Read Smart

A look at 'Give Smart: Philanthropy That Gets Results' by Thomas J. Tierney and Joel L. Fleishman

Give Smart: Philanthropy That Gets Results, by Thomas J. Tierney and Joel L. Fleishman, is the best short book ever written about effectiveness in philanthropic giving. I enthusiastically recommend it for foundation creators, trustees, executives, and program staff, as well as for donors who give outside of foundations.

Tierney is chairman and co-founder of the Bridgespan Group, a leading nonprofit strategy consulting firm, and was previously worldwide managing partner of Bain & Company, the giant business consulting firm. Fleishman, professor of law and public policy at Duke University, was formerly president of Charles Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies. The Philanthropy Roundtable is honored that both authors have written for Philanthropy and that Tierney, who has spoken at three of our previous Annual Meetings, will be a keynote speaker at our 2011 Annual Meeting this October.

In Give Smart, Tierney and Fleishman argue that “philanthropy’s natural state is underperformance.” A common trap is “fuzzy-headedness” and ambiguity, the failure of donors to clarify what they are trying to achieve. Another frequent error is to “underestimate what it will actually cost to deliver results and underinvest in the capacity required to make those results a reality.” The authors are especially critical of the “nonprofit starvation cycle,” the unwillingness of many funders to provide the general operating support that enables grantees to improve their internal systems and management.

Generosity alone will not achieve results, the authors contend. What is needed is generosity informed by rigor, discipline and strategy. Tierney and Fleishman provide wise, jargon-free guidance about six questions they argue that every philanthropist must wrestle with: “What are my values and beliefs? What is ‘success’ and how can it be achieved? What am I accountable for? What will it take to get the job done? How do I work with grantees? Am I getting better?” Here are some of their most useful observations:

  • “In philanthropy, excellence is self-imposed. Unless you demand outstanding performance from yourself, no one else will demand it of you.”
  • “Donors intent on achieving results need to be up-front, clear-minded, and realistic about matching the time frames for their grants with what they’re trying to accomplish. Many of the problems philanthropists address require multiyear, or even multidecade, solutions.”
  • “A good working definition of success satisfies three important criteria”: It “reflects the values and beliefs of the philanthropist.” It is “specific enough to guide decisions about what you will and will not fund.” And “it will allow you to gauge progress, or the absence thereof.”

The authors argue that measurement of grantees’ results is a crucial element of effective grantmaking. Done well, it informs strategy. But done badly, it leads to confusion, inconsistency and wasted effort. “The right measures will be actionable. . . . The measures that matter are the ones that inform and improve decisions. If you cannot connect a given measure to a decision that you (or your grantee) needs to make, it’s probably unnecessary.”

Members of The Philanthropy Roundtable will be pleased by the authors’ respect for donor intent. Changing names to protect confidentiality, Tierney and Fleishman tell cautionary stories of foundations that have deeply disappointed their creators. They point to three common problems in foundations that depart from the original donors’ wishes: donors who fail to articulate clearly the mission and principles of their giving, the hiring of staff who behave as if they are giving away their own money, and the creation of family foundations when different family members have vastly different values and charitable priorities.

The authors also understand the fundamental importance of philanthropic freedom for effectiveness in giving. “One of the most compelling arguments for maintaining the broad freedom from external accountability that philanthropists enjoy is that it affords them the freedom to experiment and take risks. Risks that business and government entities cannot, or will not, accept. In fact, philanthropy has served as society’s ‘risk capital’ for more than a century, in ways that range from mapping the oceans to mapping the genome, enlivening communities to enlivening the arts.”

“Absolute freedom is philanthropy’s great strength,” write the authors, “in that it allows donors to express their individuality, creates room for innovation, and provides support for the myriad institutions and centers of power and activity that characterize democratic societies.” But freedom can also become philanthropy’s “Achilles’ heel” when a donor’s gifts are “unconsidered or spread so thin that none of them ever amounts to very much.”

The Tierney-Fleishman volume is a superb guide for donors who want to be as smart in their giving as they have been in business.

President’s Note from Spring 2011 issue of Philanthropy magazine

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