Philanthropy As “Invisible Aid”

Monday, August 31, 2009

By Charles H. Hamilton
Senior Fellow, Philanthropy New York

Philanthropy was once described as “invisible aid.” Whatever Walter Gifford meant at the time (he was President of AT&T and Chair of the Organization on Unemployment Relief in the early 1930s), foundations and their work remain too “invisible.” If we don’t redress what makes philanthropy invisible, we cannot protect its unique role or legitimately participate in the public discourse about the challenges in this society.

I thought of this recently when I decided to read all of the profiles in the “30 Grants in 30 Days” section of Philanthropy New York’s website. There are now 32 profiles of “exemplary philanthropic initiatives.” (I decided not to name names, because I am interested in themes, but of the many good profiles, I would single out the New York Foundation and the Rauch Foundation as among the best.)

First, there are several senses in which philanthropy arguably should be invisible aid:

  • Grantees matter most: The main work of philanthropy is usually best reflected in the work of its grant recipients. Surprisingly, few of the profiles emphasized the crucial role of nonprofit partners, and almost nothing was said about strengthening the sector’s infrastructure. Philanthropy would benefit greatly by highlighting its nonprofit partners more.
  • Being under the radar can be important: Transparency is important, but I nonetheless appreciate that foundation work may occasionally need to be out of the limelight if it is to be effective, even if that means there are also cases when foundation “influence peddlers” may have their way with the public. Nothing explicit on this issue came up in the profiles—that is not surprising—but it seemed clear to me that many of the initiatives mentioned could only have succeeded through the independence and private focus of foundations.

Sadly, philanthropy is invisible in other ways that reflect our own inadequacies, weaknesses, and inability to communicate well:

  • No useful knowledge to impart: All too often in this field, a particular grant or initiative is inadequately thought-through and poorly articulated. Some profiles did show foundations supporting research and basing their work on the results of research. In other profiles, they seemed driven simply by the desire to do good work and support good causes, without reference to the rationale and evidence. Whether that is true or just a failure of communication doesn’t matter. Future profiles could be more explicit about the thought and evidence behind initiatives. Otherwise, one is left with the uneasy feeling that whim rules.

    Foundations can also exhibit an astonishing hubris, thinking they know everything and refusing to examine alternatives. Gene Steuerle made the same general point recently in Smart Assets. There were hints of that in some of the profiles as well.

    In both cases—whim and hubris—philanthropy deserves to be ignored and invisible to the public discourse because foundations show they have neither useful information to impart nor an openness to genuine inquiry.

  • No results to show: While foundations are getting better about this, they often don’t know whether their work has had the intended outcome, or any outcome for that matter. Lisbeth Schorr’s recent piece in The Chronicle of Philanthropy is very good about this topic, with cautionary words about the holy grail of evaluation while emphasizing we must talk about results. Sadly, few of the profiles revealed anything about results. Many of them may actually have good ones, but success—or failure—is not communicated and thus the work remains largely invisible.
  • No “stick-to-it-ive-ness”: Too often, philanthropy retains the same short-term horizon that afflicts business. Building impact and influence takes time, but ever-changing programs and fickle priorities limit success and encourage the public to dismiss foundation efforts. Here the profiles were largely exemplary exceptions. The most successful programs featured long-term philanthropic commitments that also built collaborations with other funders, nonprofits, the business world, and/or government.

Communication is key: Foundations are most often invisible because they and the philanthropic field have not done a good job of communicating and marketing. Years ago, the Council on Foundations conducted several studies and discovered that both the general public and public leaders didn’t understand what philanthropyis, what foundations do, and what they have accomplished. For instance, more than half of “engaged Americans” could not name a foundation and only 15 percent could give an example of a foundation’s impact. I suspect nothing has changed since those surveys were done.

The 32 profiles are incredibly diverse, are often inspiring, and suggest philanthropy does indeed have something remarkable to communicate. This effort should be widely expanded. At the same time, many of the admittedly brief profiles probably came from existing materials or were rather quickly written. To increase visibility of this great work, it might be useful if future contributions include brief answers to key questions, such as:

  • What is the issue addressed and how does it fits the foundation’s mission?
  • How was the foundation’s particular approach and strategy determined?
  • What partnerships with nonprofits and other sectors were built and funded?
  • What results were expected and what does the evidence to date suggest?
  • What has been learned from this grant or initiative that can be applied elsewhere?

As seems clear, the public and government leaders still do not fully understand the role foundations play in American society. When philanthropy is not understood; when its impact is not known; and when its knowledge and commitment appear so limited, it is our own damn fault philanthropy is invisible. It then becomes an easy target for attacks. It has to be an increasing part of our job to communicate well what we know and what we accomplish, without grandstanding and also with all of our failures acknowledged. At that point philanthropy will be truly visible to all and we can more fully contribute—and will be asked to contribute—to the public discourse about the challenges in this society.

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