The Aspen Institute Philanthropy Letter

Phil Cubeta draws our attention to the most recent Aspen Philanthropy Letter, which discusses the growing influence of philanthropy blogs. The article (reposted in Phil’s post) about blogs is titled, “Internet, through blogs and message boards, increasingly used as vehicle for criticizing foundations”. The article mentions the Gates Foundation investment policy debate from earlier this year and calls the back and forth discussion between the philanthropy bloggers “unprecedented”. The Tactical Philanthropy Giving Carnival on the topic is mentioned as a focal point for the discussion.

I’ve posted about the growing influence of philanthropy blogs and I think that as esteemed an institution as the Aspen Institute noting the action is important. But I think that focusing on some blogs “criticizing foundations” is a dramatic example of missing the forest for the trees. The real story is about the internet being used as a vehicle for transforming philanthropy, not criticizing foundations.

Let’s look at the people behind some of the leading blogs:

Susan Herr, PhilanthroMedia, former managing director of Community Foundations of America. Her current clients include Community Foundations of America and the Association of Small Foundations.

Lucy Bernholz, Philanthropy 2173, founder and President of Blueprint Research & Design, Inc. a strategy consulting firm for philanthropic institutions and individuals. Clients include, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Association of Small Foundations, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, Community Foundation Silicon Valley, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, J. Paul Getty Trust, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Kevin Jones, Joy Anderson and Tim Freundlich at These three also run Good Capital, which counts a number of well-known foundations as investors.

These people are not “outsiders”. They have every incentive to be in the good graces of the foundations that the Aspen Letter suggests are being targeted for criticism by the philanthropy blogs. Personally, I make my living as a professional advisor to philanthropic families. Helping create and run private foundations is a big part of my job.

I’m glad that the Aspen Letter is noticing all buzz around philanthropy blogs. But I think they’ve missed what the buzz is all about. The philanthropy blog community is a very diverse group of people. They should not be characterized as “critics”. Instead, I think that the philanthropy blog community is cultivating a conversation between citizens. A conversation about where philanthropy is going and how it is going to get there. This conversation is important. Some of it will, by its very nature, include criticisms of existing entities and practices. But the conversation at its heart is one of transformation. Of building up, not tearing down.


  1. Gerry says:

    This is excellent work. It really demonstrates the power of this medium to connect and support dialog, and talks about that power at the same time. The Giving Carnival is also excellent as a concept and as it is developing.

  2. Thanks Gerry. Amazing things come out of dialog, especially when that dialog crosses disciplinary boundaries.

  3. You’ve hit the nail right on the thumb. I too was struck by Doug Rule’s headline, but not surprised: the Aspen Newsletter has always had, in my view, a decidedly anti-foundation tilt, very much in the tradition of foundation critics like Pablo Eisenberg. Maybe it only appears that way to me because I’m so used to seeing foundation work treated with kid gloves.