The Philanthropy Compass Version One

First, a thank you to the many readers who engaged with me on the Philanthropy Compass concept. Your feedback helped to greatly refine the intellectual underpinnings of the idea.

Now I’m going to take a first stab at what a Philanthropy Compass might look like. We can keep hashing this out and then I’d like to take a shot at building a questionnaire meant to locate donors on the compass.


The left-right axis is built around the idea that philanthropy’s role in relation to the economy is either:

  • Giving Back: The belief that either 1) the economic system distributes resources unfairly and so beneficiaries of excess resources have a moral obligation to “give back” to those people who receive less than they deserve or 2) while the economic system may distribute resources fairly, those people who reap great rewards have benefited from the social infrastructure and have a moral obligation to give back in ways that strengthen that infrastructure.
  • Value Creation: The belief that philanthropy runs parallel to the economic system and is meant to focus on the creation of social value rather than as a corrective or reinforcing mechanism for the economic system.

The up-down axis is built around the idea that philanthropy’s role in relation to the social system is either:

  • Responsive: The belief that philanthropy should be deployed to help improve the existing social system.
  • Transformational: The belief that philanthropy should focus on changing the existing social system in fundamental ways.

The Political Compass takes the traditional Left-Right spectrum and splits it into one axis based on government’s role in the economy and another on its role in regards to social behavior. The Philanthropy Compass takes a Corrective-Creative spectrum and splits it into one axis based on philanthropy’s relationship with the economic system and another on its relationship to the social system.

I’ll offer a narrative description of the quadrants A-D, but first I’d like to hear any push back from readers, refinements or suggestions.


  1. Beth Ann Locke says:

    Sean – I went back to re-read your earlier comments in light of your current thinking around the two axis. I think this could be a great tool for fundraisers (or advisors) to use with donors when getting them to think about the bigger ideas. As donors move from “making donations” to thinking about impact giving (and the like) this sort of tool can help them shape their giving – and could be very helpful for those who are passing their philanthropic values to their children and/or grandchildren. These are very good questions to ponder when considering which values are important to you, as a donor/investor, and can continue some interesting and fruitful conversations. I really enjoy your thinking on this and other subjects.

    • Thanks Beth! It occurs to me reading your comment that if my axes work, then you should be able to overlay donor-types (such as those profiled in the Seven Faces of Philanthropy or the Money for Good Report) on the Compass and have them “fit”.

  2. Mmm…the “Giving Back” vs. “Value Creation” dichotomy doesn’t work for me. I could easily imagine donors who believe in creating social value in parallel with the economic system for pragmatic reasons but still hold philosophical views that are better described by the statements under “Giving Back.” I prefer either “Value Creation/Value Distribution” or “Giving Back/Reaching Out.” Mixing the metaphors is confusing in this case, because, while you are interpreting the two in a way that is compatible, the broader connotations of the terms point in different directions. Giving Back/Reaching Out evokes the personal feelings of the donor about how he or she would like to relate to the world, whereas Creation/Distribution suggests more of an intellectual/philosophical framework for the way the world works.

    • That makes sense. Then for me the better axis would be Value Creation/Value Distribution, because I see “giving back” being a moral response based on a belief about the need for a more just distribution.

  3. Nick Perks says:

    Hi – just come across this and it’s a really fascinating discussion; as an earlier post said, just getting people thinking about a landscape of approaches rather than a ‘next big thing’ mentality is great. That said, I think the axes that you have settled on are rather too influenced by the discourse around social entreprenuership / philanthrocapitalism (i.e. that the dominant reference point of both axes is the the economic system which is in itself only one way of seeing the world) which, despite all the noise about it is only a fairly small part of the philanthropy landscape.

    To get more specific, I think the up-down axis concept works, but that ‘ameliorative’ would be a better label than ‘responsive’ (as the term ‘responsive is often used – at least in the UK – to indicate foundations that accept unsolicited applications).

