Lots of buzz after the Philanthropy Media Panel on why foundations do not get more press attention. I think the core reason that foundations do not get much press is because most people think that giving money away is easy.
Doing something easy doesn’t garner press attention. And it shouldn’t. But the fact is opening a business or making an investment is easy too. But they are both hard to do well and practicing philanthropy well is just as hard.
Foundations themselves haven’t done themselves many favors in reversing this mindset. Most foundation PR touts all the great grants they’ve made and reading their annual reports and press releases gives the impression that everything they do works. If that were true, then we’d know that philanthropy was easy. But grants fail all the time. Especially if you benchmark a grant against the good that could be done by just randomly picking a nonprofit and giving it money.
For-profit business PR is all positive, glowing remarks as well. But as outsiders we see companies close or fail to thrive all the time and so we know it is a tough job. But foundations can make low impact grants forever and never have to close their doors or even produce any outward signs of their lack of impact.
This is why it is so important that as a field we talk about failure and why I’ve celebrated the Irvine Foundation’s Jim Canales and Hewlett’s frank assessments of some of their work. It is also why I’ve championed information sharing between philanthropists and why I’ll be writing in the near future about an excellent example of beneficial information sharing regarding a failed grant.
Philanthropy is hard. Really hard. Saving the environment, eradicating poverty, improving education? These are things that would make anyone’s list of the hardest possible endeavors that face humankind.
The media covers for-profit investors when they make great investments and when they fail miserably. Without the possibility of failing miserable, there is no such thing as a great investment.
Philanthropy is free to act without constraint in so many ways. This is both our field’s greats asset and biggest curse. It lets us try things even if they are unpopular without fear of retribution should we fail. But being allowed to fail over and over without being called out means there are no real incentives to make us get better.
Philanthropy is hard. There are people and foundations doing great work and some that are throwing money away. If we want or expect the media and the public at large to celebrate and appreciate the great work of foundations and individual donors we must accept that being honest about failure and getting publicly trashed for it is part of the bargain.