“Fill In The Blank” Philanthropy

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.


  1. Lester Bryant III says:

    “But let’s all maintain a healthy skepticism of anyone who proposes to know what is best for everyone else,” says it all! Thanks for posting.

  2. Joe Brown says:

    I can’t help wondering about the quotation marks surrounding “build the capacity” of nonprofit organizations in the original article. I’m immediately reminded of John McCain’s infamous use of air quotes around the phrase “the health of the woman”.

    Those in philanthropy who are somewhat removed from the ground on which nonprofits work should recognize that it is only through the capacity of nonprofit organizations that their money has any impact.

  3. Thanks, Sean, for your thoughtful commentary on our piece. We also think the world of your blog, and the thoughtful discussion and debate it generates.

    We do, however, see what we regard as too many, too broad assertions (from many sources) that some (seemingly) new-fangled approach is the panacea. We see too much reliance on anecdote and too little appreciation for the nuance of different contexts and goals. The SSIR article on “Catalytic Philanthropy” that you reference is indeed an example of the phenomenon we were writing about, replete with sweeping claims in the lead-in that this approach is “what the nation needs.”

    As for the comment by one of your readers on the use of quotation marks in the reference to “capacity building,” the reason is simply that the term seems to us to be ill-defined, though much-discussed. We care deeply about the effectiveness of those doing the work on the ground and have in fact done research (http://www.effectivephilanthropy.org/assets/pdfs/CEP_MoreThanMoney.pdf) on how funders can best assist nonprofits in ways that go beyond the grant. Sad fact is that, today, much of the assistance that is offered by funders appears from our analyses to be ineffective. So perhaps we should use quotation mark around that word, too.

    Ellie Buteau and Phil Buchanan

  4. Thanks Phil & Ellie. I agree that modesty and humbleness is a key attribute for anyone suggesting certain strategies. Yet on the other hand, if Mark or I or anyone else didn’t think their idea was “what the nation needs”, they probably wouldn’t go to all the trouble of writing it all up!

    Maybe we just need a disclaimer for philanthropy consultants?”Flowery and fiery language is no guarantee of future results?”

  5. Joe Brown says:

    I appreciate the clarification by Elie and Phil regarding capacity building, as well as pointing me to the research report on assistance beyond the grant. I was particularly heartened by the report’s conclusion that comprehensive assistance was of far greater value to grantees than assistance in only a few areas, and struck by the staff/management training — one of my areas of focus — was among the least often provided areas of assistance

    I did notice that the report defines “effectiveness” primarily in terms of the grantee having a “different and more positive experience” with the foundation. While this is certainly a good thing, it is far from ultimate as a measure of grantees’ success in fulfilling their missions, so perhaps “effectiveness” is yet another word which might merit quotation marks.

  6. I love Ellie and Phil’s perspective. Did I hear someone say “dinosaur philanthropy”? I, too, have been a critic of “fill-in-the-blank philanthropy.” I believe society would make bold strides forward if we simply mastered plain old “philanthropy,” both in its true meaning. and as expressed through simple and fundamentally sound giving practices.

    Sean, hoping your joke title, ““Perfect Philanthropy: How you can be a perfect donor in 15 minutes a month by following these three simple rules!” wasn’t a jestful jab at MY book (heavens!), but I think that my modestly-titled tome should be required reading for anyone ready to take the leap into “fill in the blank philanthropy” world.

    It makes sense to learn to walk before you try to run, even if running looks and sounds cool, and all the “in crowd” is doing it (however small that “crowd” might really be).

    Respectfully and with great good humor as well as seriousness,

    Renata Rafferty
    Author: “Smart Generosity: Everything You Need To Know About Charity, Philanthropy, and Giving Wisely” with Foreword by Paul Newman

  7. Renata, I don’t see your book as purporting to offer a simplistic, easy path to “perfect” giving in the least! I think your book is great.

    I agree that most people need to do very simple things to dramatically improve their giving: Be intentional, be engaged, be proactive, etc.

