The Philanthropy Compass, Next Steps

When I first spoke with Peter Frumkin about the concept of the Philanthropy Compass, he said be didn’t know what the axes should be and that it would take years of research to figure out. I was somewhat dismissive of the complexity involved at the time, but I think he’s probably right.

In hashing out the various axes with readers it has become clear that while we’re tapping into some important themes, it will likely require a lot more thought as well as test driving the compass with donors over and over to figure out what works. The “data” collected from getting reader input makes clear just how differently people think about the role of philanthropy. I think that a beta version of the Philanthropy Compass could be used with sets of donors and refined until a set of axis was discovered that resulted in donors falling predictably into patterns that made sense.

This thought experiment was kick started by reader Matt Lee, formerly of Bridgespan and now a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School. Matt has expressed interest in working to refine the Philanthropy Compass model and potentially building out a functioning compass. If that happens, I’ll bring the results back to the Tactical Philanthropy community.

However, I do think that the conversations about the Compass confirmed a very important point. Often, when we talk about effective philanthropy, we talk about the concept in the absence of the beliefs and values that drive philanthropy. Shortly after I first wrote about the Philanthropy Compass I noted a tweet by Michael Edwards, whose debates with Matthew Bishop about the merits of Philanthrocapitalism were one of the inspirations behind the Compass (because it seemed to me that while their debate focused on practical issues, the real debate was about the proper role of philanthropy).

Michael wrote (not referring to the Compass):

“Too many foundations invest in system maintenance or extension, instead of system transformation. That’s a waste of philanthropic resources.”

To understand that statement, you have to understand Michael’s beliefs about the role of philanthropy in relation to the economic and social system. Any debate that focuses instead on “what works” is besides the point. Michael’s statement isn’t true or false, it is the statement of a belief about the role of philanthropy. Clarifying these beliefs is critical so that those of us who care about effective philanthropy can better understand each other and disentangle objective discussions about practices from subjective discussions about beliefs.