Center for Effective Philanthropy Knowledge Sharing Session

My session on Wednesday about Knowledge Sharing at the Center for Effective Philanthropy Conference went over well. It seemed that many of the people in the audience were receptive to the idea that sharing their knowledge with other grantmakers could increase their impact.

Just prior to the session, I asked my Twitter followers what they would say if they were at the session. New York Times reporter Stephanie Strom (@ssstrom) warned me, “Getting foundations to "share" anything is a challenge, as most honest foundation executives will tell you.” Bruce Trachtenberg (@bsttrach) also gave me a warning of sorts saying, “I hope you’ll be clear about what you mean by "knowledge." The term is too ill-defined and gets a lot of lip-service.”

Bruce’s comment was important because it highlighted the fact that when people talk about foundations sharing information, the immediate critique is that sharing info about grantees could hurt the grantee. So I took this idea on at the start of the session. My point was two fold:

  1. A funders allegiance should be to impact, not individual grantees. If sharing information about a grantee will increase system wide impact (such as warning other funders to not give money to an inept nonprofit) then it should be shared even if it hurts the grantee. But if hurting a grantee might lower impact (such as if the info might scare other funders away from what is otherwise a high impact nonprofit) than the information may be rightly withheld.
  2. Foundations knowledge about philanthropy is much, much larger than simply which grantees are any good. Imagine you had an opportunity to have lunch with Warren Buffett to talk about investing. If Warren refused to give you any specific stock tips would you think the lunch was worthless? Of course not, the wisdom of investing and the wisdom of grantmaking is much larger than simply the organizations that should be funded.

So what is that knowledge and how should we know what to share? A member of the audience offered a guiding principal that was much better than anything I had to say:

Communicate unto others that which you would want others to communicate unto you.

The golden rule of knowledge sharing in philanthropy!

At the lunchtime plenary just before my session, Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and an expert on what makes great organizations, was the speaker and asked the audience, “what is the one thing that you should or must do to take advantage of this moment in time?” His point was that with great upheaval comes great opportunity.

I think that embracing a culture of knowledge sharing, both between funders and between sectors, is the key to philanthropy taking advantage of this moment in time. Even as private sector resources are down, the amount of government money flowing in the system is off the charts. If we want to ensure that money spent (in every sector) on social good is used wisely, we need to commit to sharing what we know about what works.


  1. Couldn’t agree more Sean – great post.

    I think for philanthropy (in the online space especially), people should be more readily sharing what works and what doesn’t work.

    Everyone under the sun is talking about how the new taxation levels are going to be prevent many donors from giving as much as they used to. In the online space we should be mobilizing more quickly around the casues that matter to us, and sharing what did and din’t work.

  2. I think that would be great. However, I’m also sensitive to the fact that organizations that need to raise money are subject to more true issues of competition than grantmakers are. But I love your sentiment!

  3. Madmunk says:

    I’ve always preferred loyalties to people as opposed to abstractions, so I’m troubled by this: “A funders allegiance should be to impact, not individual grantees.”

    It’s interesting that the Golden Rule of Communicating, “Communicate unto others that which you would want others to communicate unto you,” simply says “others,” but you seem to take it as a rule for grantmakers only. It’s a funny sector whose rules and loyalty only extend to half its membership. The grantees do the work, after all.

    And what of a funder’s duty to the organization? A whistleblower could share information with a regulator that could lose your organization its tax-exemption. But think of all the impact we might make if we overlook such a transgression… You get the idea.

    I think we’re getting carried away with these discussions of impact. We’re now settling moral questions by reducing them to questions of social utility.

    Surely, you don’t mean funders don’t have other loyalties, but I wonder about strategic philanthropy sometimes. Philanthropy isn’t all about impact.

  4. Interesting set of comments, Madmunk. I don’t really disagree.

    1) People vs. Abstractions: My point is that the allegiance should be to the people the grantee is trying to help rather than to the people running the grantee. I use the word impact to capture the concept of making a difference in a cause area. But this isn’t an abstraction, these are real people (often, although many important causes are not just about helping a certain set of people).

    2) Golden Rule: My point is that it is a huge opportunity for grantmakers to share info with each other. Sharing info with the public and grantees offers a different set of complications and wasn’t the point of my post, but that doesn’t mean I’m not in favor of it. During the session, the most interesting comment from the audience was a grantmaker who used to run a nonprofit who was saying he wished grantmakers had been more honest and open about why they turned down his grant requests.

    3) Whistleblower: This is a straw man. I wasn’t suggesting that impact should be pursued at any and all costs. Acting unethically or illegally is not a path to long term impact.

    4) Philanthropy all about impact: I agree. That was part of the point in my review of Strategic Giving when I wrote about the Expressive Element of philanthropy. I’m not trying to craft some sort of absolutists world view with impact the only goal. I’m trying to rebut the most frequent argument against sharing info (it might hurt the grantee!) by suggesting that philanthropy is not about the grantee, it is about the cause you are trying to affect.