    I don’t think Giving Back / Value Creation works – as Ian says they are not really opposites, which is what is needed for an effective matrix. Thinking about times when I’ve found myself spotting fundamental differences between philanthropists, I’d favour “control vs trust” as suggested earlier. I think this is quite a fundamental distinction – does the money / power that philanthropy has give it legitimacy and authority to shape and dictate, or is philanthropy about strengthening the hands of others who have passion / expertise / need?

    • Thanks Nick. The Control vs Trust axis is a popular idea and as a general concept, I think it is an important debate. But it seems to me that it is less about a belief and more about a tactic. In other words, the debate around control vs trust is more often focused on which works better, rather than a fundamental debate about with one is the appropriate role for philanthropy.

      Interesting point about the philanthrocapitalism influence. That’s probably accurate. Can you suggest an axis that would be important that is free from the influence you cite?

      Thanks for the tip on the UK concept of responsive.

  4. Barry Varela says:

    Hi Sean,

    I’ve continued to think on this problem, and while I haven’t come to any grand insights, a couple of stray neurons have lit up, to wit:

    One thing you’ll notice about the Political Compass that makes it useful is that it divides most* of what government does into two neat categories, which are basically Economic Involvement and Social Involvement. It then takes these two Things That Government Can Do and simply asks, for each of them, “Do you want a lot or do you want a little?”

    Your proposed Philanthropy Compass doesn’t work that way. You’ve split philanthropy into Social v. Economic, but rather than ask “Less or more?” for each axis, you’ve asked questions along a Creative-Corrective scale. That scale would seem to assume that the answer to the “Less or more?” question is always “More,” and now it’s just a matter of means (To create or to correct?). But wouldn’t some people say they’re simply not interested in Social philanthropy or Economic philanthropy—that they’re interested neither in correcting nor in creating, at least in one of the two domains? Where would those people be placed in your compass?

    The beauty of the Political Compass is that, regardless of one’s politics, there’s a place for you in it. No one doesn’t fit in, due to the nature of the less-or-more scales on the axes.

    The Philanthropy Compass should be constructed out of categories that are comprehensive in their embrace yet mutually exclusive; each category is then made into an axis, with a scale of “Less or more?”

    I’m tempted to suggest that the two axes should be Responsive and Transformational. Those are two comprehensive, sort-of mutually exclusive categories that represent Things That Philanthropy Can Do.

    But how useful is it to ask of each,”Less or more?”

    There may be some distribution along the Transformational axis—some people really don’t want the status quo to change, and would even be willing to say so. But there probably aren’t that many who would say so. Even most conservatives, who by definition are in favor of conserving the status quo, are going to say they’re in favor of transformational change in the areas they choose to fund—education, for instance.

    Even more so, who isn’t for more Responsive philanthropy?

    Therefore most people would wind up in the upper right-hand corner: more Transformation AND more Responsiveness.

    Now, it may be impossible, given limited resources, for philanthropy to be both more Transformational and more Responsive, but there’d be nothing in a Compass that would prevent people from taking that position.

    So as a tool to help people figure out their own beliefs around philanthropy, I’m not sure a Responsive/Transformational compass would be very useful.

    Likewise, a Grassroot/Elites compass would have the same problem. Sure, people have beliefs about which approach is more likely to produce results, but who would be positively against influencing the less-likely group? Other things being equal, wouldn’t everyone want to influence both the Grassroots and the Elites?

    In Peter Frumkin’s book “Strategic Giving,” he presents a sort of Philanthropic Compass (p. 158) that divides philanthropy into two “values,” Instrumental and Expressive, each with a scale of low to high.

    The four quadrants are Private Value (low instrumental, high expressive), Charitable Value (low instrumental, low expressive), Public Value (high instrumental, low expressive), and Strategic Philanthropic Value (high instrumental, low expressive).


    However, as you pointed out in your reply to one of my earlier comments, when I suggested an Intrinsic/Extrinsic axis, there are certain value judgements embedded in Frumkin’s Compass: the upper-right corner, called Strategic Philanthropic Value, is obviously the best one to be in, while the whole left side (low instrumental) is inferior to the right side, with the upper left (Private Value) worse even than the lower left (Charitable Value).

