Jacob Harold: The Philanthropic Tool Box

(Sean Stannard-Stockton is on vacation. This is a guest post from Jacob Harold, a program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.)

They say that if all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. Let me add: if you have a toolbox, the whole world can look like an opportunity. The nonprofit sector—with its diversity of skills, relationships, and methods—is our collective toolbox for social change. And philanthropy is society’s attempt to pick the right tool at the right time: allocating precious resources to issues, organizations, and interventions.

But an individual donor trying to make a good philanthropic choice is like a carpenter reaching into a toolbox in the dark while wearing thick mittens. And at the bottom of the toolbox are well-crafted, well-made tools (nonprofits that are not just well-meaning, but also well-run) mixed in with tools ill-suited to the task.

So, to perhaps over-use the metaphor, the Hewlett Foundation’s Philanthropy Program is trying to do two things: first, get donors to take off their mittens and learn how to use their fingers to find the right nonprofit; second, shine a light into the toolbox and make it clear which organizations are the strongest.

As a guest blogger next week on Tactical Philanthropy I’ll share some about our thoughts and questions and questions about improving the practice of philanthropy. I’m looking forward to your feedback—and any clever mitten-removal and light-shining strategies you might have.


  1. Matthew Barnes says:

    This will be my first comment on this blog — so I hope you’ll be gentle. I love the metaphor of the mitten and toolbox… however, I feel the need to challenge the metaphor on one point. Philanthrophy has the unique opportunity to refine existing ‘tools’, to encourage that ineffective ‘tools’ be discarded and, perhaps most importantly, to create new ‘tools’. In many social sectors, the nonprofit models meant to improve the lives of individuals are simply not working. I am hopeful that your future posts will develop your metaphor along these lines. Thanks for your work. -m

  2. Jacob Harold says:


    I think you’re absolutely right here. In an upcoming post I’ll talk about the importance of feedback. Feedback is essential for the nonprofit sector to learn and get stronger. Or, to use your categories, to refine, discard, and create new tools.

    It’s not enough to count on what’s already in your toolbox, sometimes you have to stop by the corner hardware store–or go borrow one from a neighbor!


  3. Jason Dick says:

    Great perspective. I like that kind of positive thinking. If life gives you lemons make lemonade.