To recap, my questions from my earlier post were:
- Why do investors take credit for picking great investments (”look how smart I am, I bought XYZ stock!”), while philanthropists, especially foundations, claim that the credit goes to the nonprofits they fund (”the grantee did all the work”).
- Why is it acceptable for investors to talk about investments they think are bad (”Don’t buy ABC stock, their management is terrible!”), while philanthropists never badmouth nonprofits, even if they think they are ineffective?
- Related to #2: Why do public companies generally ignore all the talking heads who say negative things about them, while nonprofits find it intolerable to have a prominent person speak negatively about them in public?
The responses from readers can be found here.
The primary response to Question 2 was that funders/donors do say negative things about nonprofits behind closed doors and within private circles. But that they do not do the same publicly for fear of damaging their relationship with grantees. The point was made that funders (unlike investors in public companies), must maintain a healthy relationship with grantees to do their job well. Most readers seemed to appreciate the positive long term impact on the sector of public criticism and general truth telling, but worried that in the short term it would be a large negative.
I think this is an entirely solid argument. Philanthropy is currently much more like venture capital than investing in the stock market (it is no coincidence that venture philanthropy approaches have gained a lot of credence in recent years). Venture capitalists invest in private companies where funding comes primarily from a small set of large funders. They also have an active role and continuing relationship with the companies they fund. This is different from stock market investing where most investors are passive holders of stock and do not interact with the company at all.
Within the context of philanthropy as a private marketplace, I think the arguments for why public criticism does not work are valid.
I don’t think philanthropy is going to be a private marketplace for much longer.
Individuals already give seven times the amount that foundations give each year. Combining the Fidelity and Schwab donor advised funds (representing organized individual giving) gives you an annual grantmaker that rivals the Gates Foundation. Most high net worth individuals are only in the early stages of realizing that giving is something they can approach with a strategy that maximizes impact and tactics that make the most of what they have.
Public criticism of publicly traded companies is no big deal because the shareholder base is so broad. But a venture capitalist going on TV and knocking a private startup might cause it to go bankrupt as funding dried up.
Philanthropy is not yet a public market. The arguments presented against public criticism are all valid and correct today. We need to be preparing for tomorrow.
Venture Capitalists do talk about startups that they think are great. So do some foundations. Note the constant promotion of Nurse-Family Partnership by the venture philanthropy focused Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. You can read a great article about their approach here (note the reporter labels it as “controversial”). Maybe this positive commentary is a bridge to future criticism. Reader “young staffer” writes:
Foundations and donors actually don’t do enough to tout their successes and to make a strong, public case championing the relative effectiveness and strength of their best grantees. It’s not just that the grantees did all the work; it’s that we talk only about how our grantees do good things and yours do too. I think it would be way easier to get the ball rolling towards more criticism if it started from a place of making a case for the best social investments rather than highlighting the worst.
So why then don’t more “expert grantmakers” (mainly large foundations) publicly promote their knowledge? Reader Renata Rafferty writes:
Philanthropy in our society is frowned upon if it is considered self-serving. Therefore, to boast about one’s wise philanthropic investment “picks” would be, well, boastful and self-serving.
Look, if you have a billion dollar endowment and 30 employees working on a focused set of issues, it is not “boastful and self-serving” to talk about your “wise philanthropic investment picks”. If you are not making wise philanthropic investment picks there is something seriously wrong. I assume that large foundations are smart grantmakers. I’m not suggesting that they shout from the rooftops how great they are in an attempt to convince people. I just want there to be a public conversation about social investing the way we have a public conversation about the stock market.
Don’t forget that we’re talking about all of this within the context of a country where most people think nonprofits waste donations. It is hard to imagine that criticism could be all that damaging. You can’t fall very far once you’re already laying on the floor. Maybe Americans would have a better view of nonprofits if they heard experts talk negatively about some of them and positively about others. Realize that the underlying assumption that donors who want low “overhead expenses” from nonprofits is that the nonprofits are a value destroying entity that just gets in the way of the money going to the actual cause.
When a hedge fund manager goes on CNBC and talks about her favorite stocks, it is not “boastful and self-serving”. She is an acknowledged expert and the public appreciates (whether they agree or disagree with her picks) the opportunity to hear her thoughts.