    Frumkin describes Private Value as “giving . . . infused with donor values and passions . . . directed at a purpose that neither the community nor the donor can reasonably argue is urgent or important.” Given that description, who would want to be known as a Private Value giver?

    (Note that Frumkin was trying to describe reality, not design a tool that would help givers clarity their thinking.)

    Hmmm. . . .

    In any event, I’ll keep on cogitatin’ and try to come up with some more helpful remarks. . . .

    *By the way, a weakness of the Political Compass is that what’s missing from that “most” is really pretty significant. There should be a third axis, which would represent Interventionism (Less or more?), with Isolationist at one end and Empire Building at the other. This axis would enable the separation of Neoconservatives (low economic involvement, high social involvement, high interventionism, represented by the “National Review”) from Paleoconservatives (low econ, high social, low interventionism, represented by “The American Conservative”), and Liberal Hawks (high econ, low social, high interventionism, represented by the “New Republic”) from Dirty F—ing Hippies (high econ, low social, low interventionism, represented by “Mother Jones”). (I’m being ironic with the Dirty F—ing Hippies, btw—actually they should be known as People Who Have Been Right About Everything For Going On a Decade Now.)

    • Hi Barry,
      Very thoughtful comment! I had been thinking that less-more doesn’t make sense within the philanthropy context which is why I substituted corrective-creation. A political anarchistic can rationale believe in limited government. But philanthropy is a voluntary action for the public benefit. Does it make sense to think about “limited philanthropy”?

  5. Hi Sean – I won’t try to improve on Barry’s thoughtful cogitation, but just ask the question for future consideration: how does this play out in an international context? Are there different Philanthropy Compasses for different economic systems? I’ve been blogging about the concept of “varieties of capitalism” from political economy, and wondered if there might be similar “varieties of philanthropy,” which would bear on international versions of the compass. Would love to follow up with you on this offline.

    • I would think that the “correct the system” vs create additional value would be the same across economic systems. But of course a capitalist philanthropist might be a value creator in a free market system, but believe in a corrective approach if operating under communism.

  6. Sean,

    I think that many of the elements that you raise as part of the proposed compass are core to donor giving…but that, more than a new framework, I think that we need help in applying existing frameworks to enhance donor engagement efforts across the sector. As you know, our Money for Good research established six donor segments, derived from a 4,000 person nationwide survey, about a year ago. The Money for Good donor segmentation provides a very strong, fact based segmentation for understanding what motivates donors’ giving.

    This said, the Philanthropy Compass is clearly aimed (no pun…) at providing donors and their advisors a tool for thinking about how to engage in philanthropy. That’s a slightly different, more values based framework than the six segments, which describe donors’ motivations for giving but don’t explore underlying values explicitly. There may be potential here, I think that the Compass is a good start, but I do think that new frameworks (this or otherwise) are useful only to the extent that they’re radically better than existing alternatives.

    • Jacob M says:

      I think you’re pointing out an important difference in methodologies. A segmentation analysis is more of a snapshot about where people fall at a given point in time. If you were to survey people 5 or 10 years from now (or 5 or 10 years ago), it’s at least conceivable that some of those segments might change. Going back to our reference example as an illustration, if you imagined drawing shapes that represented the views of the main political parties on the two axes of the political compass, those shapes would look much different in 2000 than today – probably far less overlap.

      I think the point of the compass is to provide a more framework for the range of possible motivations, which segmentation almost by definition fails to do. That said, a compass without any sense of reality (preferably via some data collection like your firm’s survey) is a nice academic exercise, but not especially useful. But when you put the two together you actually can get a real feeling for how a landscape is changing, especially over time.

      -Jacob M

    • Thanks for the note Hope. Like Jacob M, I see your work as serving a different purpose than what I’m driving at. The point of the Compass is to help people understand their own philanthropy. The point of your work, as I understand it, is for the field to understand the motives of donors.

      One of the key points I’ve made is that all points on the compass must be positively represented and described in a way that people who end up located there embrace the description. Labels like “repayer” or “see the difference” from your report are very useful to people who are targeting donors/impact investors or to people trying to understand the field. But I don’t think many donors would identify with the labels.