Why Philanthropy Should Embrace Controversy

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.


  1. Holden says:

    I’ll be blunt:

    1. I completely agree with this post.

    2. I put it to you that the best way to create the kind of constructive controversy you’re talking about is for foundations to be completely open about their own decisions. Answer the same question you wanted those commenters to answer: whom did you grant, whom DIDN’T you grant, and why?

    You have access to information for these decisions that individual donors don’t have … so share it.

    3. In other words, I think your foundation should have a website that is done exactly like http://www.givewell.net – explaining all of your grantmaking decisions down to the last detail. Do you agree? If so, can you make it happen?

  2. I love this post. I love the idea that philanthropy is deeply important work that needs, deserves, to be engaged in consciously and with the understanding that by making a donation you are taking a stand on an important issue.

    The constant debate that surrounds the stock market is a decent model for philanthropy (but far from perfect). Professional investors have deep convictions about the decisions they make to buy or sell different investments. A whole industry (CNBC, Wall Street Journal, websites, etc) have sprung up to encourage and document the debate that investors are engaging in.

    The idea that philanthropy is somehow “above” all of this, that we should just say “isn’t that nice” every time someone makes a donation, is really a way to diminish the importance of philanthropy. Like it or not, having a job at a nonprofit or a foundation is not a very prestigious position (even a relatively prestigious position such as the CEO of a big nonprofit or foundation pales in comparison to the prestige of working as an executive of a corporation). I think the reason is because the way we approach philanthropy implies that there are not hard decisions to make, that “giving money away” is a simple process where there are no bad decisions.

    Let’s embrace the inherent controversy of “doing good”. Making a donation to a nonprofit is an implicit decision to not fund another organization and people that care about doing good should question the funding decisions of others. Doing good is not easy. Doing good is hard, honorable work.

    Work that is noncontroversial is work that is not important.

  3. Sean,

    I agree with your comment (and the original post) in terms of a big picture look at the philanthropic sector. However, there lies a major obstacle in the short-term implementation. To attempt to embrace the inherent controversy of “doing good”, we subject foundations to the criticism intrinsic to controversy.

    This is a major obstacle precisely because conventional PR and marketing models from the business world teach us that this is a nightmare; we are trained *specifically* to seize the “look, I’m doing good, like me” message, and never, ever, open ourselves to public scrutiny on the difficult decisions we make.

    This applies equally to nonprofits and to foundations; which nonprofit wants me running around publicly asking why they are support corporate CMS platforms instead of embracing community supported open source alternatives? Whether or not they have a justification for their decision(s), there is communications overhead in entering into these discussions, and to forbear or even delay a response is to be *publicly* seen as unresponsive, uncaring, negligent, or worse. It’s like blackmail; I’m using concern for their public image as leverage to force a thoughtful, studied, response to something I might have fired off in five minutes. And we know it’s always easier to criticize than to pose a solution…there will always be a number of “you suck because you didn’t support my friend’s mom’s uncle’s org” comments.

    This means that a foundation must devote additional communications resources to achieve transparency, especially transparency to this level, where its core decision-making processes are open to public scrutiny. In the long term, this would be undeniably good for the sector; if each foundation could strike the perfect balance between engaging in this debate and staying its course.

    However, I think a great number of foundations would react with hostility to this course of action, which sounds a lot like “let every fool on the internet criticize our decisions, publicly” and requires a dedication of extra resources, for a goal that applies to a sector and not to their organization specifically.

  4. Akira says:

    I am a faithful reader of Tactical Philanthropy and have been enjoying responses to the one post challenge. Largely I’ve tuned in to read what donors and other grantmakers have to say. I haven’t been compelled to comment however, until now when a young foundation staffer anonymously opened the door for a discussion about controversy.

    OH how many times have I wanted to take a grantmaker to task on their decision to fund (or not to fund) an organization or cause? How deeply do I yearn to let a grantmaker know how incredibly stupid and oftentimes counterproductive their grant “guidelines” are to their published mission and how their “feedback” too many times sends the glaringly disrespectful message that they did not bother (or were not smart enough?) to truly evaluate a proposal based on those very stupid and counterproductive guidelines they set forth.

    Will funding the 10% sliver of a project budget needed for overhead or indirect expenses cause your toupee to burst into flames?

    Are those of you who emphatically fund only projects or programs also cooking up a staff clone/android (think Kelly LeBrock in Weird Science) with the skills, expertise and passion to carry out the task of developing, managing and evaluating the outcomes of that program? One who magically doesn’t have mortgage, rent, student loans, childcare expenses or the need for food?

