The Value of Mapping Philanthropic Beliefs

One of my readers asked me via email what exactly would be the value of a Philanthropy Compass. Before going further in designing the framework, I thought I should answer this question.

Philanthropy is in the most general terms about “doing good”. But it is about specific type of good. While government is “public action for the public good”, and for-profit activity is “private action for private good”, philanthropy is “private action for the public good”.

Debate is so strong in the public sector about the role of the government because the government takes action on behalf of the public for the benefit of the public. So everyone has an opinion about the role that government should play.

In the philanthropic sector, while activity is meant to benefit the public, the actions are taken by private individuals and so there is (mostly) a limited debate about the best role for philanthropy to play. It isn’t exactly good form to debate someone who has taken a voluntary action with the intent of benefiting others.

The point of the Philanthropy Compass is to help frame the range of potential roles that philanthropy can play. Just as the Political Compass is not designed to pass judgment on the various potential roles, the Philanthropy Compass is meant to help us all understand the potential roles so that we might better form our own opinions about how philanthropy should be conducted.

Before you can really get into making a decision about how to act in a given situation, you need to understand your goals. Too often, the goal driving philanthropy is a sort of undifferentiated sense of “doing good”. But doing good, taking private action for the public good, is a nuanced, complicated endeavor. My hope is that the Philanthropy Compass can help donors better understand their own goals and motivations so that they can better take actions that are aligned with those goals.


  1. Hi Sean – yet another fascinating direction you’re taking the philanthropic dialogue in, thanks for advancing this conversation.

    My issue is with this statement: “It isn’t exactly good form to debate someone who has taken a voluntary action with the intent of benefiting others.” That may be true on an interpersonal level, but on a societal level, I think there’s plenty to be debated – particularly given where you fall on the Political Compass. On some parts of that compass, private action for public good, when it takes a certain position on what constitutes the public good (e.g., the Koch brothers), becomes problematic. This is not the same as questioning all private philanthropy, it’s a debate about where the appropriate line is between private and public action in a democracy, what the nature of accountability for private action directed at the public good is, etc., etc.

    Because the reality is, the two compasses are not parallel but interrelated. One’s views on the Political Compass shape one’s placement on the Philanthropy Compass – and even what the axes should be. So I think there’s more to be untangled there.

    • Matthew Lee says:


      Great comment, and I wanted to chime in here. Since Sean and I started talking about this idea, I’ve been struggling with this question of how the Philanthropy Compass and the Political Compass relate to each other. Your point made it suddenly very clear to me — someone’s Political Compass (view on the legitimate role of government) doesn’t necessarily precede their Philanthropy Compass (view on the legitimate role of private social action), nor vice versa. The two are complementary perspectives that co-exist in each of our minds as a coherent view of how the world should work.

      For the purposes of guiding philanthropic decision-making, I think the Philanthropy Compass is still be a useful standalone tool. The next step of unpacking the relationship between political and philanthropic views would benefit from some data. An interesting way forward would be to generate some responses to the Political Compass and some responses to the Philanthropy Compass for the same individuals, and see if positions on one correlate or cluster with positions on the other.

    • Yes, I should have written more precisely. There is of course debates about issue areas. However, I do think the level of this debate is often overstated. Much of impact focused philanthropy strives for similar things (better education, reducing poverty, etc) and debates are often about the best means to achieve shared goals (charter schools are debated, but there is a shared goal of improving education).

      Like Matt, I think that the two compasses are related, but distinct. The role of government, the role of the private sector and the role of philanthropy are all important questions for a society to wrestle with. I would view any given person’s belief about how the three should intersect to be a unique blend, rather than a more simple “if you believe X for the role of government, you must believe Y for the role of philanthropy.”

      • Gentlemen – thanks for the thoughtful comments. I wonder whether one compass precedes the other. In my first comment, I had thought about writing that the Political Compass precedes the Philanthropy Compass, but on reflection, I decided not to, because people’s values about the “giving back” concept – to reference Sean’s first draft of the Philanthropy Compass – can precede any thoughts about politics.

        I continue to think that there are areas where the relationship between the two breaks down or has some basic discontinuities. I think it has to do with what constitutes a “problem” worthy of philanthropic action – some things that are problems at some points on the Political Compass (like rampant economic inequality) are not visible or relevant as problems at other points. And, pace Sean’s take on Philanthropic Investors not seeing themselves as being responsible for solving social problems, what one sees as a social problem to be addressed by collective action shapes how one sees the social space covered by the Philanthropy Compass.

        I’m reminded of the mathematical concept of a discontinuous function. The functions most of us remember from math class are smooth curves – of the kind you’d see on x-y axes that define quadrants like in the Compasses. But there’s a category of functions that are not smooth curves, but instead stop suddenly at a certain value and then jump up to another value without covering any of the intervening space. Hard to explain in words – go here for an image:

        I predict that in most if not all versions of a Philanthropy Compass (versions defined as different definitions of the axes), mapping donor beliefs will generate discontinuous functions.

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

  3. Nicole Shore says:

    I’m wondering if the various models of social enterprises would be included in this compass as well? Would such enterprises that have a for-profit component muddy the whole concept? It would be curious to think about how people’s expectations differ in this context. What and how much do they expect of the company in this situation? In the case of “green” businesses, they often garner far more scrutiny than brands who have no environmental claims at all. Sometimes those expectations and criticisms can be extreme to unrealistic. Knowing this about perceptions around brands that are for profit and not necessarily social enterprises but claim some amount of social responsibility, makes me curious about how social enterprises might fit into this conversation.