    Look, you’ve just coined a new Fill in The Blank: Simple Philanthropy. I’m sure it will be the next craze!

    Hope you’re doing well Renata. It is nice to hear from you!

  8. Katie Herrold says:

    I recently participated in the Third Forum of the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropy in Doha, Qatar.

    Instead of loftily debating the merits of various forms of fill-in-the-blank philanthropy, these philanthropists were discussing the specifics of what strategic philanthropy means for them. One example: the creation of the International Organization of Zakat, an institution that seeks to streamline the charitable giving of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims in an effort to address poverty among Muslims worldwide. Similar initiatives, which can be found in NGOs and food banks throughout the Muslim world, encourage Muslims to give in cash the equivalent of one slaughtered animal during Eid al-Adha, the proceeds of which also go to the neediest regions of the Muslim world. With 24% of the world’s population required to engage in charitable giving, enormous potential exists for Muslim initiatives such as these to make significant impact.

    Would we call the philanthropic innovations described above “creative philanthropy”? “Catalytic philanthropy”? Probably.

    Do the Muslim philanthropists seem to care about these terms? Not really.

    Do they, however, stand to surpass the West in the innovativeness and impact of their giving while we debate vocabulary? Fill in the blank.

    Katie Herrold

  9. Mark Kramer says:

    Phil is wise to warn us against oversimplification in as complex a field as philanthropy, but like Sean, I see the growing amount of research, advice, consulting expertise, publications, blogs, and innovative thinking about more impactful approaches to philanthropy as a positive development for the field, rather than as a risk to be avoided. Different people offer different theories and couch them in different terms, but I am always impressed by the thoughtfulness and sincerity of those who contribute to this expanding dialogue.

    Certainly, the ideas in Catalytic Philanthropy were never meant as a rigid formula to be universally applied, as I explicitly wrote in the article:

    “This is not to suggest that catalytic philanthropy is appropriate for all donors, or that other types of philanthropic engagement are ineffective. … The variety in types of philanthropy is one of the reasons for the nonprofit sector’s vitality . . .”

    In fact, the many examples of catalytic philanthropy cited throughout the article involve a wide variety of philanthropic tools and strategies — from litigation to mission investing — and, as Phil suggests, the right tools very much depend on what any given foundation is trying to achieve. What unites the different examples is “problem solving” attitude that goes beyond selecting good grantees — but the appropriate strategies depend on the problem that the foundation wants to solve and the unique combination of financial and non-monetary resources it can bring to bear.

    Of course, the anecdotal examples cited in the article are not the extent of the research behind our thinking. Over the past decade, FSG has conducted more than 250 in-depth strategy development engagements with foundations of all types and sizes around the world, and our grant funded research reports have enabled us to interview and study at least a hundred more. The principles of Catalytic Philanthropy are our attempt to elicit from this body of knowledge and experience the common elements of successful strategies that have achieved measurable impact under many different circumstances.

    FSG is not alone in attempting to synthesize our learning for the benefit of the field — Bridgespan, Monitor, McKinsey, Blueprint R&D, SVP, together with university centers at Stanford, Harvard and Duke, and authors such as Paul Brest and Hal Harvey, Peter Frumpkin, Joel Fleishman, Leslie Crutchfield, and bloggers like Sean, are only a few of the many thought leaders that are all contributing to the rich diversity of thinking that I believe is propelling the field forward in very constructive ways. Each of these authors and organizations has voiced different theories and coined different terms. None has the full answer, but taken together they have immeasurably enriched thinking about philanthropic effectiveness.

    CEP has taken a central and important role in this dialogue through its admirable efforts to bring careful and rigorous research to bear on effective philanthropic practices. In fact, each of the examples in Catalytic Philanthropy fills the basic conditions of being strategic that CEP’s report describes — such as using data and being able to describe how the foundation’s actions are expected to lead to the results they seek.

