Philanthropy: Science, Art or… Music?

Sometimes (ok, a lot) the vision of philanthropy advanced by people like me seems to suggest that philanthropy is a science. To me, philanthropy is “tactical”. To Matthew Bishop it blends with “capitalism”. Paul Brest advances a “strategic” view. Leslie Crutchfield & Heather McLeod Grant focus on “impact”. All of these words seem most at home in scientific world view.

But philanthropy is not a science. To people like Phil Cubeta, Bill Somerville and Tracy Gary, philanthropy is an art. Words like “love,” “inspiration,” and “intuition” dominate their conversations.

While I’m guilty of gravitating to the language of business and science when I write about philanthropy, I think it is actually a blend of art and science. But even that doesn’t capture it. Philanthropy is really something else entirely.

Recently I’ve been thinking about how music is maybe the best metaphor for philanthropy. Music is an art, sure, but it is an art based in math. Google “the science of music” and you’ll get 222,000,000 results. Music is driven by passion, but even though anyone can pick up an instrument and play it, it is broadly agreed that making good music is a talent and something that can be learned.

While music is a personal taste, we also have broad agreement around the idea of what is considered truly great music. Yet great music doesn’t always “go to scale” and in fact certain types of music reach their fullest potential when they are intentionally kept small.

Can you think about how to be tactical or strategic in how you produce music? Yes. Does capitalism have anything to do with music? No doubt. Is “love”, “inspiration” and “intuition” relevant to music? Of course. If you want to make beautiful music that changes the world and is a joy to play, you must understand music as both an art and a science. Same thing with philanthropy. Without heart, music and philanthropy are superficial. You can’t “prove” that great music or great philanthropy is truly great. Both philanthropy and music benefit the player and the listener, the giver and the receiver. The joy that a musician takes from her music does not diminish its value to the listener, it enhances it. Same thing with philanthropy. But the fact that a musician spends years trying to understand what works, analyzing other efforts and intentionally trying to craft something amazing does not diminish their work either. We expect that music is hard and that great music does not happen on accident. We should expect the same in philanthropy.

So queue up Beethoven’s Ode to Joy or the version by The Deadly Snakes if that’s more your thing. But while you’re listening check out the book This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.

Happy Friday!


  1. Tony Pipa says:

    Sean, I think better characteristics to ascribe to the “art” of philanthropy are “imagination” and “skill.” In general terms, art is an expression of human imagination and human skill (that’s how we get to describing the “art” of doing something). I find a much more apt metaphor in medicine. The practice of medicine is informed by science – reams of it – but every medical case is unique and requires a physician’s unique judgment. That judgment is never 100% infallible and while informed by science should also be informed by imagination, compassion, understanding, and humility.

    It should be noted that in medicine, like philanthropy, you are making interventions, prescriptions that hopefully have positive but can also have disastrously negative consequences, if they’re the wrong ones. A dissonant chord is much less dangerous than a grant strategy or healing protocol gone awry. Lives are literally at stake sometimes. We downplay too often the potentially harmful effects of our interventions.

    I have always considered the successful practice of philanthropy ultimately to be an art. Good philanthropy is grounded in science, yes, but requires proper application of that science for a particular context – which ultimately requires sound human judgment. To my mind, that’s where the focus on metrics and principles of “effectiveness” becomes limiting (Jeff Trexler’s post on your recap of CEP’s principles articulates this well); the dialogue has become imbalanced in favor of science, and indeed sometimes is dismissive of this artistic side – with potentially grave consequences.

  2. Great points Tony. Did you see the Tactical Philanthropy Forum with Paul Brest and Bill Somerville? I think that showcased the degree to which each side is dismissive of the input of the other.

  3. Liz Wainger says:

    I’m glad you wrote about philanthropy as being both an art and a science. I think in today’s world of precision and high technology we often forget or dismiss the “art” side of things. Inspiration is necessary to achieve impact and results.

  4. Thanks for a great post Sean.

    This echoed ideas I’ve been turning over, which were brought into sharper focus recently by a Harvard Business Review article in the March 2009 edition.

    The article “When Should a Process Be Art, Not Science?” posits that many critical processes should be treated as arts not sciences, leading to many differences in how they are managed. A useful point was that many of these art processes can be supported by well-controlled ‘science’ processes.

    We should think about which processes in philanthropy are arts, and which are sciences.

  5. Thanks Liz. It seems like the “art” crowd uses philanthropy’s artistic side to discount the importance of measuring and the “science” crowd” uses the scientific side to ignore the need for inspiration and human relationships.

  6. jschawaii says:

    Thanks for this informative article. I have to disagree w/ your comment “making good music is a talent and something that can be learned” phrase. By stating something is a talent, it implies, that which comes naturally. It may be more true that “making good music is something that can be learned.” But talent is not something that people can learn or acquire from just practicing.

  7. Hmm, good point jschawaii. Sloppy writing on my part. I guess I meant that it is a talent (comes naturally) AND it is something that can be learned (even people who do not have a natural talent can learn). But I agree that “talent” cannot be learned.

  8. Mike Lenardo says:

    Interesting viewpoint – I don’t really believe however that there is a similarity between philanthropy and music. Rather philanthropy is a mechanism of extending one’s worldview or philosophy. For example, in order to promote new pathways of scientific training and thought, International Biomedical Research Alliance is funding a new scholarship program for training biomedical researchers, cf. this is an example of a group of private individuals who are willing to deploy financial resources to advance a particular innovation in scientific education. Bill and Melinda Gates had a certain philosophy of improving global health – so they deployed their substantial resources towards that end. So while I agree that there may be art and elegance in the execution of a philanthropic endeavor, fundamentally it is an act that extends one’s personal philosophy rather than one’s aesthetic sense.

  9. Mike, I agree that the point of philanthropy is not extending one’s aesthetic sense. My point was that philanthropy is 1) not a only science and 2) that personal passion/joy is a good thing in philanthropy.