OP-ED: Effectiveness in Philanthropy, A Commonsense Approach
October 20, 2005
by Ellen Remmer
The following essay was prepared for a discussion on effectiveness in philanthropy—part of a series of six discussions entitled "The Dialogues on Civic Philanthropy: Perfecting Our Grants" (2005-2006). By clicking the links to the right, you can access more information on this series, learn about the Dialogues project as a whole, read other prepared essays, and download discussion transcripts.
THROUGH MY work at TPI, I have helped many donors navigate the early stages or significant transitions of creating a philanthropy. Many (but not all) have wrestled with the issue of philanthropic effectiveness. As a Board member of a small but strategic foundation, I have struggled with the perennial “so what” questions facing those of us who take our philanthropy seriously. Along the way, I have developed a few biases which I tee up to you here. And then I’m going to tell a real story.
- I believe that philanthropy serves many good and worthwhile purposes in American society and that all this fuss about what it “should” do to be effective carries risks, most important of which is suppressing philanthropic expression. I believe in philanthropy as a catalyst to improve society. I believe in philanthropy as a wonderful way to engage individuals in civic society. I believe in philanthropy as an important tool for moral and financial parenting. All such purposes are good, even noble.
- I agree entirely with Peter Frumkin that most of the discussion on philanthropic effectiveness has been a game of mirrors as foundations and non-institutional donors have deflected the onus of proof to grantees, without taking a “steady and daunting introspective gaze.” Since effectiveness can only be measured in comparison to goals, philanthropists owe it to themselves and to the society that fosters them, to articulate a clear vision and steadily and dauntingly compare their performance against goals.
- The emphasis on quantitative metrics has contributed to some great new tools, but is also way overblown. Many changes cannot be measured in quantitative terms, and what can be measured may not always be the most important piece of information. The mostly short-term horizon of numeric measurement can even be misleading when assessing whether long-term results are being achieved. And I fear that an over-reliance on quantitative data can scare philanthropists away from tackling big, hairy, gutsy goals that are both complex and vital.
- And I agree with Peter Karoff, founder of TPI, that listening is a critical skill for donors to use and to practice and to use again if they are to become effective and know whether their actions are effective (Listen to the Voices). Donors who listen to their grantees and other community stakeholders develop a realistic picture of “success” and what it takes to get there. Donors who work as long term partners with grantees get honest and valuable feedback about what works and what doesn’t work. They have street knowledge and street smarts.
So now the story.
Melinda Marble, Executive Director of the Paul and Phyllis Fireman Charitable Foundation, is one of those brilliant, humble and down to earth folks that I like to turn to for common sense wisdom. I asked her how the foundation has looked at the question of effectiveness, particularly for its signature program, One Family, which seeks to end family homelessness in Massachusetts through an array of strategies: conve
Ellen Remmer is a vice president at The Philanthropic Initiative, Inc. (TPI).