Old vs. New Philanthropy

Tom Watson, writing at OnPhilanthropy, just published a piece called Culture Clash: Foundations Face Changing Definitions. In it, he quotes Ford Foundation Susan Beresford’s op-ed piece in the Seattle Times that ran during the COF conference:

“The emergence of a new generation of entrepreneurs-turned-philanthropists offering their fortunes to tackle pressing problems has prompted reports of a philanthropic divide — a generation gap between established foundations and their young counterparts. Such phrases as "venture philanthropy" and "social entrepreneurship" are in vogue. New foundations are said to be ambitious, strategic, entrepreneurial, innovative and focused on measurable results. Established foundations are said to lack those qualities.

As the president of an "old" foundation and a nearly 40-year veteran in the field, I am here to say this dichotomy does not fit reality. It does not capture the breadth of philanthropy’s scope and history, and it has the potential to damage our field.”

(Tom writes): Beresford suggested that “new” philanthropy does a disservice in holding that one model is more effective than another, or that the wave of change will sweep the foundation world from the philanthropic stage:

(Beresford continues) “When we fall prey to false divisions, we undercut that strength, by suggesting that some kinds of donors may be less valuable or necessary over the long run. That is plain wrong. The tough challenges before us demand that we draw upon many philanthropists’ skills, perspectives and experiences. AIDS and other diseases, the stubbornness of deep poverty, the ongoing struggle against ignorance, intolerance and oppression — there is no single way to conquer those, and no single conqueror.”

Later in the essay, Tom cites my post Demonstrating Impact and Lucy’s post, The Philanthropic Fault Line as part of the “old-new fray”. In a follow up comment to his post, Tom writes “…there’s a danger is kind of throwing down an "everything should be new" gauntlet…”

I don’t believe that “old philanthropy” needs to be replaced by “new philanthropy”, rather I think that Arianna Huffington got it right during the Morphing Media session when she said that we need to bring together wisdom and innovation. When the wise and the innovative are brought together, the positive outcome is not a result of each side politely acknowledging each other’s strengths and then going their separate ways. Rather the two sides are best served by engaging in verbal combat, where the weaknesses in each side’s point of view can be exposed and the strengths revealed. From this process comes “disruptive change”. Disruption does not come easily and does not arrive during restrained conversation. Holden Karnofsky made the case yesterday that only through controversy and competition can philanthropy truly engage people. During the Demonstrating Impact session, no less an authority than James Irvine Foundation CEO Jim Canales agreed saying:

“We have to cultivate a culture of debate. Civility is a big problem. We can’t have five board members present different points of view and then have the chair say “Good debate!” and hand things off to the staff”

Imagine the power of a philanthropic entity that managed to harness the innovative spirit of the new philanthropists to the wisdom of the old philanthropists. We can see the glimmer of promise in Packard’s Nitrogen project. So let’s keep arguing. Let’s keep debating. Let the innovators call the wise ones out of date and the wise ones call the innovators foolish. But let us continue to engage and remember that this debate is nothing new, it is the same war fought in every discipline at every great turning point. The only risk we run is the risk that by not engaging, philanthropy will atrophy.


  1. Tom W. says:

    I agree with ‘disruptive change’ especially in free markets – and I think we’re in a period of such change in philanthropy. I’d just argue that philanthropy is not a free market – the tax laws create a special class of entity. That, and the retreat from many services traditionally shouldered by government, leaving nonprofits to provide, make this a sticky mix for real innovators – how to keep the engine going while changing it at the same time? It’s a great discussion, and one that I suspect will grow – especially when people realize how high the stakes are.

  2. In making the “… an “everything should be new gauntlet…” comment Tom was responding to something I’d said about his post–notably calling philanthropy an experiment. Because philanthropy is an ongoing experiment, funders have to be open to innovation in how they approach their work. This doesn’t mean constantly doing things differently. Instead it means asking what works, what doesn’t, and how to do it better next time. It’s too easy to maintain the status quo, which more than not is the case, and maybe that’s because as Tom notes in his comment to you, there are no market forces that could lead to change, disruptive or otherwise, in philanthropy. In the absence of market forces, foundations need to create internal mechanisms, tracking and measurement systems, as well as standards of performance — and publicly acknowledge what these are as well as committing to meet them and similarly reporting progress. Foundations should be willing to go out on a limb and say “This is what we aim to do, by when. This is how much it will cost. This is how we’ll know if we’ve succeeded or failed (and we’ll tell you each step along the way).” That combination of transparency and accountability can only result lead ton on ongoing effort to fine tune the decision-making and overall foundation management process.

  3. Tom W. says:

    That and 10% instead of 5!

  4. Holden says:

    I just took a quick look through Sean’s coverage of the COF conference. I’m headed on vacation soon, but here are my overarching thoughts:

    1. Sean really earned his “media” spot by writing up a ton, giving peons like me a better view into what happened and what was said, and inviting discussion.

    2. Something is missing for me when it comes to the content of the sessions as Sean describes them – I can’t say whether this is a function of his coverage or the sessions’ content. In almost all cases I read what was said and think “Yeah, sure, sounds reasonable.” I am inherently suspicious of anything I have that reaction to – a statement that is valuable (worth reading) must be new, and that means it must be challenging. (Yes, I just said that I am suspicious of any statement that sounds fine.)

    I guess my question is this: how did people respond to the speakers at the conference? Did everyone nod their head and say “Sounds good” (in which case I suppose I should expect to see 100 new foundation blogs, total transparency, and the end of restricted grants sometime in the next month)? Did they say “No” and walk away? Was there debate? Or was it exactly like the quote in the above post – a collection of speeches, followed by people saying “Great conference!” and walking out?

  5. Holden,
    If you want to see for yourself what the keynote speakers said, COF has posted the videos of their speeches on its website.

  6. M says:

    In the CoF / EPIP Emerging Leaders salon I attended featuring Sterling K. Speirn, Pres. & CEO of Kellogg, I got the impression that he doesn’t really see a big difference between “Old Philanthropy” vs. “New Philanthropy” – he likened it more to a historical cycle and that people are “reinvigorating and renewing things that have already existed, not reinventing them.” It very much echoed what Berresford said in her op-ed and in the Emerging Leaders salon she led. I think I tend to agree with the old guard for the most part (having had to read 47 different books relating to the history of philanthropy, charity & foundations in one 3 month period of time a few years ago has me biased toward that I think).

    I think the difference now is that we have new technologies that affect how people are philanthropic (Huffington got it right talking about bringing together wisdom and innovation) and that Schervish & Haven’s $41 trillion wealth transfer is just going to mean there is more money out there to give.

    Forgive me if I sound like I am blabbering it is a looooong week at work and I am just about brain dead.