    These are merely a few questions I’ve longed to ask, but hesitate in the name of not wanting to cause controversy. The almighty grantmaker can’t possibly be off the mark in their decisions can they? They are all knowing and omnipotent and dammit, we must stay in their good graces because they keep us alive! (Is sarcasm allowed in philanthropy?)

    And then there’s the sensitive line I have to maintain as a young nonprofit professional of color. I’m not sure if my ability to enunciate and pass my continuing ed course at NYU is enough to breach a controversial topic without being dismissed as confrontational or aggressive.

    So young foundation staffer if you get a chance, try to slip one of these topics on your next Board meeting agenda for some “deep probing”.

  5. young staffer says:

    I’m glad I generated a few really thoughtful responses!

    I want to emphasize that I think public scrutiny is only one piece of this puzzle. There is a limit, I think, to how much energy foundations should devote to public communications around their work and issues (although we are FAR from that limit). Plus with the number of foundations on the rise, public scrutiny can hardly hit them all. And frankly, I’d rather see a healthier discussion of politics in this country first; government is still usually the biggest player in the social change game.

    So I’m at least as interested in how people on the “inside” – donors, Boards, and the staff of foundations and nonprofits – can change their tone and their way of talking. Almost all of us, I think, can stand to be more willing to talk about how hard community work is, how there resources are limited and everyone has to make tough choices, and about how we disagree with each other on the meaning of “good for society.” I liked Sean’s analogy to the stock market here; it’s maybe not public dialogue so much as better systems for the interested people to engage in an open dialogue and exchange information.

    In fact, thinking about this as only a communications/PR problem is a little dangerous. Dave is right about the need for balance, but it’s not a “balance between [an organization] engaging in this debate and staying its course.” By giving you are – de facto – engaged. You made choices in giving, choices based on your values and beliefs, choices other people can and do disagree with. It is a balance between critically questioning the values that underpin those decisions because they matter so much and sticking by them long enough to see if you’re right.

  6. “It is a balance between critically questioning the values that underpin those decisions because they matter so much and sticking by them long enough to see if you’re right.”

    You put that better than I did; thanks 🙂

    I do disagree a little with this statement, though: “Plus with the number of foundations on the rise, public scrutiny can hardly hit them all.” I think the opposite may be true; as we see more and more models of philanthropy put forward, it is increasingly likely that we’ll see new and innovative ideas applied to every area of policy, including transparency. With a larger pool comes a larger potential for evolution.

    I think that while public “scrutiny” might initially have trouble keeping up with multiplying droves of reclusive foundations, the end result will be that the modes of that scrutiny will evolve.

  7. Holden says:

    Very disappointed in your response. Sounded like you were arguing for something substantive or ready to try something new. Now it sounds like you’re pulling the classic nonprofit maneuver of hedging everything to the point where it’s meaningless, and we’re all going to walk away from the discussion agreeing that “More transparency would be good, but of course there are limits; the key is to be open without going overboard.” I’d like to take one more crack at preventing a discussion-killing, progress-killing conclusion like that.

    “There is a limit, I think, to how much energy foundations should devote to public communications around their work and issues (although we are FAR from that limit).”

    Let’s get specific. http://www.givewell.net . That’s more work than foundations do now, a lot more, but not too much. I wrote up why I don’t think it’s too much work at http://blog.givewell.net/?p=187

    “Plus with the number of foundations on the rise, public scrutiny can hardly hit them all.”

    False. If there is a community you impact, there is a community that can criticize you. Put your stuff on the web and let them find you (and yes, do other things to solicit feedback from teh community too, but that’s not an argument against the web bit). Also, the tools for aggregating huge amts of information on the Internet are rapidly improving.

    This comment is pointing out that the world is big, but doing so in a misleading and unbalanced way. There are lots of foundations and lots of critics. Your comment, to me, is akin to saying “eBay can never work, there are too many sellers for all of them to find a buyer.”

    “And frankly, I’d rather see a healthier discussion of politics in this country first; government is still usually the biggest player in the social change game.”

    So you’re doing your part for political discussion by being complicit in the utter chilling and hiding of philanthropy discussion?

    Political and philanthropic issues intersect to such a degree that it would be virtually impossible to improve the quality of one discussion without improving the quality of the other. Thing is, political discussion has already gotten about as good as it can get, and it’s terrible, and I believe (hope) that this is largely because political discussion is so disconnected from action: we need to martial some huge majority to do anything, so everyone focuses on how to convince others that their tribe is right, rather than coming at issues with an open mind and a desire to experiment. I can only hope that if we were ever able to have a public discussion about philanthropy, it might be a bit more connected to reality, because unlike politics, philanthropy is an area where each individual’s opinion really does matter.

