Yesterday I wrote about “Catalytic” Philanthropy. And of course this blog is called “Tactical” Philanthropy. So it was with amusement that I read Phil Buchanan and Ellie Buteau’s op-ed in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
The authors, the president and head of research at the Center for Effective Philanthropy (of which I think the world of), write:
“…it seems that purveyors of new philanthropic formulas for making a difference are everywhere. Offering anecdotes and snazzy adjectives modifying the word “philanthropy,” they extrapolate from a success story or two, promising that their approach—fill-in-the-blank philanthropy—will allow foundations and philanthropists to finally show progress in solving our toughest societal challenges.”
Ouch! Are they talking about me? Or Mark Kramer? Or Grassroots Philanthropy, or Strategic Philanthropy, or Venture Philanthropy, or Inspired Philanthropy or Philanthrocapitalism or Microphilanthropy, or… Wow. There really are a lot of examples of “Fill In The Blank” Philanthropy.
Buchanan and Buteau go on to write:
“Many of those writing about philanthropy are insightful—and, occasionally, what is written goes beyond a few anecdotes and is rooted in some actual research. Some are making a real contribution by promoting tools and approaches that can be powerfully positive. But lost, all too often, is what may seem an obvious point: Whether those specific approaches make any sense at all for a particular foundation depends entirely on the goals and context of the foundation in question.
…We would be the first to agree that it’s great to see new, creative models of approaching philanthropic challenges. In the right context, they can be important elements of strategies that lead to big achievements. But which ones make sense for a particular grant maker?
It depends. Because the right set of activities—the right strategy—depends on the foundation’s goals, and the context in which it is operating.
“It depends” is admittedly not a great slogan if you are trying to sell consulting services or publish an article. But it is wise counsel, we believe, to those making decisions about how to allocate precious charitable resources.”
Hmm, have Buchanan and Buteau just proposed a new “Fill In The Blank” Philanthropy? Is “It Depends” Philanthropy the next hot fad?
In all seriousness, the authors are making an extremely important point. It does depend. There is almost no advice, in philanthropy or anywhere else, that is applicable to everyone all the time.
In criticizing those of us who argue in favor of various approaches to philanthropy, Buchanan and Buteau are engaging in a simple debating trick. They are suggesting that by arguing in favor of a certain approach, someone is insisting that their approach is applicable to everyone, all of the time.
I don’t believe that Mark Kramer has ever suggested that everyone, everywhere should practice Catalytic Philanthropy. I hope that I’ve made clear that while I think more people should approach philanthropy with a “tactical” social investing approach, that does not preclude the need for the practice of “strategic” problem solving approaches.
Buchanan and Buteau write:
“The advice is everywhere foundation leaders turn: Experts are urging grant makers to “build the capacity” of nonprofit groups; invest in social media; finance research; find ways to influence public policy; and offer loans and other so-called program-related investments.”
Yet I can’t recall ever hearing someone arguing that all donors should “invest in social media”, “offer program-related investments,” or any other particular approach.
Frankly, I’d like to hear more people arguing in favor of more “Fill In the Blank” approaches to philanthropy! The discussions are healthy. The debates help everyone refine their own thinking. But let’s all maintain a healthy skepticism of anyone who proposes to know what is best for everyone else.
If anyone ever releases a book titled “Perfect Philanthropy: How you can be a perfect donor in 15 minutes a month by following these three simple rules!” then I’ll join Buchanan and Buteau in lamenting the oversimplification of philanthropy. But until then, I’d like the decibel level of the conversation to increase. Saying “it depends” is true, but it is also a way to end a conversation that everyone can benefit from having.