Although the title has been around for a while, strategic philanthropy has gotten a lot of buzz both from those who agree with the practice and those who do not. First, let’s look at a few definitions of the term:
By strategic philanthropy, we mean effective giving which is designed around focused research, creative planning, proven strategies, careful execution and thorough follow-up in order to achieve the intended results. To be truly effective and rewarding, strategic philanthropy must also reflect and be driven by your core values and concerns. The Philanthropic Initiative, Inc.
Word Spy defines it as corporate philanthropy that serves the interests of the corporation.
The practice of strategic philanthropy has roused critics who dislike the idea of a corporate giant meddling in the affairs of organizations.
How, they ask, can these businesses fully grasp the need (often urgent) of a community which a charity already knows inside and out? William Schambra, director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal at Hudson Institute says, “any grant request, even one as straightforward as a grant for emergency assistance, could be subjected to months of speculative and typically fruitless cud-chewing.” If you want to know how whether or not an organization is doing what they’re supposed to be doing he says go down there and find out. “We don’t need no stinkin’ model logic to tell us if it’s a good community center or not.”
Bill Somerville, co-author of Grassroots Philanthropy: Field Notes of a Maverick Grantmaker agrees. Touted as one of the city’s “fastest philanthropists” by the San Francisco Chronicle he fights his crusade to end poverty by spending no more than 48 hours on each proposal he receives. He doesn’t like the “safe” approach many foundations take to giving. “I find good people and fund them…Philanthropy needs to invest in people not programs,” he says. He believes in vetting organizations through personal relationships not pieces of paper. For Somerville, strategic philanthropy and top-down foundations get in the way of actual action. He admits that mistakes are made, but that is a necessary part of the process.
On the other hand, Paul Brest, co-author of Money Well Spent: A Strategic Guide to Smart Philanthropy, believes strategic philanthropy is simply a smarter way of giving. On his blog Brest explains, “At its heart, strategic philanthropy is result-oriented. It is intended to help you use your money most effectively to achieve whatever your philanthropic goals may be. Essentially, it involves (1) setting clear, measurable goals, (2) developing sound, evidence-based strategies for achieving them, (3) measuring progress along the way to achieving them, and (4) determining whether you were actually successful in reaching the goals.” He explains, “a philanthropist has every reason to ask whether it has a sound strategy and a good track record as well as good leadership.”
Neither side would disagree with the fact that NGOs exist to ameliorate the conditions of society and nature, yet like any organization, they need due diligence and accountability. They are not composed of infallible, super-people. Consequently, it does seem foolish for a philanthropist to throw money at an organization simply because they need it. The anti-strategists do have good points, however. When needs arrive, it is counterintuitive and even detrimental to wade through months of red tape while. Also, once philanthropists develop relationships and trust with charities, the need for such formalities should be expected to diminish.
In China, NGOs have a high need for accountability both for the sake of the investor and that of the organization. With many philanthropists far away overseas and unfamiliar with the terrain, liability and misunderstandings can result in a loss of trust and support all together.
What do you think? Where do you fall in the debate? We’d love to get your comments.