Columns & Essays

In addition to writing the Tactical Philanthropy blog, Sean was a monthly newspaper columnist. From 2007 to 2009, Sean wrote the column On Philanthropy for the Financial Times. From 2009 to 2011, he wrote a monthly column for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. From time to time, Sean also wrote one-time columns for a variety of other media outlets.

Is Underperformance Philanthropy’s ‘Natural State’?
June 27, 2011| Chronicle of Philanthropy

The nonprofit world is full of technocratic conversations about how to measure and improve results. But two new books, Leap of Reason, by Mario Morino, and Give Smart, by Thomas J. Tierney and Joel Fleishman, make the argument that the key to progress is… keep reading.

Government ‘Pay for Success’ Plan Deserves a Try
May 15, 2011 | Chronicle of Philanthropy

President Obama’s 2012 budget includes an innovative proposal called Pay For Success that has the potential to revolutionize the way the government provides funding for social services. The program creates a framework for government payments to be contingent on positive program results rather than paying for program delivery. Pay For Success is a nonpartisan program that should be embraced by politicians from both sides of the aisle who want to see better results from social programs and… keep reading.

An Alternative to ‘Giving USA’ Could Give Charities More Timely Data
April 17, 2011 | Chronicle of Philanthropy

The report “Giving USA” is widely considered the official source on how much Americans give and which causes they support. Such data are important: They help nonprofits plan their budgets, fund raisers judge their performance, researchers track giving trends, and everyone understand the current state of philanthropy. However, “Giving USA” data are released only once a year and not until six months after year’s end.

So might it be possible to track philanthropy in real time? … keep reading.

Grant Makers Seek Specific Results, but That’s Rarely Possible
March 6, 2011 | Chronicle of Philanthropy

Human beings hate uncertainty. But in reality, the world is a dynamic, uncertain place, and predicting the outcomes of our actions is extremely difficult. As a result, anybody who tries to craft a grant-making approach or design a nonprofit program needs to recognize the limits of… keep reading.

Donors and Nonprofits Face a Defining Moment in Responding to a Crisis
February 6, 2011 | Chronicle of Philanthropy

The economic crisis of the 21st century’s first decade did not cause the apocalypse for American philanthropy that many experts had feared. In fact, charitable donations topped $300-billion during each year of the recession, a sign of philanthropy’s resilience.

But now as the second decade opens, we may well face philanthropy’s defining moment… read more.

In the Down Economy, Let’s Not Ignore the Value of Creating Nonprofit Jobs
November 28, 2010 | Chronicle of Philanthropy

Carlos Slim, the Mexican businessman who is the richest person in the world, recently derided his fellow billionaires’ “Giving Pledge,” saying that charity does not solve anything. Instead, Mr. Slim said that increasing the number of jobs in the economy is the only path to ending poverty. Mr. Slim’s comments show a stark ignorance of the important role that nonprofit groups play in creating jobs.

While the role of business in promoting social change is now attracting the spotlight, it is equally important that… keep reading.

Probing Questions All Donors Should Ask Before Making a Significant Gift
October 3, 2010 | Chronicle of Philanthropy

One of the holy grails of nonprofit evaluation is to be able to compare nonprofits with different missions. Concepts like “social return on investment” strive to measure how much “good” an organization is creating, regardless of whether it is a soup kitchen or a job-training program. Given the difficulties of comparing the results of different types of organizations, it makes more sense for potential donors to ask a specific set of questions… keep reading.

Next Steps: Let’s Learn From Innovation Fund’s Applicants
September 6, 2010 | Chronicle of Philanthropy

A critically important philanthropic experiment nearly got derailed last month by rounds of second-guessing and speculation.

The Social Innovation Fund, a federal effort to spread good nonprofit efforts nationwide, got into hot water in part by bowing to requests from potential grantees to keep their applications confidential when publishing them would in fact lead to… keep reading.

Gates-Buffett Example Worth Its Weight in Gold
July 11, 2010 | Chronicle of Philanthropy

The collaboration of Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates transfixed the nonprofit world four years ago when they announced the biggest philanthropic merger in history, producing a foundation that will probably be worth at least $60-billion one day. But last month’s announcement that the Gateses have joined forces with Mr. Buffett on a campaign to persuade the nation’s billionaires to give 50 percent of their wealth could be an even more important milestone—especially if it… keep reading.

Grant Makers’ Fiduciary Duty Should Extend to Grantees
June 13, 2010 | Chronicle of Philanthropy

For all their talk about innovation, foundations are in the grip of self-imposed constraints that limit their ability to undertake truly innovative activities.

