The Philanthropy Compass: Mapping Donor Beliefs

A few weeks ago, I laid out a framework for thinking about the various roles that donors can play; philanthropic investors, charitable buyers and strategic philanthropists. The framework was meant to focus on the functional roles available to donors and to help link these roles to donor behaviors.

But what about the role of philanthropy as a whole within society? A philanthropic investor might fund organizations that seek to create value using market driven solutions while another may fund organizations that view the market as the cause of social problems and seek to correct for its excesses. Is there a framework we can develop that helps us understand this difference and shed light on the various ways that donors view the role of philanthropy? This framework would need to holistically describe the values behind giving, without regard to issue area.

During the debates about Philanthrocapitalism between Matthew Bishop and Michael Edwards, I observed that the two men had fundamentally different world views which rendered their debate impossible to resolve. Edwards seems to view the market and capitalism as the root cause of social problems while Bishop views the market and capitalism as the force most responsible for increasing standards of living. It is therefore not surprising that Edwards sees adapting the tools of the market to philanthropy (what Bishop calls Philanthrocapitalism) as a terribly idea while Bishop sees the trend as fantastic news.

In the political sphere, the terms Right and Left are used in an attempt to describe what is believed to be two prevailing views of the role of government in society. But this shorthand framework fails to capture the differences between libertarians who believe in lower taxes as well as limited regulation of social behavior and conservatives who believe in lower taxes but an expansive role for government in regulating social behavior. It similarly fails to differentiate on the Left between Joseph Stalin and Mahatma Gandhi. In an attempt to build a better model of the beliefs around the role of government, The Political Compass has been created.

The Political Compass creates a two-axis grid that allows a given political view to be charted on a spectrum of economic and social thought rather than a simple Left-Right.


In this case, political belief A believes in a limited role for the government in regulating the economy, but a expansive role in regulating social behavior. Belief B believes in limited government roles in both the economy and regulation of social behavior. Belief C is for a limited social role, but an expansive economic role. Belief D believes the government should have an expansive role in regulating both the economy and social behavior.

Might we create a similar compass for philanthropy that describes the various beliefs that donors have about the role of philanthropy in society?

I first considered this idea during a conversation with Peter Frumkin during which I posited that the appropriate axes might be Optimization-Transformation and Creation-Distribution. My thought was that philanthropy can be seen as a tool to make the current social system work as well as possible (Optimization) or as a tool to create a new social system (Transformation). A separate, uncorrelated axis would look at philanthropy’s working relationship with the market economy. A donor might believe that role is to enhance the market by creating social value (Creation) or they might believe the role is to correct for the excesses of the market by focusing on how social value is distributed (Distribution).

This loose framework led to the Tactical Philanthropy Forum debate titled Unconstrained Philanthropy in which we discussed whether donors and funders should see their role as one of correcting and optimizing existing social systems or if they have an opportunity to remake the social fabric.

However, I was never convinced that these axes holistically captured the full range of various viewpoints.

In recent days I’ve been discussing this topic with reader Matt Lee, formerly of Bridgespan and now a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School. We’ve gone back and forth a bit on the general framework and agreed that the Political Compass works because rather than focusing on specific issue areas, it maps out beliefs about the overall role of government in the economy and society. We think the same should be true of a Philanthropy Compass.

The Political Compass allows users to answer a series of questions about their beliefs and then locates them on the compass. Public statements by politicians have been used to answer the questionnaire and thereby locate public personalities on the compass as well. A strong Philanthropy Compass framework should allow for a similar process and Matt has expressed interest in working with colleagues at Harvard to build a functional Philanthropy Compass tool if we can figure out the best axes to use.

So now I open the floor to you. What axis can be combined to best capture the huge, multifaceted set of values that drive philanthropic behavior? The only requirement is that the two axes describe a set of beliefs about the role of philanthropy and that when combined a large majority of donor behavior can be logical explained by the donor’s position on the Compass.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section!


  1. Al Huntoon says:

    Another way t look at it is to think about donors’ motivations for what is essentially an ethical act – are they acting from an ontological framework or a utilitarian/consequentiaist framework. I would suggest that both the Optimization-Transformation and Creation-Distribution are utilitarian/consequentiaist perspectives. That being the case I would guess you are a utilitarian.

