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Elevating the Conversation

Date: January 10, 2022

Phil Buchanan

President, CEP

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That was investor and donor Liesel Pritzker’s straightforward answer to the question of what giving done right looks like to her when my colleague Grace Nicolette asked — as she does all our guests — at the end of an interview for our Giving Done Right podcast last fall.

Although Pritzker’s response didn’t immediately strike me as the most moving of the 18 guests we’ve asked that same question over two seasons, it became my favorite, hands down: both because it’s right, and because nuance is in such scarce supply lately.

We look, too often, for the easy answers. To be sure, some things are powerfully clear. There is no nuance, to me, for example, about the ways too many in the Republican party are seeking to undermine our democracy, sow division, or deny the efficacy of vaccines.

But, on so many other fronts, we’re too quick to embrace the seemingly easy answers, to take an accusatory stance, or to push aside the uncomfortable truth that, in most things, there are shades of gray. Nuance allows us to avoid the simplistic binaries that I worry increasingly characterize not just our broader societal discussions but also our conversations within Philanthrolandia.

I was thinking about this in the wake of the hubbub last month over MacKenzie Scott’s decision to refrain from listing the recipients of her latest round of gifts as she had done previously. When some, myself included, suggested her previous level of transparency would be better, it prompted in other quarters swift outrage that any aspect of Scott’s pathbreaking approach would be criticized (even as Scott herself responded thoughtfully on Twitter with reassurances about her commitment to transparency).

One nonprofit leader lamented the “naysayers,” seeming to say that it’s not possible to both praise Scott for the unrestricted, massive gifts she has made or her focus on equity and also suggest that more transparency is preferable. Others conflated the sentiment that more transparency is helpful from an effectiveness point of view with a desire to impose new regulations on donors — not something I, for one, would favor.

Another commentator argued on Inside Philanthropy that critique of Scott was sexist and seemed to suggest that Scott’s ex-husband receives better press (I don’t think so) — as if Scott wasn’t clearly the hands-down most praised mega-donor in the world (in the media and among nonprofits) since she started her giving in 2020. Indeed, Inside Philanthropy itself named her its “philanthropist of the year” in 2021 and 2020, noting “nobody is changing the game like MacKenzie Scott is.”

For the record, I (like just about every other nonprofit leader I know) am a huge fan of massive, unrestricted gifts with simple reporting requirements — and I find Scott’s approach to be inspiring in many ways. Indeed, CEP has been a recipient, last year, of a gift from Scott that our Board of Directors has designated for strategic opportunities we’d otherwise be unable to consider. It’s a game-changer for us. One of the reasons I want her to be as transparent as possible about how she’s giving and who she’s giving to is that I think it will inspire other major donors — to give more, to give in an unrestricted way, to give with an emphasis on supporting those closest to communities, to give with a focus on equity!

Given the scale of Scott’s giving, it’s reasonable — and important — to discuss and even study her approach. I imagine she’d agree — and that this is indeed why she made gifts to CEP and a slew of other organizations exploring questions of philanthropic effectiveness. I don’t know of a conscientious donor — or person — who wants only to hear praise.

It’s reasonable for people to ask questions. For example, many wonder about the structure she has chosen for her giving and the anomalous position that the Bridgespan Group — an organization I respect and whose work I admire — is in by virtue of both consulting to nonprofits that desperately want a gift from Scott and advising her about her giving. It’s reasonable to ask whether this arrangement is creating some strange incentives and more than a little bit of confusion. It’s also reasonable to ask how her giving will evolve over time, what she’s learning in the process, or what the effect is on organizations in areas she is funding that are not selected for a gift.

Scott, or Bridgespan, don’t have to address these questions related to Scott’s giving — and so far they have not. But it’s certainly reasonable to ask and discuss.

There is, after all, much to consider. Indeed, CEP is launching an effort to look, over time, at the impact of Scott’s giving on recipient organizations so other donors may learn from her approach and its effects. My hope is our study can help document the wisdom of empowering organizations with big, unrestricted gifts. But we also shouldn’t turn away from the possibility of learning of unintended consequences — positive or otherwise.

Embracing this kind of nuance is crucial if we want to leave behind the simplistic declarations that get us nowhere. It allows us to hold competing thoughts in our mind, as effective donors must, and to act accordingly. For example:

  • We should be able to agree that more unrestricted multi-year support is crucial for nonprofits to be more effective and also allow for the fact that, sometimes, project-restricted and single year grants make sense and can be given in responsible ways (with adequate overhead allocations).
  • We should be able to lament that too much big philanthropy is top-down, and not informed by those closest to the issues, and also to recognize the moments when it’s clear that what is needed to solve a problem is a more centrally directed strategy, such as the Gates Foundation’s global work to promote vaccinations over the past two decades (though even then, of course, on-the-ground knowledge is important).
  • We should be able to recognize that impact investing can be a powerful tool in a donor’s arsenal and also simultaneously recognize, as Priztker does, the many areas in which only philanthropy or government can effectively address an issue.
  • We should be able to recognize the crucial importance of philanthropy that addresses the root causes of problems and also the need for thoughtful giving to alleviate suffering.
  • We should be able to thoughtfully critique philanthropy and philanthropists and also not fall into sweeping, unhelpful reductionist generalizations — slogans, really — that have become increasingly prevalent, like, “philanthropy is a ruse.”

More broadly, we should be able to steer clear of the notion that there is any one right framework or model, whether it be “collective impact” or “venture philanthropy,” that is the secret to effective giving across widely varied contexts and circumstances.

There are many thoughtful folks in philanthropy who are comfortable wading into the complexities in the ways I am suggesting — and who do it well. But they’re not always the ones who get much attention.

Sometimes I worry that discussions within the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors are going the way of “discussions” on Twitter: devolving into simplistic, often accusatory all-caps spats. That’s bad enough when the conversation is about something that is ultimately trivial in the grand scheme, like football teams or hot takes on celebrities. But it’s truly damaging when this is the level of discussion about the important work of taking on the most vexing societal challenges.

We owe it to the larger causes — the crucial issues donors seek to address — to elevate the conversation by wading into the nuance.

Phil Buchanan is president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, author of Giving Done Right, and co-host of the podcast by the same name. Follow him on Twitter at @philxbuchanan.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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