The Will to Give
You can’t take it with you, but . . .
May 23, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 34 • By MARTIN MORSE WOOSTER
Philanthropy That Gets Results
by Thomas J. Tierney
PublicAffairs, 272 pp., $23.99
For decades, professional grantmakers have offered donors the following deal: Give us all your money forever, and we’ll do respectable things with it, polite projects that will be praised by our luncheon companions at the Cosmos Club or the Century Association. These projects won’t have anything to do with what you believe in, but good people—editorial writers at the New York Times, National Public Radio reporters—will remember your last name. We promise to keep your portrait somewhere in the office, and an intern will dust it every once in a while.
This deal is one that a rising number of today’s philanthropists reject. Rather than creating a perpetual foundation that will annually dole out 5 percent of its endowment forever, donors such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Michael Bloomberg want to put their fortunes to work now, and carefully control how their wealth is used. But with all the potential projects to choose from, how do you know your money is being spent wisely? How do you ensure results? CEOs of large corporations constantly have the market and quarterly earnings reports to signal what strategies work and which don’t. The heads of large nonprofits have no comparable feedback mechanisms.
There are, however, a rising number of consulting firms in the philanthropic world ready to offer their management expertise. Of these, the Bridgespan Group, cofounded and headed by former Bain and Company executive Thomas J. Tierney, is among the most important, and Give Smart, written with Duke Law School professor Joel L. Fleishman, turns case studies that Bridgespan has prepared over the years into a short book on the art and science of giving.
Give Smart will be avidly read in the nonprofit world, in part because the Gates Foundation has given Bridgespan a $5 million grant to promote the ideas here, which is a management book for philanthropists. There’s occasional management jargon; the book’s acknowledgments credit a “thought leader” at Bridge-
Much of the advice here is sensible. Tierney and Fleishman counsel donors to avoid what earlier generations called “scatteration” and they call “peanut butter philanthropy.” Donors, they feel, shouldn’t spread themselves too thin, and ought to find niches that no one else is in. They commend the Durfee Foundation, which gives grants to artists who are less than six months from finishing a project enough money to complete a composition or painting in time for a performance or exhibition. But in their consultants’ desire not to scare off any potential clients, they often offer stories that are enticingly vague. For example, they describe “one prominent national funder” who decided to use annual grants of $5-10 million to end child poverty in a medium-sized American city. They got local nonprofits excited by the prospect of receiving what, for them, would be hefty grants.
But the donor realized that it needed “a deep understanding of the community (which this foundation did not have)” as well as strong connections with state and local welfare agencies. The funder gave up when they discovered that, for $10 million each year, they could barely feed the city’s low-income children, much less end child poverty. It’s a compelling story that would be better if the authors had had the courage to name the donor—or the city.
But the major fault of Give Smart is the strong emphasis on credentialing. Tierney and Fleishman like the idea that foundation staff should have master’s degrees in nonprofit management, a relatively new degree that many nonprofit types hope will be as essential as MBAs in the corporate world and master’s in public policy for government managers. But there’s little evidence that this degree helps program officers do a better job, and a rising suspicion that the nonprofit management degree is like teacher training, where recipients know less than they did before entering graduate school.
The authors are also strong believers in evaluating programs. Evaluations succeed in hard sciences—either a vaccine works or it doesn’t—but there are many worthy forms of philanthropy whose success can’t be quantified. Donors who build great museums by purchasing works they like shouldn’t be judged solely on the number of visitors who attend an exhibition. Nor should Christian poverty fighters who want to win souls be judged exclusively by counting the meals a mission serves the homeless or the number of job-training classes mission residents attend.