Sometimes (OK, a lot) the vision of philanthropy advanced by people like me seems to suggest that philanthropy is a science. To me, philanthropy is “tactical.” To Matthew Bishop” it blends with “capitalism.” Paul Brest advances a “strategic” view. Leslie Crutchfield & Heather McLeod Grant focus on “impact.” All of these words seem most at home in scientific world view.

But philanthropy is not a science. To people like Phil Cubeta, Bill Somerville and Tracy Gary, philanthropy is an art. Words like “love,” “inspiration,” and “intuition” dominate their conversations.

While I’m guilty of gravitating to the language of business and science when I write about philanthropy, I think it is actually a blend of art and science. But even that doesn’t capture it. Philanthropy is really something else entirely.

Recently I’ve been thinking about how music is maybe the best metaphor for philanthropy. Music is an art, sure, but it is an art based in math. Google “the science of music” and you’ll get 222,000,000 results. Music is driven by passion, but even though anyone can pick up an instrument and play it, it is broadly agreed that making good music is a talent and something that can be learned.

While music is a personal taste, we also have broad agreement around the idea of what is considered truly great music. Yet great music doesn’t always “go to scale” and in fact certain types of music reach their fullest potential when they are intentionally kept small.

Can you think about how to be tactical or strategic in how you produce music? Yes. Does capitalism have anything to do with music? No doubt. Is “love,” “inspiration” and “intuition” relevant to music? Of course. If you want to make beautiful music that changes the world and is a joy to play, you must understand music as both an art and a science. Same thing with philanthropy. Without heart, music and philanthropy are superficial. You can’t “prove” that great music or great philanthropy is truly great. Both philanthropy and music benefit the player and the listener, the giver and the receiver. The joy that a musician takes from her music does not diminish its value to the listener, it enhances it. Same thing with philanthropy. But the fact that a musician spends years trying to understand what works, analyzing other efforts and intentionally trying to craft something amazing does not diminish their work either. We expect that music is hard and that great music does not happen on accident. We should expect the same in philanthropy.

So queue up Beethoven’s Ode to Joy or the version by The Deadly Snakes if that’s more your thing. But while you’re listening check out the book This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.

AdvertisementSean 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 Tactical Philanthropy for the Chronicle of Philanthropy.