This entry to the One Post Challenge comes from “a young foundation staffer”. The author is “a recent college graduate who has interned with an operating foundation, a venture fund at a community foundation, and now a family foundation.”
By “a young foundation staffer”
The work philanthropists and foundations is inherently controversial.
Decisions to grant money to a particular cause and to a particular organization are always decisions not to give that money elsewhere. No individual and no foundation has enough money to solve all of the problems out there or to even to really fund all the approaches to a particular problem out there. Foundation work and strategies are about decisions: to give in this country or city, to fund short-term or long-term solutions, to prevent the problem or treat the disease, to listen to a community member’s idea or to the expert advice.
In this sense, philanthropy is like voting. We generally want to encourage more people to do it because democracy is healthier when more people engage it in. But stopping at “more is better” and “any is good” is wrong, deeply misleading, and potentially harmful to society. It is also healthier for democracy if people are informed voters and if people disagree and debate about who should receive their vote. These are tough issues and tough problems; we don’t agree on them and pretending we do is naive. Similarly, while it’s fine to acknowledge that philanthropy is generous and positive, on the whole, we also should acknowledge that it should involve informed decision making and a willingness to engage with the idea that one’s decision could be wrong. And like our government, philanthropy has done a lot of good, but it has done harm too.
Too many times, I think, we try to take the controversy and the politics out of the work by talking only about how “giving is good and generous, etc.” or by trying to boil it down to a science of identifying high impact organizations, and that does a disservice to everyone. Debate in board meetings and amongst staff members and between different foundations and, most of all, in communities should be about more than whether a nonprofit is “well-run”. It should be about whether it is a pressing problem, whether the approach is right, and whether the values underlying it are ones we want to endorse. And we should see that kind of deep probing as healthy signs that the decision makers are thinking about the consequences of the decision to give somewhere (or rather, the decision to NOT give to many other somewheres) and recognizing the valid arguments about why their decision might be wrong.
That’s why, I think it’s too bad that the “$500 for Your Nonprofit!” post didn’t ask people to engage in a conversation about not just what nonprofit, but why their nonprofit. The premise generated responses, but leaving it at that simplifies the nature of philanthropy. One’s vote in that challenge is an implicit decision that an issue is critical and that an organization is the most deserving. We shouldn’t ignore that.
Generosity and empathy certainly inspire the decision to give, and evaluations, assessments, and research of all sorts are tools for helping make the decision. But none of that can take the controversy out of it. And we should be thankful, rather than frustrated or scared, by that reality because it means we’re engaging with how hard and how vital this work is.