Revisiting the Philanthropic Contract

This paper was developed from a speech I gave in New Zealand in 2006 to a group of people associated with the Community Trusts that exist throughout that country. I was asked to speak about Maytree’s approach to grant making and to give my view on trends in philanthropy from my experience in Canada, the US, and UK.

On rereading it now, I’m taken with how little I would change if I were writing it afresh. Of course, I would update some things: the City Parochial Trust in London is now known as The Trust for London (and its wonderful leader Bharat Mehta has changed his title from Clerk to Chief Executive). When I write in the paper about some Maytree ideas for capacity building in the community sector, I would add subsequent activities like the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council, Cities of Migration, DiverseCity onBoard, School4Civics, and Building Blocks. And I am no longer chair of The Philanthropic Initiative in Boston. But these are not substantive changes.

My comments in the paper seem to fall into two camps: the cheerful and the grouchy. On the cheerful side, I note an interest among donors in a more strategic approach, an attention to the scalability of effective work, a business-like approach to managing organizations and getting results, an interest in affecting public policy as one of the biggest levers for change, a recognition of the importance of capturing and sharing the knowledge we are generating in our work, and the value of developing and using our power to convene the wide cast of actors needed to work effectively in community.

I still see all of these being employed as I look around me. Not employed by everyone, but by enough to remain cheerful. And there is always the hope that the good cheer will spread as others pick up these useful practices.

I am also seeing another reason to be cheerful that I missed in the original paper. I see a whole new cohort of younger people becoming active in the community sector who are communicating easily with the broad range of donors in private and community foundations, corporations, and government and bringing real innovation into play. Many of the ones I see are working on urban issues: affordable housing; the provision of transit and transportation, which enables people to get to work, school, and play; the quality of public spaces; good jobs; and the ability of people to participate in our democracy (despite federal government efforts to exclude them). They are working closely with donors and changing the ways donors think, often relaxing our perceptions of risk while increasing our engagement.

Then there is the grouchy side of my paper, where I found myself wagging a finger at what I portrayed as dangerous practice. Most of this was based in what I described as a power imbalance between donors and applicants/recipients. I cautioned us donors from exercising that power inappropriately, in ways that served our interest more than those of the charity or, worse, its clients. I saw dangers in too liberal an exercise of “venture” philanthropy, where we encouraged risk taking, which usually meant risk to someone other than us. I expressed a fear that we might interfere in complex situations without the depth of knowledge required.

In retrospect, I’m still grouchy on these matters. I think these represent a big risk for donors, a risk that gets played out on others with less resilience than us. Whenever I hear a donor in search of charitable innovation say something like, “You have to break some eggs to make an omelette,” I know they are talking about someone else’s eggs.

In terms of trends in the last few years, I’m seeing less inclination for donors to look either to partnering with government or developing something that they hope government might adopt. There is a thought by some that governments are too poor to take on new things, an attitude encouraged by some governments. There is also a thought that governments should do less and that private money should do more. This, as I note in the paper, is an expensive opinion. In fact, there isn’t enough private money aimed at community needs to solve the difficult issues of human suffering and deprivation. We need government, and we need to help it succeed. Its large fiscal capacity is one of the keys to scale and sustainability. Helping government do the right things remains a critical role of philanthropy.

If I’ve changed in any significant way since the paper was published, it is probably salutary in that I’m less inclined to opine on philanthropy generally (this brief comment I was invited to do by The Philanthropist aside). At Maytree, we are much more inclined to define ourselves as activists these days, all within the confines of Canada Revenue Agency guidelines, you’ll be reassured to know. Other voices are much better to offer advice to philanthropists, and no doubt will. But, revisiting one’s past sins from a distance is always bracing, and helps think about the path forward.