  2. David Lynn says:

    I’d go simple on my back of the napkin:

    Drive-Support: Do you push your own agenda, or do you look for missions to support?

    Aid-Solve: Do you donate to help those in need (provide care for homeless) or do you focus on root cause problems (eliminate homelessness)

  3. Thanks Sean, I think this is useful, but I’m not sure where it is heading in operational terms. It’s impossible to represent all the various dimensions on one diagram (maybe a cube would be better – as IDS Sussex have done to represent different elements of power) and people will always disagree on which are most important and where they place themselves – that’s part of the reality of very diverse views and voices that you are pointing to. I would add “control vs trust” and “process vs product” to your list, and we could have a lot of fun debating lots of others. But I think the real value of an exercise like this doesn’t lie in agreeing on “the model,” but in pointing to the need for an ecosystem of funding options and avenues to match the ecosystems of civil society and social need, rather than the one-size-fits all approach or “my approach is best” kind of thinking that has dominated philanthropy over the last few years. I think that is an incredibly important point to make. If more and more people accepted it, we could transform the conversation about philanthropy completely to the benefit of those we are trying to serve.

  4. Thanks David, Michael and Al.

    One of the axes suggested by Matt Lee was: “empowering beneficiaries vs. providing care for beneficiaries”.

    My sense is that we need to distinguish between beliefs and strategies. Is Matt’s axis about a strategy for success or a donor belief? I can see it both ways.

    When we talk about beliefs, I mean beliefs about the role of philanthropy, not beliefs about certain social issues.

    How do you see each of your own suggestions within this dynamic? Is control vs trust a belief about the role of philanthropy or a strategy to create impact or something else?

    Truly thinking out loud here. I’m not sure my suggestions for axes make sense.

  5. Barry Varela says:

    Hi Sean,

    Thanks for tossing up an interesting question for us to bat around.

    When you ask for suggestions for axes relating to the “values that drive philanthropy,” it sounds like you’re asking about motivation (why give?) rather than strategic or tactical approach (how to give?). Anyway that’s how I’m taking the question, so let me suggest:

    The horizontal axis might be Intrinsic Reward (self esteem, feeling of belonging, guilt reduction) v. Extrinsic Reward (tax avoidance, public recognition, thank-you letters). That’s pretty self-explanatory so I won’t elaborate.

    The vertical axis might be Giving Back v. Reaching Out. By Giving Back, I refer to the sort of giving that’s motivated by gratitude and is directed toward recipients with whom the giver identifies. A classic case might be giving to one’s alma mater. By Reaching Out, I refer to the sort of giving that’s motivated by the broadest definition of philia (brotherly love)—that is, empathy with recipients who are decidedly different from the giver. A case might be donating to a relief agency working in a distant land, among people whom the donor has no connection to and will never see.

    The quadrants, with examples of a typical gift, would be:

    Intrinsic Reward/Giving Back: Donation to the local Boy Scout troop by a former Boy Scout.

    Extrinsic Reward/Giving Back: Donation that earns a plaque on the wall of one’s alma mater.

    Intrinsic Reward/Reaching Out: Donation to Haiti relief.

    Extrinsic Reward/Reaching Out: NFL players agreeing to wear pink cleats in order to raise awareness of breast cancer and generate good p.r. for the league.

    There are probably few donors who are in the extreme corner of the Extrinsic Reward/Reaching Out quadrant. (Just as, in the case of the political compass, there are few Americans who are extreme Left Authoritarians.)

    • Thanks Barry, this is helpful. I think the giving back vs reaching out is promising. You could even define giving back more broadly and talk about the idea that philanthropy is about “giving back that which you have been given” (a classic view of philanthropy) vs “using your money to do good” (which places to value judgement around any obligation to give back.

      I’m not so sure about the intrinsic vs extrinsic. One of the things about the Political Compass is that once located on the map, most people won’t protest their location. Free Market Libertarian isn’t an insult to a Free Market Libertarian. While I think a lot of giving is about extrinsic motivation, I doubt many people would proudly wear the label of a “Extrinsic Reward Philanthropist”!