The problem is that most foundation board members believe their primary role is to uphold their fiduciary duty to preserving a foundation’s assets and to follow a donor’s intentions, when in fact their top allegiance should be… keep reading.

Philanthropists’ ‘Soft Power’ May Trump the Hard Pull of Purse Strings
April 18, 2010 | Chronicle of Philanthropy

In 1990 Joseph Nye Jr. of Harvard University coined the term “soft power” to describe an approach one country can take to influence the behaviors of another. The term describes the way that a nation’s values, culture, policies, and institutions can change the behavior of others in a way that is far different but potentially more effective than the “hard power” approach of coercing a specific action or offering incentives for good behavior.

The importance of soft power is now widely accepted in the analysis of international affairs. And it is becoming increasingly important in the world of philanthropy… keep reading.

A Philanthropic Network Passes On Recommendations of Worthy Charities
March 7, 2010 | Chronicle of Philanthropy

In all the talk about measuring results in philanthropy and how best to determine which nonprofit groups are effective, a simple fact is often overlooked. All across the country, foundation program officers, senior nonprofit staff members, and academic researchers know which nonprofit groups are doing great work.

Now a new group called Philanthropedia is working to capture this knowledge about top nonprofit groups and make it… keep reading.

More Than Money, a Lack of Research Hampers Nonprofit Innovation
February 7, 2010 | Chronicle of Philanthropy

The federal government will soon release guidelines to spell out how it will award $50-million through its new Social Innovation Fund, one of the Obama administration’s signature efforts to aid promising, innovative nonprofit groups.

But if the draft version of the guidelines, released in December, is any indication, the fund’s approach is geared toward a view of the nonprofit world that does not reflect reality… keep reading.

Making Charitable Appeals to Donors’ Hearts and Heads
December 10, 2009, Chronicle of Philanthropy

A growing number of nonprofit experts are urging donors to channel more of their money to high-performing organizations, with the goal of making philanthropy more effective.

But embedded in this movement is a worrisome concept  — the idea that donors should… keep reading.

Is Philanthropy Ignoring the Real Money?
December 1, 2009, Alliance Magazine

High net worth individuals are responsible for 50% of annual charitable giving in the US, but they do not have access to appropriate philanthropy advice. While foundations, which provide only 13% of charitable giving, are catered to by specialized consultants… keep reading.

Twitter Presents a Chance for Savvy Charities to Reach More People
November 12, 2009, Chronicle of Philanthropy

Late one Friday afternoon this fall, Matt Flannery, the co-founder of, posted a message on Twitter: “It seems like my Twitter account is getting attacked by spam. 500 new followers a minute. Anyone else experiencing this?”

In fact, a small group of people who use Twitter to talk about philanthropy had also been inundated with followers. But the reason for the instant increase wasn’t anything as spurious as a spam attack. All the people who suddenly attracted new followers had just… keep reading.

Providing the Capital Organizations Need to Run — and Grow
October 1, 2009, Chronicle of Philanthropy

According to Paul Brest’s excellent book Money Well Spent, strategic philanthropists devise ways to solve problems and select grant recipients who can best carry out the approaches donors think will work best.

Another breed of donors is growing — people I refer to as tactical philanthropists… keep reading.

Charities Should Be Held to ‘Philanthropic Equity’ Standards
August 20, 2009, Chronicle of Philanthropy

It is time for nonprofit accounting standards to recognize the concept of “philanthropic equity.”

For too long, donors have looked at nonprofit financial statements and believed that as much money as possible should be spent on programs and as little as possible should be spent on the organization itself. This logic is fundamentally flawed… keep reading.

Data Don’t Tell the Whole Story of Charities’ Impact
July 2, 2009, Chronicle of Philanthropy

A week’s worth of The New York Times includes more information than the average American living in the 18th century would have encountered in his or her lifetime, according to the book Information Anxiety 2 by Richard Wurman.

As grant makers demand more data on which to base their philanthropic decisions, let’s remember that… read article.

Successful Grantmaking: T-Shaped People, Consilience & Design Thinking
May 21, 2009, Grant Makers Network Newsletter

How can grantmakers be successful in the 21st century?  They need to embrace design thinking and become T-Shaped People.

Philanthropy is a most cross-disciplinary practice.  While program officers must have technical domain expertise in their core area of focus, to be truly successful they must also be… keep reading.

Charities Should Nurture Donors’ Passion for Giving
May 21, 2009, Chronicle of Philanthropy

In a quest to make philanthropy more efficient and effective, many organizations and individuals have sprung up to improve the process of how donors give. Most of those efforts focus on giving advice to the biggest foundations, and only a handful of services focus on coaching individuals in the art and science of philanthropy. This imbalance in the way knowledge is shared is a key reason charitable giving is not meeting anywhere near its full potential to transform society.

