A Plea for Less Guilt Inducing Philanthropy

You may think that this posting, my first in the year 2010, written just after the onslaught of end-of-year fundraising requests, is about the tone, content, and timing of those requests for our money. Indeed, one could have an interesting post about that, especially now that much of that previously wasted paper has been replaced by on-line requests which all come from the same script. “A week left”, “only 48 hours left” “last day to….” But I will let others with more expertise on the fundraising and development side tackle that.

No, this posting is addressed to those of us who give money, and those of us who advise people how to do so. What concerns me is that those of us who write about philanthropy are increasingly doing so in a judgmental and guilt inducing manner. The guilt that I speak of here is not the guilt inducing play on deep human sympathies for those in need [who most assuredly need all of our support – although, I daresay we woud help many more if our public advocacy matched our direct contributions].

The guilt I am speaking of is that, for all of our generosity and philanthropic inclinations, there are those who keep telling us that we just aren’t doing it right. We may be giving but is it effective? Does it have impact? Are we using the right tactics? Have we verified the overhead percentages? Does our giving truly reflect our values? Is it really strategic? Does enough go to the poor? To your ethnic or religious group? To organizations one has been committed to for a long time? To creative and innovative new projects? To domestic causes? To international causes?

My guess is that anyone who takes philanthropy seriously in this era has been encouraged or challenged to think about at least some of thee questions. And, let me be clear, they are all legitimate questions. [In fact, it is part of my job as a philanthropy advisor to find helpful ways to help clients be comfortable with all of these questions and more. I have no quarrel at all with helping funders do so in ways which accomplish what they want with their giving.]

What I do find problematic is that many of my colleagues have moved from raising the right questions to being soapbox advocates that there is only a right way to give – or at least a right way to do it well. And by implication, if one does it differently, one is wasting money and, derivatively, letting society down.

This plaint is not that there are no important insights in the surfeit of approaches and organizations which speak to taking the philanthropic endeavor more seriously. We are well beyond the days when checkbook or pure feel-good philanthropy is sufficient for most serious funders, and most funders really do not want to waste their money. But funders are allowed to feel good about their generosity, not made to feel inadequate because they didn’t choose to follow the most sophisticated decision making and evaluation approaches. Within the scope of the law and ethical practices, one should be permitted to follow one’s heart, one’s passions, one’s long standing commitments, one’s family preferences without feeling as if they are squandering their resources. They may want to do some good without it becoming all-consuming.

Of course, many funders do want to apply more rigorous screens and approaches. As I suggest above, funders merit the thoughtful assistance of the growing number of us who provide these services. But these services and these approaches should steer clear of implying judgment about those who do it differently or who come to different conclusions about what makes most sense for a given funder.

It is true that it can be a waste of money if too much goes to projects that don’t do quite as well as a similar one; it can be a shame if not doing homework means that a less worthy grantee gets the grant that might well have gone to a paradigm changer it is surely disappointing if giving to the same organizations simply reinforces the flawed thinking that created the problem in the first place. Yes, there are many “too bads.” But, to my mind, if we, those of us charged with the best thinking about good philanthropy, do all of this in such a way that makes people skittish, insecure, or guilty about the choices they make, we have done a disservice, not only to our clients, but to the philanthropic endeavor writ large. And that would really be more than “too bad.”

Richard Marker serves as an advisor to foundations, independent funders, and not-for-profit organizations; he is a Senior Fellow in Philanthropy at NYU’s George Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy. Richard specializes in strategic philanthropy and planning and regularly blogs at Wise Philanthropy.