What’s Deviant in Philanthropy?

In response to my posts about Deviant Philanthropy, Paul Brest, president of the Hewlett Foundation left a comment:

“I agree with the premises of Sean’s post on deviant philanthropy, but I’m confused about what he thinks constitutes mainstream and deviance. My guess is that most WRITING about philanthropy in the past decade has advocated for “strategic” philanthropy, from which Bill Somerville and Bill Schambra are “deviants.” But if you look at the actual PRACTICE of philanthropy, whether in terms of numbers of foundations or dollars granted, Somerville and Schambra are completely in the mainstream, and strategic philanthropy is deviant. As an advocate for strategic philanthropy, I certainly hope that it becomes mainstream–but that hope is a long way from being realized.”

Is strategic philanthropy, the central tenet of large foundations, actually deviant behavior?

Paul’s brings up an important issue. If you think about deviance as a breaking of social norms (see my post here for an explanation of my use of the term), it is important to define whose social norms you are talking about.Deviant behavior in one context might be quite normal in another setting.

I write Tactical Philanthropy for an audience that consistence primarily of social sector professionals, engaged donors and other people who generally define the social norms within which the operate as the practices of leading social sector actors.

However, Paul is right to point out that while philanthropy’s commentariat might view the practices of large foundations as the social norm, strategic philanthropy and the other “best practices” of the field are in fact deviant when compared to the social norms of the bulk of philanthropy. For instance, research from the Center for Effective Philanthropy shows that while most foundations say they are strategic, only a minority display even the most rudimentary implementation of strategic practices.

My argument in the Deviant Philanthropy post was to suggest that there is too much orthodoxy in philanthropy’s social norms. Deviance, while always uncomfortable and often wrong, is an important element in creating robust systems that refuse to stagnate.

One of philanthropy’s great strengths is that our field is subject to so little outside influences. Individual philanthropic actors can make decisions without regard to short-term pressures for them to act differently. But this strength also means that our field is constantly at risk of succumbing to inertia. We are constantly at risk of getting comfortable in our social norms and forgetting to constantly strive to move forward.

Given philanthropy’s freedom from outside pressures, it is incumbent on our field to encourage and embrace deviance as a self-imposed pressure on our assumptions.