The never changing world of philanthropy

New approaches to solving old problems is the innovation mantra of more than one philanthropic foundation in Australia. Recently this got me thinking about the different approaches operating within the grantmaking space in Australia. With a few notable exceptions aside I think it is fair to say that most trusts and foundations operate in a pretty similar procedural manner.  So while funders ask grantseekers to innovate in their practices there is little experimentation around grantmaking practices. Can we assume this lack of innovation from funders in their grantmaking approaches is due to the fact that funders have got their processes perfected?  I wonder what grantseekers would say to that?

So what do grantseekers think of Australian funders? Officially we don’t really know but I doubt that is because applicants and grantees don’t have opinions.  The unfortunate reality is that there is little opportunity provided for grantseeker or grantee feedback about a funders approach to their grantmaking. In the United States the Centre for Effective Philanthropy has developed the The Grantee Perception Report® (GPR) which provides grantmakers with comparative and frank feedback on how grantees think they are performing.  Some funders even choose to make their reports publicly available. The GPR allows philanthropic boards to assess their performance as funders, this in turn helps them to work more effectively with grantees in the pursuit of their mission.

If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck…

So is the answer to better practices and diversity in grantmaking approach as simple as the provision of a feedback loop? While comparatively speaking there are greater levels of diversity in philanthropic practices across the United States it could be argued that ‘sameness’ is still the dominant feature of their foundation sector.

In a 2009 post on her philanthropy blog, Stanford University’s Centre on Philanthropy and Civil Society Visiting Fellow, Lucy Bernholz, questioned why, when there is so much that people outside of the foundation field would change about how philanthropy functions, has so little changed in past 100 years. She contends:

It doesn’t seem possible that these practices survive because they work well, please the customers, or even please the board and staff who choose them and re-create them. Institutional isomorphism is one of those graduate school concepts that is… true to life – organizations mimic like organizations, even when it doesn’t necessarily serve their purposes” (2009).

Isomorphism is basically the much flashier way of saying ‘sameness’.  It should also be said that not all about isomorphism is bad. If you look like a duck and talk like a duck chances are other ducks are going to accept you. These behaviors are really evident in the corporate world where organisations that look like each other (in terms of board structure, staffing structure, business philosophies) will more easily attract investors, customers and secure loans.  In short isomorphic behavior gives many organisations legitimacy.

There have been studies that suggest that isomorphism within the nonprofit sector is not as evident as it might be in the corporate world.  I’d contend however that traditional philanthropy is the exception to that nonprofit rule and there are a couple of reasons for that.  Think of the really big Australian philanthropic foundations, even most of the small ones too – they seem to operate and look pretty similar to one another in their grantmaking (e.g. application process, closing dates, reviews, board meeting, results etc). Objectives and priorities might be different, but processes and board structures are fairly similar. Part of this is driven by fiduciary responsibilities.  Trustees of foundations need to concerns themselves first and foremost with management of the assets – the upside is that if they do this well they can give away more money. So with grantmaking merely a by-product, it’s not hard to understand why diversity in grantmaking approach is not as evident as it might be.

Competition in the corporate world drives innovation and new behaviours.  In the nonprofit world, there is competition too for funds as well as the mission driven approach that dictates how NFPs work and the skills sets that they have on their boards and among their staff.  In philanthropy that competition doesn’t exist and compliance is focused almost solely on tax and law. So how do we drive diversity?  How to do celebrate those foundations that invest more in understanding that sometimes what is really important is the way you give? Perhaps a good starting point is to accept some feedback from those we work with most closely, our grantees. We also need to start listening and learning from those funders who are working a little bit outside the box. What have been their experiences, successes and failures? How did they bring their boards on that journey?

So what do people think really good models of philanthropy look like? Can we start to compile some of the features that not only lead to better practices in philanthropy but greater impact on the ground?