    “So I’m at least as interested in how people on the “inside” – donors, Boards, and the staff of foundations and nonprofits – can change their tone and their way of talking.”

    They can start by bringing in people from the outside. As long as you stay in a bubble, you’re going to use the same old jargon and the same old conventions and assumptions.

    It’s really your choice. You can shout at the wind, hoping that your abstract, theoretical claims about the “value of controversy” will get foundations that are set in their ways to do anything differently. You can play up the value of a small, insular community getting more confrontational with each other, while refusing to let the conversation end in any actual concrete proposal for concrete action. Or, you can take action and be one of the first to open your foundation’s decisions to the light of day. If you’re afraid no one will criticize it, shoot me an email; I’ll do the honors at the very least.

  8. young staffer says:

    I will agree that I was utterly wrong to think that there are “too many foundations” for the public to monitor completely. I was allowing myself to be limited by the systems that are currently in place (ie: imagining you would have to visit dozens of different websites to look at guidelines and grant lists and strategies) rather than imagining a new system, where they could be looked at it more easily and together.

    So that part was, I agree, flat out wrong.

    I disagree however that I was wrong about political discussion taking precedence. I don’t think it has “already gotten about as good as it can get.” Political participation is on the on decline (meaning it once was better) and there are some great projects – including, for example, work by the nonprofit AmericaSpeaks – showing us that we can get better dialogues going.

    But there are also qualitative differences between politics and philanthropy that matter.

    Philanthropy and politics produce different kinds of outputs. In philanthropy, we can actually have two different organizations pursuing two different strategies doggedly. In politics, there is one (compromised) policy. We have to come to some collective agreement, and there will be winners and losers. Civil society is pluralistic and it’s unlikely to become less so because – to return to my point – because philanthropy is controversial. We don’t agree, but because it’s not government, we don’t have settle on a winner or a loser.

    My major beef with the foundation and nonprofit world is not that there are two organizations pursuing different ends, but that the philanthropists involved fail to acknowledge they have deep disagreements and are maybe even working at odds with each other.

    So, one big difference between philanthropy and voting is that, I – ultimately – only care that 51% vote the way I want. The other 49%, well, it’d be nice if they agreed, but that’s too bad if they don’t. In philanthropy, the other 49% who disagree with me get to act too. And while I probably can’t change all their minds, I should not pretend we agree.

    That’s what bugs me; when we only talk about philanthropy and nonprofits as only “good” we pretend we all agree. That trivializes the reality.

    Maybe Holden is right, that bringing people in from the outside is the only way to get people to see that not everyone agrees. But I, for one, hope that it is only part of the puzzle. Because, unfortunately, at the end of the day, it’s not “my foundation.” Foundation staff at a private foundation are a conduit between community members and the board, and boards are often not keen on being so public or seeing themselves as not doing “good” in everyone’s eyes. I think that’s a mistake and I hope to prod people to change it, but I can’t make the decision to “open your founation’s decisions to the light of day.” It isn’t my foundation.

  9. young staffer says:

    I wanted to add one last thing: I’m not worried, Holden, that no one will criticize a decision. My point is that every aspect of the decision – from how much to fund now versus later, from what cause to what community to what organization – is capable of being criticized. We at least need to acknowledge that.

    So I want to be careful that we get a dialogue going beyond just individual grant decisions. GiveWell lays that part out nicely, but I think one could argue the most important decisions are about principles and values. If I were concentrating dialogue on the most important issues, I would focus there.

  10. I dream of the day where we spend less time questioning (or even wringing our hands) about why foundations make or didn’t make certain grants and instead are able to focus on what they are accomplishing with their money.

  11. Bruce, your comment is really interesting to me. This is a nuanced argument, so bear with me if I don’t explain it well.

    In the stock market, most of the discussion is not about how good or bad different firms’ investment records are, the conversation is about what investments are good or not good to make right now. Very little criticism is pointed at firms for their own historical investment decisions, but lots of debate occurs around what investments should be made next.

    I believe that private foundations do not deserve to be criticized for their grant making decisions. They are independent entities and deserve the freedom to make grants in the way they see fit. But I do think that grantmakers, advisors, donors, etc, should be engaged in a great public debate about how to invest philanthropic dollars. That doesn’t mean pointing fingers at foundations or anyone for making “bad” philanthropic investments. It means arguing the merits of what we should all do next with our philanthropic assets.

