Paul Brest’s article poses a puzzle. He says that strategic philanthropy is “more likely to achieve a donor’s…goals than any alternative,” yet also observes that it has not been widely adopted. How can we explain this? As compelling as Brest’s case for strategic philanthropy may be, as described it is at odds with the fundamental nature of philanthropy and donor motivations. The issue rests in the highly rationalistic framework embodied by strategic philanthropy that underestimates the emotional and institutional bases of giving.

Let’s begin by considering what philanthropy is. As Robert Payton writes, philanthropy can be defined as “voluntary action for the public good.” Broader than charity which is aimed at the poor, philanthropy seeks to improve quality of life in myriad ways. Payton characterizes philanthropy as crucial to a civilized society, but also diagnoses its   limitations. Whatever its merits, he argued, philanthropy is often neither an ideal nor efficient way to get things done: “If we focus on distribution, there are simply better alternatives.1

Strategic philanthropy, however, calls on philanthropy to be effective and efficient—to embody the very virtues that Payton identifies as its limitations. But why should philanthropy, which has surely often furthered the “public good,” not be an ideal vehicle for effectively and efficiently achieving outcomes? Here we need to look at why donors give—why they decide to engage in voluntary action for the public good. It’s at this point that the rationalistic framework proposed and valorized by strategic philanthropy runs into conflict with philanthropy as widely practiced among affluent donors (at whom the argument is directed).

At the deepest level, philanthropy in the United States reflects a deep ideological orientation about how society should be organized—namely with ample scope for “voluntary action” independent of governmental authority. Donors’ decisions about what to support, however, are often not the product of a rational calculation of the most pressing public needs and ways to address them, or even the desire to advance the “public good” writ large. Many, and perhaps most, surely believe their philanthropy contributes to the public good, but motivations and selection of causes are highly personal, reflect donors’ sense of identity, and are deeply embedded in the networks and culture of their social groups. Furthermore, their motivation is often a desire to support certain institutions with which they feel a connection.

Successful fundraisers often say that philanthropy is about building relationships, and people are more likely to contribute to causes with which they have a personal involvement. Consider the following examples of three major gifts that donors have told me about during interviews:

  • A woman made a large donation to an arts organization. Her motivation was not that she loved the art form, but her son did and following his death, she gave to perpetuate his memory.
  • A man gave one of his largest gifts to his alma mater. His primary passion was the arts, but he felt that he owed his success to his university and was therefore obligated to share his success by giving back to it.
  • A third donor had always been philanthropic but without focus or passion. After a family member fell victim to a serious disease, he developed a focus, on finding a cure.

The emotional connections expressed in philanthropy are frequently interpreted as self-interest. That may be, but is not necessarily, the case. Thus, we find people giving to find cures for diseases after it is too late for their family, or giving to honor someone else’s memory. The important point is that it is frequently a sense of connection that promotes giving.

Brest writes that “strategic philanthropy has nothing to say about one’s philanthropic goals.” Strategy refers to how donors seek to achieve their goals, not what the goals are, and “calls for an expected return mindset” in which donors implement their goals as effectively as possible. The problem is that the why and the how of philanthropy are not so easily separated because often the goal is to support a specific institution. That is well-illustrated by the first two examples. The man giving to education is not seeking the best university to support, but repaying an obligation to his alma mater. Brest characterizes strategic philanthropy as “synonymous with outcome-oriented, result-oriented and effective philanthropy.” Yet for many donors, once they have given to an organization they value, they have achieved their desired outcome.

The third donor’s quest for a cure could be a candidate for strategic giving. Yet many donors do not seek the “best” solution to a problem. They support organizations encountered through personal connections that they trust, feel are effective, and are loyal to. Brest addresses psychological barriers to strategic philanthropy—but the issue is not simply that people don’t want to give strategically, are satisfied by the “warm glow” of giving, or that learning about outcomes might diminish that glow. It is that they do experience their philanthropy as producing outcomes, which they feel that they observe through familiarity with the organization they give to.

Brest concedes the difficulty of proving that strategic philanthropy is more likely to make the world better than giving based on passion, recognition, or reciprocity, but concludes that “the case for strategic philanthropy ultimately is based on the belief that the intentional, systematic, and rational pursuit of an outcome increases the chances of achieving it.”

The rationalistic and abstract approach embodied by strategic philanthropy will likely remain an obstacle to its wider adoption. Yet Brest offers a highly compelling case that many philanthropic goals might be well served by its adoption. Here, strategic philanthropy might do well to take a page from what we know about the actual practice of philanthropy. Strategic philanthropy’s best shot at wider adoption may lie less in compelling arguments than in finding ways to embed it in the culture and social networks of those its seeks to attract.

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