Give Smart: Philanthropy That Gets Results

Tom Tierney & Joel L. Fleishman

208 pages, PublicAffairs, 2011

Buy the book »

The purpose of literature, according to the Romantics, is to teach us how to live. Tom Tierney and Joel L. Fleishman’s book, Give Smart, aims to teach us how to give. Their contribution adds to a growing guidance curriculum for philanthropy, including books by Bill Clinton, Paul Brest, Hal Harvey, Charles Bronfman, and Jeff Solomon—with more in the pipeline. But do we need to be taught how to “give smart”? Can we be taught to “give smart”?

After all, we are living in a new golden era of giving, with more and more wealth holders committed to using their resources to change the world. And world-changing social innovations are supposedly abundant. Some believe that all we need is a system to connect the supply to the solutions. Since biology now suggests that we’re hardwired for generosity, success is inevitable. The reality, of course, is not so simple.

Ironically, mounting expectations of the wealthy inhibit philanthropy. The seriously rich and famous face remarkable social pressure these days to be bold, decisive experts on complex issues—not just to fund solutions, but also to find solutions. At Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, we see would-be donors who feel compelled to plunge into an issue—any issue—just to respond to demands. At the other extreme, we meet donors who are paralyzed as they seek the perfect program with the perfect solution. Similarly, the conviction that philanthropy is the natural act of a good person can also create barriers. If philanthropy is innate, then someone who seeks help must not be naturally good. Finally, for many wealth holders, philanthropy can become another form of consumption—or entertainment. The ultra-wealthy are, to state the obvious, ultra-empowered. Few are in a position to challenge them; rather, it’s their job to encourage and enable. All in all, there’s too little real thinking going on.

So credible books that encourage potential donors to step out of their external and internal pressure cookers, and into serious thinking, are indeed important and useful. Tierney and Fleishman have written such a book. Combining Tierney’s expertise in consulting with Joel’s expertise as a foundation head, professor, and trusted counselor, Give Smart offers potential donors a way to think about—and then act on—philanthropy. One important way that Give Smart promotes this kind of thinking is through its structure: The book is organized around half a dozen serious questions, not answers. The authors repeatedly stress that donors will answer key questions differently and will need to spend time reaching conclusions.

The six questions—all remarkably simple on the surface and complex upon contemplation—are: What are my values and beliefs? What is “success” and how can it be achieved? What am I accountable for? What will it take to get the job done? How do I work with grantees? Am I getting better? There is also a helpful checklist at the back of the book that provides progress indicators for each question.

Give Smart is especially powerful in three areas. First is its comfort with the paradox that philanthropy at its best is both visceral and analytical. Tierney and Fleishman are clear that philanthropy begins with values and beliefs, and that research, evidence, and strategy must be built onto that framework.

Second, the authors are direct about what’s realistic. Through a series of examples as well as sound advice, they make it clear that there is no magic grant, there is work involved in making progress, and “success” does not mean “problem solved.”

Third, and perhaps most important, the authors devote considerable space to the relationship between the donor and the nonprofit. Here they are highly prescriptive. They speak frankly and bluntly about the donor-grantee power imbalance and the dangers of the super-empowered imposing their own conclusions, criteria, and calculations. They address the false idol of low overhead costs persuasively.

Tierney and Fleishman speak directly and clearly to an implied audience of very wealthy donors, with both respect and candor. streams—but the authors don’t hammer home the lesson that the big bucks aren’t always in philanthropy.

Give Smart admirably asks a donor to think about accountability, but the chapter on this subject focuses on what the donor wishes to commit, with self-accountability the dominant theme. As the authors note, external accountability is virtually nonexistent. But that doesn’t mean donors shouldn’t think more about what it means to be a steward for the public good.

Finally, Tierney and Fleishman could have done more to address directly the forces that tug at the ultra-wealthy. In addition to the pressures mentioned above to act quickly, boldly, and confidently in giving, wealth holders embarking on serious philanthropy must often confront conflicting family expectations as well as pressure from peers and colleagues. Tierney and Fleishman focus, by choice, on philanthropy through the lens of a major initiative, but most donors are balancing a portfolio of causes, interests, and constituents. That’s often the third rail of philanthropy, and it absorbs an enormous amount of donors’ time and energy. But perhaps that’s a topic for another book.

Melissa A. Berman is president of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. She also serves as a director of the Foundation Center and as an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School.