EFFECTIVE PHILANTHROPY
Organizational Success Through Deep Diversity and Gender Equity
Mary Ellen S. Capek & Molly Mead
320 pages (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006)

The question of what constitutes effective foundation philanthropy has received increasing attention and generated healthy new debate over the past several years. This debate has been driven in part by an increase in external scrutiny of foundations, and in part by foundation and nonprofit professionals who passionately believe that the field of philanthropy is obligated to maximize the impact of its growing resources. While many have weighed in with their opinions on the issue, little consensus has emerged on how effective philanthropy should be judged.

Stepping into this fray, Capek and Mead lay out a bold goal for their latest contribution to this discussion: “to provide readers with an understanding of gender … that is sufficient to unlock organizational norms that impede effectiveness: those formal, informal, and unconscious ways difference is locked in or (better said) locked OUT of organizational structures and cultures.” They also aim “to offer insight into how understanding gender enhances and strengthens innovation and effectiveness.”

This isn’t a book about combating discrimination in foundations. Nor is it explicitly a guide for improving funding to women and girls. Rather, it is a call to understand “deep diversity” – and gender’s role as one aspect of diversity – as integral to increasing foundations’ learning, creativity, flexibility, growth, communication, and leadership. The authors repeatedly emphasize that once deep diversity is institutionalized in both board and staff, the ultimate barrier to effectiveness – failing to recognize and question social and organizational norms – will be challenged.

The authors posit a simple definition of effective philanthropy as “philanthropy that has impact.” In chapters 5 and 6, they make the case that understanding the role of gender in funding youth programs and international grants leads to greater philanthropic impact. These chapters combine quantitative and qualitative data to make the point that achieving impact through universal funding – programs that serve both genders – can be tricky.

The authors present a strong case for targeting at least some grantmaking to girls-only or women-only programs. They also make the point that foundations have a role to play not only in improving their philanthropy, but also in improving their grantees’ programs. By funding programs targeted to girls and women and by bringing a consciousness of gender-associated differences to grantees that run universal programs, foundations can increase their impact.

However, the authors’ evidence for the idea that deep diversity plays an important role in generating overall philanthropic effectiveness is weaker. To argue that case, Capek and Mead rely on interviews at six different foundations, selected because unnamed “peers” respect them for their institutionalization of deep diversity. The six foundations are the Otto Bremer Foundation, the California Wellness Foundation, the Hyams Foundation, the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, the Philadelphia Foundation, and the Public Welfare Foundation.

In each case study, the foundation’s leadership tells the story of how attentiveness to gender and racial diversity has changed the thinking at their respective foundations. To suggest that this creates overall effectiveness, the authors look for what they call “benchmarks of effective philanthropy,” such as providing core support, multiyear grants, responsive grantmaking, balanced and respectful power relationships with grantees, “and so on.”

As likely as it may seem to the authors and others that each of these practices leads to effective philanthropy, there is little data about whether they actually do so. For instance, there is a vigorous yet unresolved debate in the field, mostly in the absence of data, about whether core (or operating) support is actually more effective than program (or project) support.

Capek and Mead offer no contrasting information by which to judge these cases. Those held up as exemplars are not compared to foundations that are less well regarded for their understanding of diversity. Nor are readers offered much of a look at how these six foundations functioned before they institutionalized deep diversity, making it difficult to understand diversity’s role in creating effectiveness.

Finally, the vast majority of perspectives offered come from within the very foundations held up as exemplars – hardly an objective perspective. The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), my organization, has surveyed the grantees of all but one of these foundations, and we know that, at least from the grantees’ perspectives, not all of these foundations are effective in the ways the authors assert.

For example, Capek and Mead cite strong interactions with grantees as strengths tied to the deep diversity of these foundations. Yet in CEP surveys, grantees of at least one of the six foundations rated its approachability, responsiveness, and fairness very poorly. On average, they rate this foundation’s interactions in the lowest 10 percent of the 180 foundations whose grantees we surveyed. Evidence of overall effective philanthropy requires a higher bar than foundation insiders telling good stories about their own work.

Measuring foundationwide social impact is nearly impossible for most foundations of any size or complexity. As a result, it is tempting to declare that certain foundation practices lead to greater social impact simply because the practices seem effective. We should resist this tendency. The authors present solid evidence of gender-associated differences in outcomes for specific funding areas, such as international grantmaking and youth programs. They also make a strong case that foundations interested in these areas must be mindful of deep diversity to achieve effectiveness. However, this case does not generalize to foundations focused on other funding areas or to overall foundation effectiveness.

Much of this book, though, is an important reminder for all of us to continue to question the status quo. While we’re at it, though, we should also question the all-too-common practice of asserting effectiveness without drawing on rigorously collected data from diverse sources. Only when we marshal such evidence will we be able to understand what constitutes effective philanthropy.


Kevin Bolduc is associate director of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, a nonprofit research organization focused on foundations’ efforts to define, assess, and improve their overall performance.

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