    When two investors come on CNBC and one says they think you should buy Cisco and the other thinks you should sell Cisco, they do not criticize the other investor as a bad investor, they criticize the other investor’s specific idea to buy or sell Cisco.

    So I think that philanthropic investors as a group should spend far more time arguing the merits to different approaches to making the world a better place. But I think it is a waste of time to spend a lot of time wringing our hands about the historical choices that foundations made. I also hope that we learn to celebrate great philanthropic investors and figure out how to use their wisdom to inform the grantmaking of others.

  12. Hi Sean,
    You’re right. Not sure I follow your response. Either that or I didn’t make myself clear. I was really commenting — in shorthand — that there’s too much emphasis on who’s making grants and for what purpose, but not enough information and/or discussion about the results of those decisions, especially in a sufficiently timely way to help influence the thinking and behavior of others.

  13. Holden says:

    Young Foundation Staffer –

    First off, I’m not entirely sure what your point is re politics vs. philanthropy, but I think your 51% vs. 100% analysis is interesting. The fact is that in philanthropy, every person you convince matters a little bit, from 1% up to 100%. In politics, any discussion that doesn’t get you to that 51% is not worth having, which is why a lot of important and good ideas simply don’t get discussed at all. I won’t deny that there is hope for improved discourse, but there are also a lot of natural obstacles. I see more potential for good discussion in philanthropy, though we don’t have to keep arguing about this because we can agree they’re both important.

    RE principles and values vs. specific grantmaking decisions. We’re going to blog about this soon, but briefly, I think the best way to improve our general principles is often to get specific. The example that jumps to mind is my own broad philosophical priorities. For years I gave to inner-city youth related programs, and people would try to convince me that I should give to developing-world causes instead, but I just wasn’t feeling it. What finally changed my mind was when we dug into the details of both, looked at specific charities in both, and tried to get a sense of “what you can get for your dollar.” Learning about facts did more for my understanding than disconnected philosophical discussions have. Analyzing each cause on its own, then putting them side by side, has helped me more to think about my broad priorities than trying to address the issue without context.

    GiveWell believes in donor choice, which is why we separate charities into causes and focus our analysis on the best charities for a given goal. We make no judgments on goal vs. goal because it’s not necessary to do so; but we feel that we can enrich the conversation a great deal simply by putting different possible goals next to each other, with the context and detail to understand what they really mean.

    One more note. I understand that you don’t run your foundation. But I would urge you to make a pest of yourself and do what you can. If you agree with me about the potential for improvement through dialogue, and the best argument you know of on the other side is “boards are often not keen on being so public or seeing themselves as not doing ‘good’ in everyone’s eyes” … I think you owe it to everyone to ask questions and push for change.

  14. Holden says:

    Sean, a quick note:

    “When two investors come on CNBC and one says they think you should buy Cisco and the other thinks you should sell Cisco, they do not criticize the other investor as a bad investor, they criticize the other investor’s specific idea to buy or sell Cisco.”

    This is all well and good. I agree that it’s always better to debate ideas rather than get into personal attacks.

    But at the same time … investors DO call each other bad investors. They rag on each other, make fun of each other, and everything. Our politicians, who work all day trying to help our country (and I believe nearly all at least believe this is what they are trying to do), literally get mocked every single night in front of millions of TV viewers. I’m not sure we’re actually better off for this particular thing, but I am sure that they survive it, and that the complete teeth-chattering fear of criticism is really and truly unique to this sector. In no other context I can think of do people get a free pass for “trying hard,” or run screaming to hide under their bed at the first sign that someone might publicly say something non-praiseworthy about them.

  15. young staffer says:

    I think Holden and I agree a lot more than we disagree. And I do think GiveWell is upping the ante on the discussion in really important ways. Glad to see you guys are getting some more press coverage.

    My point about politics vs. philanthropy is that the diversity and pluralism of the nonprofit sector mean we will have to (and we get to) “agree to disagree” more so than is possible in politics.

    I also think that there are ways to change foundations around this issue that fall short of full public disclosure. Like not letting people shy away from an internal debate or getaway with the notion that evaluation has to be a “hard cold analysis that misses the intangible good nonprofits” do. I can certainly be a pest on those kinds of notions too.

    Finally, I think I’m also closer to Bruce than he thinks. I think once you see your decisions as controversial, then evaluation becomes critical because it is a method for looking at how you might be going wrong. You can’t, however, escape the debate about “for what purpose” because you can’t evaluate until you have some philosophy about “for what purpose.”