Has Anything Really Changed in Philanthropy?

Tactical Philanthropy is currently covering the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Phil Buchanan of The Center for Effective Philanthropy.

By Phil Buchanan

The first Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) conference I attended was in Washington, D.C., in 2002.  It was tough to get in: GEO wouldn’t let me register because I was the executive director of a tiny (four staff) organization that no one had ever heard of  – the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP). I said, “Come on, we share a middle name.  We’re practically related!”  But they weren’t having it. 

So, with a little help from Vince Stehle, then program officer at the Surdna Foundation (one of CEP’s initial funders), I registered as if I worked for Surdna and showed up.  Vince hosted a breakfast roundtable to discuss CEP’s first report, on overall foundation performance assessment, and I was thrilled when we had to pull two tables together because 17 people showed up.

Fast-forward to the eve of the GEO conference in 2010 and allow me to switch – as my 9-year old daughter often does when she writes – to the second person and say this: you are expecting me now to discuss “how much has changed” when it comes to funder effectiveness and assessment since that conference almost a decade ago.  And, I will, but it’s not quite so simple.

Fact is, I think we tend, in philanthropy (and maybe in life), to overlook historical examples and proclaim that something is “new” when it is really only new to us. 

The media, and even those within philanthropy, often speak as if the focus on impact, outcomes, measurable results – whatever we call it – is brand new when, of course, it is not.  As Ed Skloot, now of Duke University, has noted, “Our earliest American philanthropic ancestors—John D. Rockefeller, Margaret Olivia Sage . . . , Andrew Carnegie — bequeathed a kind of courage and determination to us, a confidence we can take on large-scale problems with deeply rooted causes.”  Bill Schambra, of the Hudson Institute, also argues – although for him, unlike Skloot, it is a lament –  that the “mania to measure” goes back to the “first days” of the Rockefeller Foundation.

So, let’s not pretend that, just because our friends at McKinsey have launched a Web site focused on impact assessment, the concept was invented yesterday.  But, at the same time, it’s clear there has been dramatic change over the last decade in philanthropy.  New donors have brought new ideas, new and creative approaches, and new energy to the table. Numerous organizations that were either fledgling or non-existent a decade ago are now providing crucial data on nonprofits to funders:  Guidestar, Charity Navigator, Philanthropedia, Great Nonprofits.  And the list goes on.  And then there are the organizations focused on funder effectiveness:  GEO, GrantCraft, CEP.

But are funders operating more effectively?  Are they achieving more impact?  We at CEP see real signs of hope  – funders making clear their goals, strategies, and performance indicators; funders getting – and acting on – feedback from crucial stakeholders, from grantees to intended beneficiaries; boards really holding CEOs accountable for performance.  I can point to some inspiring examples of present-day foundation effectiveness and impact, from the Stuart Foundation’s Child Welfare Program to the Wilburforce Foundation’s work protecting wildlife habitat to the Gill Foundation’s work on gay rights to the groundbreaking and much-discussed work of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.  And we at CEP have some new data we’ve been analyzing that will suggest some movement in the right direction. But, quite frankly, the movement is less dramatic than many of us would hope.

The reality is that there are still far too many staffed foundations doing significant (in dollars) grantmaking that aren’t even clear on what, exactly, they’re trying to do, much less how they’ll do it or how they’ll know if they’ve been successful.  So, my question is, how much really has changed since that conference in 2002?  In my less optimistic moments, I wonder: is it possible that there has always been a subset of foundations that really care about effectiveness and impact and that their proportion of the overall number of foundations hasn’t changed much since the early days of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Sage – even as the resources available to help them have grown and improved?  (A related question: how common is it that the very same foundation goes through periods of being highly effective –with clear goals, coherent strategies, and good performance indicators – and then other periods of being unfocused and adrift? I have seen many examples of this, suggesting that it’s not about “new” philanthropy or “old” philanthropy but rather “effective” philanthropy.)

My fundamental question is, how much change, really, has there been? Today, we can’t really answer that question as definitively as I would hope.  I’d be curious to know what others think.

(Disclosure: The foundations I mention above are among the more than 200 we have either provided assessment tools to or received funding from – and the former CEO of Edna McConnell Clark sits on our Board of Directors.)


  1. I have such respect for small foundations and individual donors who go with their gut to do good. I think there is still room for the many “charitable bankers” (CEP term) who use common sense to decide to fund programs like afterschool services.

  2. I agree Stephanie. When CEP first used the term “charitable bankers” I wrote a post titled Charitable Bankers, Total Strategists, Britney Spears and Kevin Smith in which I defended charitable bankers.

  3. I don’t think charitable bankers are at any risk of becoming an endangered species. And I fully support their right to be charitable bankers.

    The question is, particularly for larger foundations, would we be better served — in terms of impact on people, communities, and fields — by more foundations that have clear goals, coherent strategies, and relevant performance indicators? All the most compelling examples I know of real impact share these characteristics.

    We’re at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference. What is effectiveness if not this?