A New Must-Read Book Offers Advice to Donors and Foundation Officials

This opinion piece was originally published by The Chronicle of Philanthropy.  I welcome your feedback.

“How-to” philanthropy books and articles are becoming plentiful, but their quality is wildly uneven. Many, unfortunately, grossly oversimplify with promises that a new approach—what my colleague Ellie Buteau and I have referred to as “fill-in-the-blank philanthropy”—will replace the “ineffective” philanthropy of old.

These pieces often lay out depressing statistics about lack of progress on key social issues as “evidence” that the philanthropy of the past and present has failed, thereby justifying the need for something “new.”

Typically, authors ignore progress over the last century to reduce worldwide child mortality or achieve other goals. What’s more, they rarely acknowledge how much worse things might have been without philanthropic efforts.

But often what is presented as shiny and new by the authors of these pieces is as old as philanthropy itself; it is simply repackaged and given a new name.

That is not to argue against the notion that there is way too much ineffective philanthropy (there is) or to say innovation in approaching our social problems isn’t sorely needed (it is).

But too much of what is written about philanthropy oversimplifies, denying both the nuance and the historical facts in its attempt to offer readers a simple checklist or formula—or to import frameworks from business. Warren Buffett’s caution, “Beware of geeks bearing formulas,” was not made with philanthropy in mind, but it surely applies.

So it was with some real trepidation, then, that I opened the cover of Give Smart: Philanthropy That Gets Results, a new book by Joel Fleishman, a professor who teaches philanthropy at Duke University and formerly head of U.S. programs at the Atlantic Philanthropies, and Thomas J. Tierney, a co-founder of Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit organization that helps donors and nonprofits. Although I know both men well and have great respect for them—indeed, Mr. Fleishman was an early supporter and then a board member of the organization I lead—I feared they would fall into the seductive trap of oversimplifying the challenges of effective philanthropy.

To my great relief, they did not. This is a book that, though concise and very accessibly written, embraces the nuance and complexity of philanthropy, seeking to explain it—and doing so very well—rather than to deny it. It is an absolute must-read for people involved in giving away large sums.

Like Mr. Fleishman’s previous book, The Foundation: A Great American Secret—How Private Wealth Is Changing the World, this book seems built on the dual premise that the world needs much more effective philanthropy than exists today and that donors can learn much from the significant successes and failures of those who have come before.

In the introduction, Mr. Tierney and Mr. Fleishman imagine Andrew Carnegie and Bill Gates having dinner, writing, “They would quickly discover how much they had in common.”

The authors speculate that as “rigorous, disciplined, and deeply strategic” men, “the industrial baron and the software tycoon would be highly compatible.”

“If Gates were to mention ‘strategic philanthropy,’ ‘social entrepreneurs,’ or ‘scaling what works’ in the course of the conversation, Carnegie might not recognize the phrases,” they write, “but he would immediately understand the concepts.”

In educating their readers that many of the challenges and opportunities they will face aren’t new—that they can learn from those who came before—they do a great service.

Mr. Tierney and Mr. Fleishman draw on their incredible collective experience as consiglieres to large foundation CEO’s and some of the wealthiest donors on today’s philanthropic scene, weaving in many great examples.

The book seems aimed primarily at new major donors and encourages readers to address six key questions:

  • What are my values and beliefs?
  • What is “success,” and how can it be achieved?
  • What am I accountable for?
  • What will it take to get the job done?
  • How do I work with grantees?
  • Am I getting better?

Mr. Tierney and Mr. Fleishman devote a chapter to each question, and they are unflinching and direct in their counsel about the traps that befall donors and how to avoid them.

On “flying solo”: “One of philanthropy’s great ironies is that very little can be accomplished by individuals acting on their own, even when those individuals are extraordinarily wealthy.”

On the selection of foundation leaders: “We select the people we think we know rather than the people we actually need. Becoming star-struck with a celebrity who has an outstanding résumé is an all too common trap. Another is hiring a friend from one’s prior life, who is a known quantity but is not well suited to a totally different kind of activity.”

On overhead: “There is no such thing as a free lunch. If you want to establish the operational capacity to achieve great results, you will have to pay what it takes to hire top-notch staff.”

Mr. Tierney and Mr. Fleishman are particularly eloquent—and their message especially important for new major donors—when it comes to how to work effectively with grantees.

Unlike others writing about philanthropy who have caricatured staffs of charities as Birkenstock-wearing idealists lacking in management skills, Mr. Tierney and Mr. Fleishman urge philanthropists to treat those on the front lines with the respect they deserve.

They pull no punches in their cautions to donors, laying out the twin perils of arrogance and ignorance as well as the lethal combination of the two.

They tell the story, which will sound all too familiar to grant recipients, of a foundation that thought it knew better than its grantees what strategy made sense to achieve their shared goals. The foundation said, in essence, “If you want our money, you had better do things our way.”

“Before long, it became clear that the foundation’s executives were not more knowledgeable than their grantees,” they write. “The foundation’s strategy was both untested and confused. Worst of all, by insisting that grantees blindly conform to its needs, rather than collaborating, the foundation actually undermined its grantees’ performance.”

But Mr. Tierney and Mr. Fleishman, importantly, take it one step further by making the case that the result wasn’t just harmful to grantees. It was also “to the detriment of what the donor had actually set out to achieve.”

This connection between foundation-grantee relationships and the ability of foundations to maximize their impact is a crucial one.

Many donors and large foundations continue to deny or play down this connection, seeing grantees as akin to contractors performing a service rather than key partners and sources of on-the-ground information about what approaches are likely to succeed. Mr. Tierney and Mr. Fleishman make a powerful argument against this kind of thinking. If new donors read only one chapter of the book, I hope it is this one.

The book is weakest in its final chapter, “Am I Getting Better?” The authors concede that this is the “most challenging” of their questions, but their exploration of why that is—and what might be done about it—remains too superficial.

To be sure, much of the advice they give is right on: Avoid “peanut-butter philanthropy” that “spreads resources so thinly they are essentially wasted”; find “truth-tellers”; use tools that create feedback loops to hear from key constituents, including grantees; continually test and revise your “theory of change.”

But the significant challenges of developing measures that can inform a donor or CEO are glossed over.

Here, the book suffers from a weakness pointed out by Melissa Berman, chief executive of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, in a piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “Tierney and Fleishman focus, by choice, on philanthropy through the lens of a major initiative, but most donors are balancing a portfolio of causes, interests, and constituents.”

This, of course, makes defining performance measures more challenging—given the lack of a common unit of measurement to compare results. Even for a relatively focused foundation that avoids “peanut-butter philanthropy” and is highly committed to performance assessment, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the challenge of defining the right measures to inform the board and chief executive is a tough one. Donors could learn from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s experience and from others, such as the James Irvine Foundation and the Wallace Foundation, that have worked hard on this issue. (Disclosure: All three of these foundations are clients and make grants to the organization I lead.)

The challenge of gathering the right data to gauge performance and inform learning also underlies another weakness of the book and, for that matter, almost every book on philanthropy I have read: I wondered whether some of those held up as exemplars by Mr. Fleishman and Mr. Tierney really deserved to be.

Because performance assessment is so difficult, it is easy to confuse good spin with evidence of effectiveness. As a reader, I would like to know more about how they chose their examples.

Still, this book is among the very best I have seen in an emerging genre of donor-education literature. While some readers may regard some of its counsel as simple common sense, I know firsthand from my organization’s work with hundreds of large foundations that the traps Mr. Fleishman and Mr. Tierney write about have ensnared all too many donors and their staffs.


Phil Buchanan is President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.