It’s time to take back the discussion of effective philanthropy from those who don’t really know what they’re talking about. It needs to happen — and there’s no better day than today to start.
I don’t mean to be harsh. But the fact is that, in recent decades, those promoting the idea that “business thinking” has the answers for givers and nonprofits have sought to essentially take over the sector and apply their principles and values. The locus of study of the sector is now on business school campuses.
But “study” is not the right word because much of what occurs on these campuses includes little rigorous analysis of the sector, its history, or its role. Instead, the focus is on prognostication, on the mistaken assumption that what is useful in a business context will be useful in a philanthropic one. While exceptions exist, the bulk of those teaching and writing about the nonprofit sector and philanthropy at leading business schools know precious little about the subjects.
The same is true for media. Mainstream newspapers have phased out their “philanthropy” or “nonprofit” beats, which means reporting on philanthropy and nonprofits is increasingly the domain of the business press. Story after story is written about the “new” donors who are bringing their “business smarts” to philanthropy (often “reinventing” or “disrupting” it!) as though this were a new idea or a good one — when neither is the case.
It is amazing how shallow much of the work is.
This needs to change.
Thoughtful givers and nonprofit leaders need to stand up and make clear that their work is uniquely challenging — and uniquely valuable — and as such requires its own approach and discipline. It’s no more logical to argue that running a successful business prepares you to run a nonprofit — or to be a wise giver — than it is to argue that running a real estate empire prepares you to be President of the United States.
My book, Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count, represents my attempt — however small it may be — to reclaim the discussion of giving and the nonprofit sector from the “business-knows-best” crew. I have sought to elevate what we know, from nearly two decades of research and data analysis at CEP, about effective giving practice, as well as to draw on and cite the good work of many others.
Giving Done Right is about what works, but it’s also filled with the stories of the people who bring philanthropy to life. You’ll meet the early “venture philanthropist” who concedes he has learned that venture capital is not a good analogy for philanthropy, and is now helping others to understand the unique challenge of effectiveness. You’ll learn about the foundation president who fancied himself the LeBron James of philanthropy, “taking his talents” from the business world — only to learn the hard way that they didn’t apply in a very different domain.
You’ll read about the examples of great giving that has transformed lives.
You’ll meet nonprofit leaders like Tiffany, whose early experiences with racism inspired her to dedicate her life to closing the achievement gap, and Gregg, who spends his days and nights recruiting the most at-risk young people in his community out of gangs — to literally save their lives.
And you’ll meet those whose lives have been changed by giving done right. People like Crisamar, who credits her success in life to Tiffany’s organization. And Andre, whose “big mistake” nearly cost him everything — until Gregg’s nonprofit helped him turn his life around. And you’ll learn how they have become givers, too.
My goal was to write — with a lot of guidance from the excellent folks at PublicAffairs and many others with years of experience in the nonprofit sector — something that is truly helpful in the practice of philanthropy; something offering lessons applicable to both the foundation president and the program officer, to both the mega-donor and the everyday individual giver.
You can tell me whether you think I’ve done that. Giving Done Right is out today, available in hardcover, e-book, and audiobook. I can’t wait to hear what you think.
Phil Buchanan is president of CEP and author of Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count, published today by PublicAffairs/Hachette, from which this post is excerpted and adapted. More information about the book is available on givingdoneright.org. Follow Phil on Twitter at @philxbuchanan.