Sunday, July 22, 2007

Taking Philanthropy Seriously, edited by William Damon and Susan Verducci

This review, which I wrote, was originally published at another site. If you want the link to the original, please leave a comment below and I will contact you directly.

For a 2005 article in Germany's Der Spiegel, a Kenyan economist was interviewed about the effects of Western development policy in Africa. Before the interviewer could finish his first question, about increased aid to countries on the continent, the economist interrupted, "For God's sake, please just stop. [Aid for the purpose of eliminating hunger and poverty] has been damaging our continent for the past forty years. If the industrial nations really want to help the Africans, they should finally terminate this awful aid."

While such a statement might shock the typical philanthropist, whose intentions are almost always benign, if not noble, it probably wouldn't surprise William Damon and Susan Verducci. In Taking Philanthropy Seriously: Beyond Noble Intentions to Responsible Giving, Damon, a professor of education at Stanford University, Verducci, senior research associate at the Center on Adolescence at Stanford and coordinator of the GoodWork Project, and their fellow essayists describe a field that is filled with people who make their living mediating between donors and recipients but whose "own values and agendas...consciously or not, may diverge from those of the donors and those of the recipients."

Through cautionary tales and case studies, Damon, Verducci, and their fellow authors make the point that intentions alone are not enough of a basis on which to make grants and go to great lengths to illustrate the challenges inherent in the grantor/grantee relationship. As Damon writes: "Beyond this general noble intention and the legal codes that enforce it, philanthropy has few agreed upon standards of judgment or conduct and little in the way of a definitive knowledge base of proven strategies.... [T]here is a reluctance in the field to prescribe the 'best' ways of accomplishing philanthropic work or to designate an authoritative set of guidelines that people entering the field have an obligation to master."

Largely comprised of essays from leading academics, third sector professionals, and former government officials, Taking Philanthropy Seriously examines the currents moving through contemporary American philanthropy, many of which — like venture philanthropy — aren't that new, and also traces the ethics and politics of more traditional giving, from the Greeks and Romans through the Rockefellers and Gateses.

Other essays describe challenges inherent to the philanthropic sector that often go overlooked, including the relative lack of training given to foundation staff. How does one become a program officer in the first place? Ask Laura Horn and Howard Gardner in a chapter titled "The Lonely Profession." And how do program officers decide which organizations are worthy of a grant and which are not? Those new to philanthropy might be surprised to discover that many program officers fell into philanthropy by chance, or were recruited from fields or organizations already supported by their current employer. Others were grantees who hankered to learn how it feels to be on the giving side of the equation, while still others are just "passing through" and expect to leave the profession as soon as they have acquired a better understanding of their chosen field.

Regardless of how or why they entered the field, program officers often are daunted by the challenges of their job. "While some grantmakers manage to find lasting satisfaction in their work with the support of good mentorship, professional reflection, enduring stamina, and unusual patience, many other grantmakers eventually burn out," writes Tom Tierney, chairman and founder of the Bridgespan Group. As a result, many good practitioners leave philanthropy, or worse, notes Tierney, stay and let their work suffer.

The essays in the final section of the book offer strategies for building what Damon calls a "domain for responsible giving," where long-standing debates about how much foundations should be required to pay out (most of the essayists seem ambivalent) and whether venture philanthropy has helped the field (a qualified yes) are explored.

While the book's title might suggest that foundations tend to act heedlessly, the essays instead focus on how a foundation's good intentions require careful examination. The noble intention of Damon, Verducci, and their fellow essayists is to point out aspects of the practice of philanthropy that could be improved. Damon admits that some might consider this approach "curmudgeonly," but his larger point is that philanthropy will only reach its full potential by admitting and examining its weaknesses better than it does at present. Or, as Mihaly Cskszentmihalyi, the well-known author of Flow and other books on the psychology of creativity, writes in the volume's concluding chapter: "To point out such [weaknesses] is a sign not of pessimism but of faith in a better future."

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