The field of philanthropy is a bit like an uncharted wilderness. Unlike most 100+-year-old fields, there is no real set of “best practices” in philanthropy. There is no agreed-upon way to evaluate a charity. Most donors have never even heard of some of the basic tools of giving like charitable trusts and donor-advised funds. I’ve been discussing with a pretty esteemed group of philanthropic leaders what “strategic philanthropy” even means and how we can tell if someone is practicing it. As a field we still have an aversion to admitting that philanthropy ever fails at anything. But as everyone knows, admitting a problem is the first step in fixing it.
Personally, I’m still in the thick of learning about philanthropy. I have a large stack of books about philanthropy next to my desk that I have yet to read and another large stack of those I have read. But with one-click ordering from Amazon, it seems that my “to read” pile grows too fast to keep up with.
So let’s be ambitious and work hard to build a new and better philanthropy. But let’s also be humble and realize that we all have so much to learn. Philanthropy as a field of practice is still in its infancy. So rather than resolve that next year we will do more, do better, do faster, let us humbly resolve that in 2009 we will make better mistakes than we did in 2008. Let’s make mistakes that are the result of daring, well-informed risks—mistakes that demonstrate our willingness to embrace the unknown and try things that other people tell us can’t be done. Let’s make mistakes that we can be proud of, the kind of mistakes that we brag about over a drink with friends. “Remember that time when we…?!”
And who knows. Maybe we’ll create something wonderful.
Sean Stannard-Stockton is a principal and director of Tactical Philanthropy at Ensemble Capital Management. Ensemble Capital provides families both traditional investment management and philanthropic planning. He is the author of the blog Tactical Philanthropy and writes the column On Philanthropy for the Financial Times.