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Looking Back, Looking Forward Part 3: Philanthropic Practice

Date: January 21, 2020

Phil Buchanan

President, CEP

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This is the third in a series of four blog posts reflecting on philanthropy’s first two decades in the 21st Century and hopes for the next one. The first post discusses the public conversation about philanthropy during 2000-2010; the second focuses on 2010-2019; the third focuses on the practice of philanthropy during the first two decades of the century (as opposed to the discussions about it); and the fourth shares some hopes for the new decade underway.

To hear some of the critics tell it, the biggest foundations in the country are led by people who don’t care about inequity and seek only to protect the status quo. But the available data suggest something quite different.

When CEP surveyed foundation CEOs in spring 2016, prior to the presidential election, we learned that they regarded the concentration of wealth and accompanying inequality as the number one most pressing issue that would influence society in the coming decades, with nearly two-thirds of respondents pointing to it. Climate change and the environment was a close second.

When asked to identify the most promising practices to unlock more foundation impact, these same foundation leaders named efforts to learn from the experiences of those they try to help first and seeking to learn from the knowledge and experience of grantees second. Taking more risk and increased collaboration were the third and fourth most frequently named practices.

Look, we can debate the extent to which foundation leaders have operationalized these views, or whether they’re widely shared by boards and donors. And, of course, I have plenty of critiques of specific foundations and can point to areas of foundation practice more broadly that have proven stubbornly resistant to change — such as an unwillingness among many funders to provide long-term general operating support to more nonprofits.

But the data on the views of foundation leaders suggests that the portrayal of “big philanthropy” by some of its critics is, at best, a caricature and, at worst, a fiction.

The fact is that leaders of major foundations and some of the biggest critics of philanthropy seem to agree both on inequality being the key issue of our time and on the need for foundations to work to ensure they’re in touch with, and learning from, those closest to the issues they seek to address.

That’s what the data we have tell us.

Moreover, CEP’s own existence and experience speak to the commitment of many foundations to getting candid, critical feedback from those closest to the issues. This has, of course, been a big part of what we have done over the past nearly two decades — elevating the views of nonprofits, declined applicants, and intended beneficiaries through both our research and our assessments provided to hundreds of individual foundations, as well as through our YouthTruth initiative.

If we step away from the pundits’ discussions about philanthropy that I have characterized in my previous two blog posts, and instead look at the practice of at least larger foundations, the past 20 years might best be characterized as the “Seeking to Improve Era.” How else to explain the use of the Grantee Perception Report (GPR) by more than 350 foundations or the growth of firms like Bridgespan and Arabella that consult to — and develop the specialized knowledge needed by — foundations and major donors? How else to explain the vibrant — if still under-funded — array of philanthropy-serving organizations, both regional and national, including organizations like Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) and CF Leads that have grown rapidly as funders seek to improve?

Whatever critiques we might have of foundations generally, and whatever shortcomings exist in practice (which CEP’s research has often spotlighted), it’s just not remotely honest or fair to portray foundation leaders and staff generally as uninterested in impact, or as co-conspirators in some ruse to protect the ultra-wealthy.

There are many exemplary foundations doing excellent work. There are also powerful examples of foundations making change for the better over time, such as those profiled in this recent Washington Monthly piece by Lowell Weiss. If we spent half as much time trying to learn from specific instances of success and failure as we do engaging in broad-strokes generalizations about philanthropy, we’d be better off.

  • What, for example, can we learn from the success of the Public Welfare Foundation in its work on juvenile justice, or from the progress made by many funders working on criminal justice reform more broadly?
  • What can we learn from the success of the funders — including the Gill Foundation and Haas, Jr. Fund — that came together to support the marriage equality movement?
  • What can we learn from philanthropy’s contributions to a massive decline in worldwide childhood mortality?
  • What can we learn from foundations’ support of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and its progress in securing basic rights for domestic workers?
  • What can we learn from the many philanthropy success stories in local contexts, from the work of the Greater Houston Community Foundation to coordinate the response to Hurricane Harvey to the countless efforts in support of crucial arts organizations in communities big and small?

Let’s look at the failures, too, for sure. But, again, it’s paramount that we be specific when we do.

  • Why is it, for instance, that progress in U.S. education has been so hard to make? What is it we can learn from failed — or less than successful — efforts by the Gates, Broad, Walton, and other foundations?
  • Why are so many high-performing nonprofits still struggling to get the kind of unrestricted, multi-year support they have repeatedly told us they need? Why are so few foundations providing this kind of support in a significant way?
  • Why do so many foundation boards remain so overwhelmingly white and so lacking in relevant experience?

These are just a few of a much longer list of questions we could ask.

But let’s try to move beyond the generalizing to the specifics. That’s how philanthropy will keep getting better. And that leads to my hopes for the next decade in philanthropy — now underway — which I’ll address in my next, and final, post in this series.

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP and author of Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count, published by PublicAffairs last year. 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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