When the prolific bank robber Willie Sutton was asked… keep reading.

Philanthropy’s Information Revolution
April 23, 2009, Chronicle of Philanthropy

Two years ago, Carla Dearing, then chief executive of Community Foundations of America, wrote an opinion essay in Worth magazine titled, “The Schwabification of Philanthropy.”

She argued that philanthropy was going through a transformation as the Internet not only reduced the cost of making philanthropic gifts to both donors and nonprofit organizations but also… keep reading.

It’s Time to Share More Information About Worthy Charities
March 26, 2009, Chronicle of Philanthropy

I have a daughter in public school and a son who will be there in a couple of years. As a parent and citizen, I care about the quality of the public schools both for the sake of my children’s education and for that of our nation’s children. Millions of other parents just like me also care about education and are making charitable donations to benefit it.

But only a tiny minority of those donors know how their contributions can best…keep reading.

The Second Wave of Giving Will Roll On
February 10, 2009, Financial Times

Between the dismal economy, crashing financial markets and the Madoff scandal it would be natural to assume that philanthropy was out for the count. But while these difficulties might take the wind out of the sector’s sails for a while, we are in the midst of a second great wave of philanthropy.

Even though baby boomers have seen their retirement accounts take a dive, they have spent the past 30 years accumulating wealth and are now…keep reading.

Sacrifice notion sabotages our nonprofits
December 30, 2008, Financial Times

As we finish 2008 amid the worst recession in decades, many Americans are sacrificing some degree of personal comfort to support a charitable cause. But while sacrifice may be a noble personal virtue, the concept of sacrifice is sabotaging the non-profit sector.

When Americans give to charity, they want their donation to go directly to “the cause”. The non-profit organization, it seems, is viewed as nothing more than a bureaucratic entity whose… keep reading.

A New Role for Community Foundations
November 25, 2008, Financial Times

Community foundations in the US are at risk of becoming irrelevant unless they can transform into trusted donor advisers.

Since the founding of The Cleveland Foundation in 1914, community foundations have raised charitable funds from a community and distributed the money back to that area’s non-profit organizations. But a new role is emerging… keep reading.

The Next Wave
November 1, 2008, Wealth Manager magazine

In 1975, the SEC deregulated brokerage commissions and set the stage for Charles Schwab & Co. to create the discount brokerage business model. By unbundling the sale of advice from execution, Schwab fundamentally changed the wealth management business. Today, the intertwined worlds of philanthropy and finance are undergoing a similar shift that is transforming the wealth management industry.

Using a model similar to the full service brokerage business, community foundations have long… keep reading.

Social circles with a square deal for charity
September 30, 2008, Financial Times

Giving circles are a hot trend in philanthropy. Similar to the investment clubs of the 1990s that brought people together to talk about stock picking, giving circles are social groups where people pool resources and decide which non-profits to fund. If giving circles prove to be a hit, a few years from now cocktail party chatter might include: “I just got a hot tip on a non-profit you should consider!”

One of these giving circles is the NYC Venture Philanthropy Fund. With about 30 members, the circle consists of residents who work… keep reading.

‘Blood money’ that became a force for good
August 12, 2008, Financial Times

Like everyone who lost a loved one on 9/11 Steve and Liz Alderman were devastated when their 25-year-old son, Peter, was killed in the World Trade Center attack. Like many, they chose to honor their son’s memory by creating a foundation in his name.

Of the 303 non-profit organizations launched in response to 9/11, only 27 were still operating five years later, according to a study by the NonProfit Times. What has kept the Peter C. Alderman Foundation going is his parents’ focus on… keep reading.

Invest in the Best to Make an Impact
June 28, 2008, Financial Times

Giving money to charity does not necessarily make the world a better place. Nevertheless, most donors believe that donating qualifies as “doing good”. In fact, the gift of money is only the first step in a chain of events that might achieve the elusive goal of creating social impact.

For-profit investors understand this issue. Making an investment does not guarantee a profit; this comes from what a business does with its capital. A result of the belief that the donation itself produces an impact is the idea that… keep reading.

Givers: Go Out and See For Yourselves
May 31, 2008, Financial Times

I recently left behind my office, with its constantly ringing phone and glowing computer screens, to visit some of the non-profits funded by Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, a public charity founded and led by Bill Somerville.

As we stood in line at a soup kitchen in our dress slacks and collared shirts, the other men and women turned curious eyes our way. “I’ve brought people here in the past who worry that… keep reading.

