Sir, Sean Stannard-Stockton (“Non-profits look to invest in themselves”, March 29) errs when he concludes his interesting column by saying that “while yesterday’s donors were content to give to a non-profit based on emotional appeal, today’s donors want to know their money is really going to have an impact”.Since the late Renaissance and the Reformation era when the conceptual and applied shift towards “modern philanthropy” with its pursuit of rationalised solutions to systemic problems occurred, donors have sought to optimise the outcome of their investments. Today’s “venture philanthropists” promise greater results and more accountability by borrowing from the practices of venture capital, just as “scientific philanthropists” of the late 19th century did by adopting the principles of the reigning intellectual framework of science.
In order to grapple honestly with the strengths and weaknesses of beneficence, it is important to recognise that new and better practices are often old methods that have been revived – because the problem of an unequal distribution of resources endures – and that perpetual frustration with the limits of philanthropy is a prime reason for the continual reworking of ideas.
Amanda B. Moniz,
Department of History,
University of Michigan
Michael Edwards of the Ford Foundation responded to the same sentence in my column saying, “[you] assume that impact considerations are new, when in fact they have been around for fifty years or more – just not expressed in the ways you
think are satisfactory.”
I agree that the concept of impact (attempting to give in ways that can do the most good for your dollar) is not new within institutional philanthropy. Because a lot of my readers work at institutional foundations, consult for these foundations, or work at nonprofits that receive grants from these foundations, I often address issues of institutional philanthropy. But I’m not an expert in institutional philanthropy. My firm, Ensemble Capital, serves individual philanthropists. When I talk about The Second Great Wave of Philanthropy, I’m talking about major shifts going on with individual donors. When I write for the mass audience of the Financial Times, I’m writing for individual donors. But given how my writing on this blog veers into issues of institutional philanthropy on a regular basis, I can see how it is my fault if people perceive that I’m declaring “impact” as a new concept to foundations. It is not.
Individual donors have always been aware of the idea that their donations could do more or less good depending on which nonprofits they funded. While they might not often use the word “impact”, the concept makes sense if it is explained to them. But I reject the idea put forth by Moniz and Edwards that “donors” (and that was the word I used, not “foundations”) have embraced impact considerations for half a century.
If in fact donors understood impact, which at its core assumes that some donations do more than others, than you would assume that these donors would strive to achieve higher levels of impact. Yet there are almost no mass market books that discuss this issue, almost no articles in print or online, almost no organizations that help donors achieve impact.
Now before you send me emails pointing to Inspired Philanthropy or Don’t Just Give It Away, before you point out that I’m writing a mass market column on these very issues at the Financial Times, before you tell me about excellent consultants like The Philanthropic Initiative, Arabella Philanthropic Investment Advisors, or my own firm Ensemble Capital, let me just say that all of that adds up to just a bit more than zero.
Individual donors have access to almost nothing compared to individual investors. Every bookstore in the country has a whole section devoted to personal finance (books on which generally ignore charitable giving while lavishing pages of copy on other obscure financial issues). Every daily newspaper devotes space to advising individual investors and we have many mass market publications targeted directly to the individual investor. Investors issue with investment advisors is not so much finding one (believe me, there are thousands of advisors trying to find you right now), but picking from amongst the many qualified professionals.
Most individual donors don’t even know the difference between a nonprofit and a foundation. Institutional philanthropy actual is making a effort to let people know what they do since most Americans cannot even name a single large foundation. Individual donors with a portfolio of appreciated assets still mostly write checks to charity instead of transfering assets or setting up a philanthropic account (this is similar to saving for retirement in a checking account because an investor had never heard of a 401k).
I could go on and on.
I actual have my own criticism of the sentence in my column that Edwards and Moniz call out. When I wrote “while yesterday’s donors were content to give to a non-profit based on
emotional appeal, today’s donors want to know their money is really
going to have an impact,” I actually overstated the case in the opposite direction of the way they saw it. Edwards and Moniz argued that the statement was false because they believe yesterday’s donors were focused on impact. I would say that my statement was flawed because in fact, not even “today’s donor” knows what impact is. “Tomorrow’s donor” will be the ones deeply concerned with impact. But at least today we have real movement in that direction.