  6. Al Huntoon says:


    I think you are on the right track to try and distinguish between beliefs and strategies. In my experience and worldview – assumptions drive values/beliefs which drive principles which drive strategies. I think its also important to distinguish individual givers from organizational funders because individuals and organizations have different decision making processes.

    However, I am also wondering about using the Political Compass as a model. It works because it gauges what people think the government should or should not do; that’s fairly abstract. There is a big difference between that and assessing what an individual thinks about why they want to or should give and/or what they expect/want to happen if they give; that is pretty personal.

    • You bring up a good point Al. That’s why I’m focusing on the “what role should philanthropy” play concept. The Political Model uses issue area beliefs to map you, but the map itself is about the role you think government should play.

      It might be very personal whether you want to fund a pro-life or pro-choice group, but both donors may share a belief that it is the role of philanthropy to support the creation of a just society while both donors may believe in limited government.

      • Al Huntoon says:

        What I meant to suggest is not a question of what one would choose to support with their charitable contribution but why one would to support anything at all. For example when people give to their religious community, especially when they tithe, I think most people primarily do so out of a sense of duty, it’s just the right thing to do. What they are trying to accomplish is discharging their moral obligation. I believe that many people give to charitable causes feeling a sense of duty and by giving money they are delegating their moral responsibility to the charity; the act of giving itself is primary. Other people are trying to achieve an end, they are interested in outcomes – Optimization-Transformation and Creation-Distribution and the like.

        the personal part is that is is very easy to express a viewpoint on what the government ought to do, people have a much harder time saying why they do what they themselves do.

        • Great point Al. I think the “discharge moral obligation” vs “trying to do go for its own sake” is a relevant axis. In fact, I think movement along that axis is one of the most important things happening in philanthropy today. Traditionally philanthropy has been understood as “giving back”. Carnegie said that it was morally unacceptable for the rich to not give back. But it seems that people like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Case and others do not feel that they’ve “taken something” that must be “given back”, but rather that they seek to use their money for social good because they seek to create value.

          So maybe Moral-Impact might be an axis? This same sort of thing is what I was trying to get at with Creation-Distribution, in that Moralists feel that wealth is distributed unfairly so that it must be “given back” whereas the Creationists (better find a different name!) are more interested in social value creation rather than giving back.


          • Al Huntoon says:

            That’s a little different than what I was trying to get at but I like it a lot. The terminology might need to be tweaked a bit (but I think that is secondary). Everybody is operating out of some moral imperative so I think the difference might be Giving Back vs. Looking Forward or maybe Charity vs. Investment. As you’ve observed, wealth redistribution is a traditional rational for giving (at least for rich folks) and has to do with the duty of giving to a good cause as much as anything – giving back. I think that still holds true for many people. Then there is what seems to be a tidal wave of interest in impact investing, and it seems to me there is a design element to this type of philanthropy (which shouldn’t be at all surprising given the involvement of people like Jobs, Case and Zuckerberg). So that continuum, whatever you choose to call it, gets my vote for an axis.

  7. Amie Dillon says:

    I love this idea.

    I’m finding it really difficult to imagine a philanthropy compass that is independent of a political compass. My own beliefs about the role of philanthropy in society (which change all the time) are totally bound up with my beliefs about the role of government. I’m pretty sure my place on the compass would vary, depending on whether I answered the questions in terms of my ideal system or the existing system in which philanthropy currently operates.

    • Interesting answer! Your comment about “answering in terms of your ideal system vs the existing system” seems to place you on the Transformation side of the Transformation-Optimization axis I suggested. If you are located there you might assume everyone wants to transform the current system, but people on the Optimization end of the axis might well feel that 1) it is arrogant of an individual philanthropist to think they can subvert the democratic process and change the system on their own or 2) systems change is way beyond the scope of philanthropy and therefore a waste of money to try.

      On the differences between the political and philanthropy compass. I would guess that your core values will influence your political and philanthropic issue areas of interest. That’s why I’m trying to get at the question about your beliefs about the role of philanthropy rather than the issue areas you care about.

      If you are on the Libertarian end of the Authoritarian-Libertarian Political Compass you might believe that the government should have no role in providing a social support system and that indeed that responsibility lays with philanthropy.