You can follow the musings of Caitriona Fay on Twitter via @cat_fay or the blog via @3eggphil


Increasing professionalism: the role of trustee companies in philanthropy

It has been expressed to me on more than one occasion that philanthropy is becoming too professional. I work in the sector, so I try not to take it personally but I think it is time to pick apart the debate a little. We’ve previously tackled on this blog the delicate balance that good philanthropic grantmaking must attempt to strike: a warm heart and a cold eye. There have been a number of good posts and speeches about the nature of philanthropy and the belief that altruism is unique and embedded within human nature. There are also the economists of this world and other theorists who believe altruism, like all other human behaviours, is incentivised and can be moulded into form.

It appears the nonprofit sector, with the exception of a couple of amateur sporting codes (Gaelic football comes to mind), is the final domain of debate around whether increased professionalism diminishes rather than increases the value of a sector. Does increased professionalism, and the development and employment costs it carries, remove much needed funding from the service coal face, or ultimately help to deliver more while building efficiencies?

With relation to professionalism within philanthropy I hear two main complaints:

  1. There are a lot of people making a lot of money out of spruiking the value of professional organised philanthropy and/or;
  2. Philanthropy has lost its benevolent heart and is no longer organic or enjoyable.  In short, it’s become work rather than play.

The question of philanthropy profiteering is more often than not pointed in one direction – trustee companies. With the enormous growth in private ancillary funds and the governance arrangements they carry there is suddenly money to be made in giving away money. Of the 5,000 or so estimated trusts and foundations in Australia more than half are thought to be held within trustee companies.  These pots of funding are held outside of the public view and are managed and coupled with investment and other financial services. To the cynical, trustee company philanthropy is perceived as tax-break grantmaking and the philanthropic services they offer is viewed as being muddled up with, and merely ancillary to, the bigger bucks of the financial services game.

Equally, those who lament the loss of the benevolent heart of philanthropy are genuinely fearful that philanthropy is the latest victim of fads and bureaucracies that add little value and ultimately deter people from giving. In the world of strategic grantmaking, venture philanthropy, philanhrocapitalism and engaged philanthropy, the concern is that the joy of giving has been lost and with it, potential philanthropists.

It would surprise some detractors perhaps to learn that despite concerns around profiteering and the loss of the joy of philanthropy, it appears that financial advisers and trustee companies might actually be playing an important role in both attracting people to and educating people about philanthropy.  A report from the Queensland University of Technology, Foundations for Giving: why and how Australians structure their philanthropy, documents responses from 40 people involved in structured, formalised philanthropy.  Virtually all respondents indicated that advisers and other intermediaries played some role in their philanthropy and the views expressed were generally positive.  In fact, the negative views expressed by respondents around advisers seems to suggest a greater level of expertise in philanthropy and skills in grantmaking would be preferable.

Philanthropy is and always will be a ‘people’s’ game.  Its about people being inspired by other people.  Its about people trusting and believing in other people.  Most of all it is about people wanting to create better lives and communities for others. It is hard to imagine that the heart of philanthropy will be lost simply through increased professionalism. In fact there is mounting evidence to suggest that the opposite may actually be true. Some of Australia’s trustee companies are driving not only increased professionalism within philanthropy, but also a greater diversity in practices and approaches to grantmaking. Some of our most vocal proponents for greater levels of giving among Australia’s wealthy, increased investment in organizational capacity support and improved engagement and evaluation of grantmaking approaches, are coming from within the trustee company sector. The gags many individual philanthropists are compelled to wear when talking about their philanthropy are less evident within adviser circles.

Good trustee companies will be passionate about their philanthropy and the approaches available to their clients.  Poor trustee companies will see philanthropic services as ancillary, and more than likely will charge a hefty price for the pleasure. As is the case with all services, donors should shop around, the cream of the crop will quickly become evident.

The professionalism that trustee companies bring to client services is beginning to have an impact on philanthropy as it is delivered in Australia.  It’s a diversity that the sector absolutely needs.  More choice for donors and potential philanthropists is important as is greater debate on grantmaking approaches and philosophies.

You can follow the musings of Caitriona Fay via @cat_fay on twitter and the eggs via @3eggphil