Effective Philanthropy: Organizational Success Through Deep Diversity and Gender Equality
by Mary Ellen S. Capek and Molly Mead
The MIT Press, 2006
378 pp., $34
Creative Philanthropy: Towards a New Philanthropy for the Twenty-First Century
by Helmut K. Anheier and Diana Leat
277 pp., $44.95
Whether or not giving is better than receiving, it is usually thought to be harder. John D. Rockefeller once called philanthropy a “difficult art,” requiring careful investigation and a well-defined sense of purpose. Ever since, those with substantial amounts of money to give away have not lacked advice on how to do it.
Today’s philanthropists can turn to a small army of professionals and consultants, as well as a variety of organizations, for assistance in making giving more productive. But how useful all this help really is—and how much easier or successful it has made grantmaking—is not always apparent. Indeed, under the guise of improving philanthropy, advice sometimes saddles philanthropists with ideas that are shallow and often little more than slogans, or that serve a political agenda.
This is the case with two recent books offering advice to philanthropists about giving more effectively and creatively. Although both carry endorsements from influential figures, including the heads of the Ford and Kellogg foundations, what the books actually do is argue for applying some of the trendiest notions in higher education and the business world to grantmaking, with only scant evidence these ideas are likely to accomplish much.
In Effective Philanthropy, Mary Ellen Capek and Molly Mead make no effort to conceal their view that grantmakers should be doing more to offset racial, gender and other forms of discrimination. However, rather than promoting grants that increase opportunities for women, racial minorities, or other disadvantaged groups, the authors call upon philanthropists to institutionalize what they term “deep diversity.” They emphasize the need for grantmakers to understand a wide variety of differences—gender, sexual orientation, race, class, age, disability, and many more. Capek and Mead believe this understanding should infuse all aspects of an organization’s work—from the composition of its board and staff to the way it designs and talks about its programs. They claim that without changing the balance of power between those who currently make grants and those they are seeking to help, no number of well-intentioned programs will succeed.
To anyone familiar with the latest fashions in just about every academic discipline (including the sciences), this argument will not be new. For decades, scholars and critics have been claiming that who we are determines what we think and do and, in the minds of Capek and Mead, how we give. The authors repeatedly insist the “norms” grantmakers use in determining what is worth supporting should be dismantled, since they do not really help—and may even hurt “Norma” (the overly clever designation Capek and Mead use to refer to the standards women and other minorities might employ).
This insight into the “difficult art of giving” would undoubtedly come as a surprise to such traditional philanthropists as John D. Rockefeller and Julius Rosenwald (both of whom provided important assistance to blacks in the “Jim Crow” South), not to mention more contemporary ones, such as Bill and Melinda Gates, who might reasonably believe that malaria-carrying mosquitoes are not airborne weapons of mass discrimination. Besides, if all truths are relative to our position in life, why should this one be taken as true?
Capek and Mead try to base their case for “Norma-lizing” philanthropy on a series of case studies of what they consider successful foundations. They examine giants such as the Otto Bremer Foundation, as well as smaller, family-based foundations such as the Hyams and Jessie Smith Noyes foundations. The Ms. Foundation for Women also gets an extended treatment. According to these reports, all of them have struggled with broadening the composition of their boards and staffs, responding to the communities they are trying to serve, and coping with their donors’ intentions. After 30 years of operation, the Ms. Foundation even added men to its board, presumably gender-sensitive ones.
Yet, for a work on effectiveness in philanthropy, these accounts—and indeed, the book as a whole—are notably short of any references to results. By making “deep diversity” central to their activities, what the foundations studied undoubtedly changed a great deal. But what they accomplished is hard to tell—other than, of course, giving money to a new set of grantees. That may be what the argument over “deep diversity” is ultimately about: not a principle that would improve philanthropy, but rather who gets the jobs and money.
Similarly, “creative philanthropy,” as expounded by Helmut Anheier and Diana Leat, is less about grantmaking than it is about changing society. For them, foundations are uniquely qualified to do so. They are independent, self-governing and amply supplied with resources. But most, they argue, fail to take advantage of these attributes, limiting themselves to such pedestrian tasks as supporting charities, funding scientific solutions to medical or social problems, or, more recently, underwriting new “social enterprises.” However, by adopting a more innovative approach, involving not just providing money, but also advice, strategy, and publicity, grantmakers could promote the kinds of large-scale improvements of which they are capable and which have long been touted as their reason for being.
Anheier and Leat draw most of their recommendations from research on business dynamics. Thus, they write, a “creative milieu” is an environment with lots of knowledge and money, loose regulation, the ability to deal with complexity and uncertainty, internal and external communications networks, and the like. By adding a strategy for propagating new ideas, a business can become truly innovative, rather than simply operate on the margins. All of which may be true (though the treatment the authors give the research is fairly cursory), but, as Anheier and Leat themselves note, whether these same conditions will work in foundations—which lack such “triggers of creativity” as competition and economic pressures—remains to be seen.
To examine this question, the authors offer a series of “vignettes” and case studies of foundations they regard as especially creative, both in the United States and elsewhere. Included are the Wallace Foundation for its work on the arts and education, the Annie E. Casey Foundation for its efforts on children and youth, and the Rosenberg Foundation, which focuses on migrant workers and workplace rights. They also examine organizations abroad, such as England’s venerable Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Carnegie Trust, as well as the much newer Victorian Women’s Trust in Australia.
Although these accounts are often informative, they yield few new insights on why some grantmakers have a larger impact than others. No one in foundations—or for that matter, government or business—would be terribly surprised to learn that successful grantmaking has a lot to do with being strongly focused on a mission, open to self-criticism and learning, developing an extensive network of contacts and collaborators, mobilizing knowledgeable advice and assistance as well as money, and thinking strategically. Yet the kinds of challenges that philanthropists often have to face, such as how to maintain focus, accept criticism, manage conflict among associates, spend enough money, identify useful advisors, and deal with short-term problems and setbacks, are left open by the authors.
To the extent these problems are addressed at all, it is often through the kinds of shallow clichés that management gurus like to employ, often at the expense of substance. For example, Anheier and Leat repeatedly write that innovation is more like a “marathon race than a relay.” What they mean, of course, is that a foundation has to be engaged for the long haul if it wants to succeed. But success can be accomplished through a series of short, incremental bursts, as well as a long, unbroken and exhausting run. Indeed, depending on what a grantmaker is trying to accomplish, both strategies may be needed.
This is more than just a semantic quibble. Anheier and Leat are enamored of the marathon metaphor because it seems best suited to their agenda for what foundations ought to do: change society. However, the kinds of philanthropy they dismiss as less worthy—aiding charities, supporting research, starting new organizations—may be not only valuable and complex in their own right, but also profound in their eventual impact. While Anheier and Leat might argue that such grants would be even more influential if they were part of a comprehensive effort to promote change, the limits of foresight and planning when tried by governments and corporations, let alone by foundations, do not give much cause for optimism.
Philanthropy is such a “difficult art” precisely because it is often so hard to tell what will work. Moreover, especially in the sorts of free societies in which philanthropy is apt to flourish, much that givers might want to affect is beyond their control, regardless of how much money they have, and unintended consequences are always a risk. For all their efforts to draw lessons from the latest theories about organizational dynamics or “deep diversity,” neither of these books gives any reason to think a formula for more creative and effective philanthropy is in the offing. What they do suggest, however, is that as they contemplate the “difficult art” of giving, philanthropists—and their legions of advisors—would do well to exercise the often even more difficult virtue of modesty.