      • Amie Dillon says:

        My head is spinning, but it’s seeming like the optimization-transformation (or transactional-transformational) axis could reflect two different beliefs: 1) whether or not I believe systemic change is the key to advancing social progress, and 2) whether or not I believe philanthropy is the right means through which systemic change is achieved. Say I’m a big government, tax-and-spend liberal. I say yes to 1 and no to 2, because I think it’s the responsibility of government to provide for social welfare. Does that stick me at the optimization end of the axis?

        • Yes, well put. If philanthropy is about social progress, then a view of systems change vs incremental change could be important. I guess that’s also a core progressive-conservative difference. But very different from liberal-republican.

  8. Paul Brest says:

    Maybe this fits, maybe not. But here’s another set of coordinates that focus on different attitudes on risk:

    “Associated most famously with the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas and political scientist Aaron Wildavsky, the cultural theory of risk links disputes over environmental and technological risks to clusters of values that form competing cultural worldviews — egalitarian, individualistic, and hierarchical. Egalitarians, on this account, are naturally sensitive to environmental hazards, the abatement of which justifies regulating commercial activities that produce social inequality. Individualists, in contrast, predictably dismiss claims of environmental risk as specious, in line with their commitment to the autonomy of markets and other private orderings. Hierarchists are similarly skeptical because they perceive warnings of imminent environmental catastrophe as threatening the competence of social and governmental elites. ”

    Dan M. Kahan, Paul Slovic, Donald Braman, and John Gastil, Fear of Democracy: A Cultural Evaluation of Sunstein on Risk , 119 Harv. L. Rev. 1071 (2006).

    • Very interesting. What your comment suggests is that we can better understand why people have certain issue area beliefs if we understand their beliefs at a broader level. That’s my intent here.

      Libertarians often come across as unpredictable in the political sphere because we’re use to a Left-Right single axis spectrum where we assume that a belief in a free market should also go along with conservative social values. The Political Compass untangles Liberal-Conservative economic and social values and allows for a better understanding of people’s beliefs.

      This is what I’m attempting to do with the Philanthropy Compass. Why do Michael Edwards and Matthew Bishop disagree about philanthrocapitalism. It isn’t that one is conservative and the other liberal, so then what are the core beliefs that drive the difference?

      Might Egalitarian-Individualist be an axis? Are microfinance supports philanthropic individualists who believe that all efforts to help should be about empowering the individual? That’s quite a different point of view than an Egalitarian who might believe that the key is to support the social safety net.

  9. It is an interesting set of questions that emerge. I’m not sure that a two dimensional compass is the right metaphor as traditional social policy analysis talks of three dimensions: the provisions, the financing choices and the delivery system. I have found this framework useful in the philanthropic realm as choices along each of these three axes can and will change outcomes.

    Another potential framework looks at the transactional-transformational axis. Does the philanthropist select transactional (but nevertheless, valuable) choices or does (s)he seek to transform an area. Thank you, as always, for stretching our thinking.

    • Thanks Jeff. I think the three vs. two dimensions idea is valid and could be adopted by the model. Michael Edwards suggested something similar. The point of a model of course is to simply a complex system, but certainly three dimensions is practicable.

      Your transactional vs. transformational is what I was trying to get at with my optimization vs. transformation, but your axis labels are better.

  10. Noah Flower says:

    It’s a fascinating question you raise, Sean. As many have mentioned above, it cuts right to the heart of human nature. Have you seen the World Values Survey data? It’s been used to develop a map of cultural values worldwide: I think there can be no doubt that we’ll see more varieties of socio-politico-cultural value systems informing philanthropy as more populations around the world join the HNWI class.

  11. Thanks to all of you for commenting on this tread. I’ve posted a summary of our discussion and tried to advance to the next stage of designing the Compass/Cube. I’d love your continued feedback!

  12. Great to see the idea of mapping discussed. Have you looked at the way the Foundation Center is mapping philanthropic giving?

    I’d like to find support for efforts that map where philanthropic support (both kinds) is needed, such as the maps we show in this gallery.

    Then there could be an effort to add an overlay to the needs map showing the giving by foundations in these different areas, to the different organizations. With this we could begin to build an analysis of where the money flows based on where the need is greatest. Hopefully this would help guild transnational and investment donors in their efforts.

  13. I’ve just posted a first version of a Philanthropy Compass. I’d love to get your feedback.