The Foundations of Tax-Efficient Giving
May 10, 2008, Financial Times

Many people think of charitable giving as an item in their annual budget, and measure it as a percentage of income. But if you own financial assets such as real estate or a portfolio of stocks and bonds, you should consider an endowment approach to your philanthropy.

Ultra-wealthy philanthropists have long created… keep reading.

Non-profits look to invest in themselves
March 29, 2008, Financial Times

When you donate to a non-profit organization, you expect your money to be used to help the people the non-profit serves. You want your money to help a pre-schooler, a homeless person or someone with a disease. But what about the non-profit itself? Are donors interested in investing in the growth of a non-profit, so that it can develop a sustainable business model and serve more people over time? Clara Miller and George Overholser think so.

Miller founded Nonprofit Finance Fund in 1980 to lend money to non-profits so they could invest in more energy-efficient light fixtures and equipment. The resulting lower energy bills reduced costs and allowed… keep reading.

The Donor Landscape of 2033 is Bright
March 1, 2008, Financial Times

Philanthropy is undergoing a transformational shift. While most donors continue to give in the same ways they have for 100 years, the vanguard of philanthropy is busily reforming the fabric of the charitable sector.

Often referred to as the “social capital markets” and characterized by a model of giving that mirrors the financial markets, this emerging model is still… keep reading.

Satisfaction Guaranteed by a Little Research
February 2, 2008, Financial Times

Are you a hot-tip donor? If you are reading this newspaper, you are probably sophisticated enough not to chase the stock of a company that your friend’s sister’s husband says has a hot new product.

But if you are like most people, you decide which non-profits to support using… keep reading.

Consilience in Philanthropy
January 26, 2008,

Have you ever heard someone say, “We need to get out of our silos and work together”? The silo effect is one of those over used metaphors of the business world, but the issue it raises is real. In short, silo thinking refers to a situation (common in most organizations) where people do not communicate across departments.

In large private foundations, there has long been a… keep reading.

Time to take a hard-nosed look at giving
January 5, 2008, Financial Times

Every end is a new beginning. Having said goodbye to 2007, now is the time to look forward to 2008 and decide what kind of philanthropist you want to be. Are you satisfied being part of the majority of Americans who rush to fulfill their philanthropic obligations in a flurry of year-end giving? Or will this be the year that you get organized and maximize the impact of your philanthropic capital?

Recently, the Financial Times reported on the growing ranks of “hard-nosed philanthropists”. These donors are “part of a new… keep reading.

How to make your giving more effective
November 24, 2007, Financial Times

Thanksgiving is a time to “give thanks”, but giving thanks well is harder than you think. We are in the middle of Giving Season, that time of year when many Americans donate time or money to their favorite non-profit. Most people give reactively to a variety of causes that catch their attention for one reason or another. There is a better way to celebrate the Giving Season.

This year, when you are making your holiday gift list, consider one of these excellent books that will show you and your family how to “give thanks” well and find a deeper… keep reading.

Children need not be taxing
October 26, 2007, Financial Times

An old philanthropic planning technique is ready to explode in popularity. Parents have long used charitable lead trusts to make tax-free gifts to their children while using philanthropy as a way to prepare them for wealth. But as life expectancies rise and people become wealthier sooner, this obscure trust is enjoying a renaissance among young millionaires.

Affluent families used to either inherit wealth or earn it over a long career. Today, most wealthy individuals are self-made and an important subset, especially in the technology sector, is making millions before starting a family. Those who inherited wealth in the past often did so while building their own financial security. Now, some do not receive their inheritance until… keep reading.

True measure of giving won’t always add up
September 28, 2007, Financial Times

Our understanding of philanthropy is changing from “giving money away ” to “making social investments “. But this admirable shift is leading some donors mistakenly to focus on how charities spend donations, instead of understanding whether the organizations they support are making a difference.

When investors evaluate for-profit companies, they ultimately need to answer one question: how much money will the company make? The non-profit equivalent, the charity’s “profit “, is the impact charities have on their chosen cause. Better living conditions, improved education and a cleaner environment are examples of impact. While these outcomes can be difficult to evaluate, they are the only… keep reading.

Philanthropy not just for the ultra-rich
August 24, 2007, Financial Times

Bill Gates. Warren Buffett. The massive transfer of wealth between generations. Stories abound about billions of dollars being set aside for charity. Yet there is an even bigger story unfolding; the story of a growing number of everyday individuals who are waking up to the fact that they, too, can engage in philanthropy.

The fact is that philanthropy is no longer only for the ultra-rich. A good rule of thumb is that you should consider philanthropic tools such as transferring stock or using a donor advised fund if you give more than $500 a year. If you give more than $25,000 a year you can… keep reading.