    And that is what I find most encouraging of all. Despite the many different voices and research approaches in the growing dialogue about philanthropic effectiveness, what amazes me even more is the consistency I find among all the many books, reports and consultants. We may each have latched onto a different part of the proverbial elephant, but gradually, the shape of the elephant as a whole is coming into view. I believe that a consistent body of knowledge is being created about how foundations can achieve impact and that this is already leading to greater philantropic effectiveness. Monitor may talk of “impact investing” and FSG of “mission investing;” Paul Brest’s book may define strategic philanthropy in ways that differ from Bridgespan’s efforts to galvanize philanthropy, ours to catalyze it, or CEP’s to document effective practices, but taken together the consistency is far greater than the differences.

    In short, I believe that the more researchers, practitioners, and consultants that step forward to offer their own theories of philanthropic success, whether based on their own experiences, anecdotes, or scholarly studies — and regardless of how they fill in the blanks — the sooner the elephant will appear.

  10. Great discussion – thanks, Sean, for getting it going.

    What Ellie and I were cautioning against in our Chronicle piece was a tendency – and this is by no means confined to philanthropy – to draw overly broad conclusions from a few anecdotes. We drew inspiration in part from Michael Mauboussin’s important book, Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition, writing:

    In his book, Mr. Mauboussin reminds us of the history of manned flight. “Early on, hopeful fliers studied animals that could fly and noticed that almost all had wings and feathers. So early aviators fashioned wings, attached feathers, climbed up high, jumped, flapped, and crashed.”

    He argues that “many management theories today” look a lot like “feathers glued to wings.” He adds: “Consultants, researchers, and practitioners often observe some successes, seek common attributes among them, and proclaim that these attributes can lead others to succeed. This simply does not work. Decisions that work in one context often fail miserably in another.”

    Sean argues that we over-state the case – that, in fact, those advocating for a particular brand of philanthropy aren’t suggesting it should work for everyone – and that, in so doing, we are using a “simple debating trick.” That certainly was not our intent. We wouldn’t have written what we did had we not genuinely believed this was happening – and I think one doesn’t have to look far to see examples of overly simplistic advocacy for a particular approach or technique without sufficient evidence or appreciation of differences in goals and contexts.

    Mark Kramer argues that the various consulting firms and research institutions examining how to improve philanthropy “have immeasurably enriched thinking about philanthropic effectiveness.” I completely agree, and nothing Ellie and I wrote in our Chronicle piece suggested otherwise. In fact, CEP has worked in collaboration with some of the very firms he mentions and we have great respect for their work. Mark says philanthropy benefits from the advancement, by these organizations, of “theories of philanthropic success, whether based on their own experiences, anecdotes, or scholarly studies.”

    That’s surely true, but the point is to be able to distinguish what is informing a theory. We need to be clear whether what is being advanced is based on an idea, a single example, or whether there is broader-based data to suggest that a practice works, and in what contexts (in which case, it is more than just a theory). That way, those who are in the audience – who may actually change their behaviors and decisions based on what is being advanced – have the information they need to discern what’s what.
    But, today, it is too often difficult to distinguish, particularly when those promoting an approach are opaque about their methodologies. We argue:

    All too often, when we read about these issues or attend conference sessions … we see a single case study—unmoored from any larger set of data—change how grant makers act. Case studies have an important place, to be sure, and we at the Center for Effective Philanthropy have published a number. But to figure out what works and what doesn’t, let’s make sure we look to large-scale sets of data and analyses that cut across many organizations.

    Philanthropy has a growing body of rigorous research that can demonstrate how the common steps foundations take can be carried out in more or less successful ways. Let’s draw on those findings whenever we can.

    As philanthropists and foundation leaders seek to maximize their effectiveness, we would like to see a future in which there is more decision-making that is informed by rigorous thought and research—and less reliance on anecdotes alone. We would like to see a little more self-discipline and humility before something that worked in one context (or even a few) is offered up as the cure-all for all that ails us, philanthropically. We’d like to see a little more healthy skepticism.

    Maybe then, we would see fewer foundations doing what those early aspiring aviators did: climbing high, jumping, flapping, and crashing.