My posts proposing Four Core Approaches to Philanthropy have been mostly well received. My intent has simply been to establish the legitimacy of the four different approaches as being distinct from each other and each having the potential to be effective.
Paul Brest of Hewlett has confirmed that my description of Strategic Philanthropy is valid and distinct from Philanthropic Investing. Philanthropic Investing advocate George Overholser has backed my description and is the originator of the idea that there is a distinction between Philanthropic Investors and Charitable Givers. Holden Karnofsky of GiveWell has confirmed that he views his organization’s efforts as promoting effective Charitable Giving, which he views as distinct from Philanthropic Investing and Strategic Philanthropy (interestingly, talking with Holden made me realize that the distinction between Philanthropic Investing and Charitable Giving resolves much of the debate over the importance of performance vs. impact).
However, not everyone agrees that the four approaches represent truly distinct categories. Some questioning has come from the leaders of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), an organization of which I think extremely highly.
On Monday, I argued that each of the four distinct approaches can be a form of effective philanthropy. This was meant to refute what I believe is an incorrect view within the philanthropic field that Strategic Philanthropy is the only form of effective philanthropy. Almost any time I see “effective philanthropy” defined, the tenets of Strategic Philanthropy are used.
Responding to that post, Alyse d’Amico of CEP wrote the following:
“Interesting post, Sean. The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s board of directors and staff spent a good deal of time, during our recently completed planning process, coming up with a working definition of foundation effectiveness. We do see effectiveness as requiring a strategic approach.
This is what we came up with:
“We believe foundation effectiveness — and impact — require all of these mutually reinforcing basic elements:
(Sean’s note: I’ve selectively quoted her description of each point to focus on the most relevant area of debate. click here to read the whole thing):
- Clear goals
- Coherent strategies to achieve those goals
- Based on an analysis of the problem or issue, the social/historical context in which the problem or issue exists, the capacity of organizations working to address the problem or issue, costs and benefits of alternate strategies, and the potential pace of change
- Informed by input from organizations and individuals closest to the problem
- Rooted in a well-conceived theory of how the foundation’s efforts can lead to the desired change, why it is the best option, and, when possible, evidence that the strategy has worked elsewhere
- Disciplined implementation of those strategies
- Relevant performance indicators to assess progress”
Now a quick read of Alyse’s comment might see little to debate. As I wrote earlier, everyone trying to accomplish something (not just in philanthropy) should have a “strategy” (note the lower case), or a plan for accomplishing their goal. But the phrase Strategic Philanthropy doesn’t just mean philanthropy that is done according to a plan. It means an approach to philanthropy that positions the donor as a problem solver, not someone who just invests in nonprofits that are solving problems, not someone who just pays a nonprofit to execute their solutions, but someone who is actively engaging in engineering solutions.
The fact that Alyse disagrees with my conclusion that the four approaches are distinct and and each have the potential to be done effectively, lays bare the operating assumption that effective philanthropy is, and only is, Strategic Philanthropy (note that CEP itself is named the Center for Effective Philanthropy, but uses the tenets of Strategic Philanthropy to define “effectiveness”).
It is this common conflation of philanthropic effectiveness with Strategic Philanthropy that is driving me to write these posts.
Now none of this is meant to disparage the work of CEP. As I wrote earlier, I think very highly of the organization and am a big fan of their research. My point is just that their work is geared towards defining and implementing effective Strategic Philanthropy. But by conflating the two concepts, we ignore the fact that a Charitable Buyer can be highly effective in choosing which nonprofits to pay to execute their programs without having to have engineered a theory of change. We ignore the fact that a Philanthropic Investor can be highly effective through a process of selecting high performing nonprofits to supply with growth capital, without needing to view themselves as problem solvers.
As CEP’s definition of effectiveness makes clear, they view the focus of attention for the effective philanthropist should be analyzing social problems and implementing strategies to solve those problems.
But for Charitable Givers, the focus of attention (as we see, for example, from GiveWell’s material describing themselves) should be on the cost effectives of grantee level impact. How much bang for their buck a donor can expect.
For Philanthropic Investors, the focus of attention (as we see, for example, from New Profit’s material describing themselves) should be on organizational analysis and and the ability for new growth capital to be used to grow the nonprofit enterprise.
At the risk of being repetitive, I am not arguing that theses approaches are mutually exclusive or that they should be pursued only in a pure form. Instead, I simply put forward the idea that Strategic Philanthropy is not the only form of effective philanthropy and in fact all four approaches are mutually dependent on the effective execution of the other forms occurring within the ecosystem in which they are operating.
Unlike a formal white paper, these posts I’ve been writing are all first draft material. I greatly encourage you to challenge my thinking on this topic, because doing so can help me refine the way I’m describing the approaches, decide to toss the framework in the dustbin if it isn’t valid, or possible write up a formal paper on the topic at some point in the future if I’m able to establish the robustness of the framework.