    Albert, thanks for your kind words about our staff members. We all enjoy keeping up with the philanthropy blogs — and hope more people will start debating the issues you and your colleagues have been raising.

    As I said to Sean, we feel very strongly at the Chronicle that we are not the experts about philanthropy and the nonprofit world. The joy of our jobs as reporters and editors is that we get to ask everybody else what they think about how foundations and charities operate and what could be done better, and then tell all our readers what we find. We always welcome suggestions about people who have new or provocative observations, especially for our op-ed pages, so please send ideas my way.

  7. Stacy, not many foundation employees comment on these pages. Part of the reason I think is their perception that any comment would be read as a statement “by” the foundation. This is bizarre to me, since employees of corporations have their own blogs, comment on blogs and generally operate without huge concern (unless they are bad mouthing their employer).

    As a reporter, how would you view comments from foundation employees on this blog? If an employee at EMCF or Robert Wood Johnson gave their opinion on mission related investing or video games and philanthropy, would you view that as a statement from the foundation? If it contradicted the foundation’s “official” view on the subject, would you see that as “news”?

  8. Stacy Palmer says:

    Sean, thanks for the question. We see the same thing in our letters and opinion page, and sometimes in our reporting — where foundation employees will only comment off the record or not for attribution. Given that unwillingness to comment, it probably would be news if a program officer said she disagreed with her employer’s official view. That said, if more people would speak out, it no longer would be so newsy when one person voiced a disagreement. I hope more foundation employees will feel comfortable speaking out, and foundation officials could encourage that by commending workers who have the guts to say something controversial in public. The nonprofit world will never improve its operations unless more people within the field feel comfortable sharing their expertise and opinions.

  9. Phil says:


    Thank you for doing the podcast with Sean. Give and Take was a big breakthrough for those of us blogging philanthropy. In a real way it was a validation of efforts that might otherwise have been marginal.

    If Philanthropy has a “Blog of Record” it would be Give and Take. Where a given blog might have a slant or impassioned voice, Give and Take scans the blogosphere and bestows attention where attention is deserved. Thank you for making that possible.

  10. Stacy Palmer says:

    Thank you for your comments, Phil. You sum up exactly what we hoped for when we started Give and Take. We continue to appreciate suggestions for blogs we should be looking at regularly — so I encourage all Tactical Philanthropy readers to let us know if we are missing key blogs or postings.
    We also know that good blogging takes a lot of work, so we want to say thank you to everyone who is taking the time to be so thoughtful about what is happening in the nonprofit world.

  11. Kathy Smith says:

    I vote for Pride @ Work. Jeremy is a terrific leader and partner in the labor movement.