From Lamenting to Learning

Phil Buchanan

It’s easy to lament all that’s not what it could be in philanthropy. It’s important, even, because critique can lead to improvement.

But too many of the critiques I read are generalized, sweeping, and, finally, unhelpful — offering little in the way of practical paths forward.

This is certainly true of the “business knows best” critiques that typically hail the new entrepreneur-billionaire-turned-donor promising to “reinvent,” “blow up,” or “fix” philanthropy — bringing in an “investor” or “start-up” mindset to what is seen as the sleepy world of institutional philanthropy.

It is also true of some among the recent wave of critiques from the political left arguing that big philanthropy is just a self-protective ruse or an undemocratic influence of power. In this view, foundations aren’t sleepy at all, but rather highly effective at driving an agenda that serves the interests of their benefactors.

Lost in all this generalizing is any acknowledgement of the diversity among philanthropists and foundations. Lost also are the specific realities of foundations — often staffed by dedicated professionals with significant and relevant experience who are working hard to do their job well, with no connection to how the wealth that created the foundation was amassed.

So it’s nice, and inspiring even, to see this new article in Washington Monthly by my friend and longtime colleague to CEP, Lowell Weiss, that reminds us that it’s possible to improve philanthropic practice in a way that is responsive to the experiences of nonprofits and supports them to be more effective in their work.

Not only is it possible, it’s happening!

Weiss draws on CEP’s analysis of a group of foundations that have regularly used our Grantee Perception Report (GPR) to listen to nonprofits and improve. What we see, as my colleague and CEP Vice President, Research, Ellie Buteau explains in the article, is that these funders tend to improve on a range of important dimensions in the eyes of the nonprofits they fund. These include their: clarity of communications; responsiveness; approachability when problems arise; and perceived impact on organizations, communities, and fields.

Weiss’s article profiles several foundations whose improvements have been dramatic. These funders worked hard to listen and get better — and they did. They made listening a regular practice. They committed to bursting the bubble of positivity in which it is all too easy for funders to reside. It wasn’t easy, but they stuck with it.

There are many lessons to be learned from the foundations that have made these kinds of changes and improvements. I wonder: what would be possible if we spent as much time discussing specific examples of philanthropic practice — both good and bad — as we did engaging in sweeping generalizations about philanthropy broadly? What if we focused less on ascribing motives — again, good and bad — from afar, and more on analyzing what appears to be working and what appears not to be working? What if we worked to ensure that analysis of foundations is informed by data and evidence, collected regularly over time?

In short, what if we focused on the work of foundations and nonprofits and how it can be done more effectively in service of progress in communities, for people, and on crucial issues?

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP and author of Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count. Follow him on Twitter at @philxbuchanan.

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