The last word (don’t we wish) on venture philanthropy

This is the smartest, ballsiest response I’ve seen to the omnipresent nonsense about how what’s wrong with philanthropy and charity is that they’re too soft-hearted and how all the problems of the world could be solved if they were just more rigorous and did their “due diligence” and brought other failed concepts and consultant buzzwords over from the for-profit sector. What refreshing thoughtfulness and appropriate humility. Bravo, Mr. Scanlan!

cross-posted with

Author: Kelly Kleiman

Kelly Kleiman is a freelance writer on the arts, feminism, travel and social justice. Her reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor, among other dailies; in magazines, including In These Times and Dance; in the alternative press; on the BBC; and on Chicago Public Radio, where she’s one of the “Dueling Critics” and a contributor to the Onstage Backstage theater blog. She is also a consultant to charities and editor and publisher of The Nonprofiteer, a blog about charity, philanthropy and nonprofit management. She holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago.

9 thoughts on “The last word (don’t we wish) on venture philanthropy”

  1. If you truly give somebody money, you don’t get to control what they do with it. Conditional philanthropy is a form of psychic lending, and can turn into psychic usury.

    1. Presumably, the ultimate aim of philanthropists is to effect beneficial change for the end-users. Charities are the instruments i.e. means not ends to that goal. It’s not prima facie unreasonable that the capital enablers have a say in how the instruments operate. Of course it’s open to abuse, but it’s not ipso facto unhealthy.

      1. “Presumably, the ultimate aim of philanthropists is to effect beneficial change for the end-users.” Well, it may be to free the beneficiaries to make their own choices.

        I’m mixed myself about this. If my object is to protect rainforests, I can reasonably impose conditions that my money is not to go for food for the poor locals. It’s not so clear if the object is the poor locals. Also: is the idea to give to charities, or to the poor?

        1. Hold on: if you want to protect the rainforests, might it not sometimes make sense to give food to the poor locals so that they don’t cut down more rainforest to grow crops?

          What fascinates me about this is that “strategic” used to mean “all about longterm investments that change the big picture”. All the stuff about goals and benchmarks sounds more like “tactical philanthropy” to me.

    2. As far as I can tell nearly every donor to a charitable cause evaluates whether the recipient is a worthy recipient (in their estimation) before doing so. If you find that distasteful, then presumably you’d be OK with a system under which donations were randomly assigned to causes.

      Attaching strings to the money is simply a way of maintaining that discretion into the future, which makes it easier for donors to commit to larger levels of support up front. I can give you $1000 a day and pull my support if I feel like you’re no longer doing the good that I expected you to do. Or I can give you $365,000 for the year with certain conditions you must meet. I can scarsely see how both donor and grantee are not vastly better off in the latter scenario.

      Besides, most philanthropists are (quite rightly) not motivated to “give somebody money” in your phrasing. They are motivated to effect some outcome, and if the administrators of their largess cannot or will not deliver that outcome then said philanthropists are not only within their rights but their duty to their conscience to find another place to direct their giving. I myself give money regularly to Heifer International, and feel that that organization does a tremendous amount of good. If I were to find out that the leadership thereof had shifted to using a large percentage of their inflowing funds to purchase cocaine and hookers then I don’t think I’d be guilty of some sin against altruism if I were to cease my support and look for another organization to support. Rather I’d be guilty of common f%^@$#g sense.

      Complaints by “the non profit community” about the onerous demands of donors who actually want to direct their philanthropy in a focused way come across as childish whining by insulated elitists who feel like they have a God-given right to spend the world’s resources how they see fit without any input from their lessers.

      That some philanthropists direct their giving unwisely or unproductively is no surprise. Just as it should be no surprise that some charitable organizations, absent pressure from philanthropists to operate well, would spend their money unwisely or unproductively.

      1. Otoh, you presumably don’t call Heifer every day to harass them, or ask them to write you up special reports as a condition of donation, like about how much milk the donated cows are actually producing. You trust them … until such time as you don’t anymore, at which point you stop donating. That’s how it ought to be, imo. Nothing wrong and nothing that needs to be fixed.

        It sounds to me as if there could be a lot of value in trying to do things a new way, if it’s done with respect for the past. If not, it’s just the same as when successful businesspeople run for office, talking about how they’re going to clean things up. It almost never works, because the rules of the game are just too different. Most of them can’t adapt. And I worry a little that if measurable results are the “end,” then we’ll get a lot of those, but the world won’t actually be any better. It’s so easy to fake numbers, it seems to me.

        Anyway, it’s an interesting subject.

  2. Interestingly, the focus on core competence at PWF has caused it to apply “strategic philanthropy” to an area where it is completely inappropriate, and pull out of areas where it might make sense.

    The shift from direct services (where you can, at least in theory, measure outcomes and allow money to follow performance) to advocacy is at least understandable in terms of a belief that a small amount of intelligent money can do more good there. The shift from international to US work makes no sense at all – the first thing that the Givewell people (who I think are the noisiest strategic philanthropists on the internet at the moment) discovered when they started doing strategic philanthropy is that needs are so much greater in the third world that US antipoverty work is basically a waste of money.

  3. Expecting and measuring (or at least assessing) outcomes is fine; but there is a point beyond which foundations (and sometimes other funders) are so wrapped up in their own program designs and their own analytics that they micromanage. It becomes all about concepts, and they lose the ability to survey the field, spot some good talent that with support could result in models, and invest in it.

  4. I doubt that the issue that Mr Scanlan was complaining about was either that a charitable organization was asked to be strategic or tactical, or intelligent or goal-driven. It was rather that under some or all of those names, charities were being pushed by donors to put their money on activities that produced readily measurable results, rather than on activities that in their judgment were valuable, or on activities that had been completely defined before starting to work, rather than allowed to find new ways to meet the goals in progress. As usual, it is a matter of judgment and balance. Qualitative estimates of results may be satisfactory or they may be bafflegab, just as statistical results may be impressive or hollow. ‘Strategic’ plans may be enabling or crippling. It’s hard to generalize.

    Some money may come with too many strings attached. Some charities may tie their own hands without waiting for donors’ strings. The needs will almost always be greater than the resources to address them, but the individual balance of how to use the resources will always be subject to debate.

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