In the wake of the recent Giving Pledges, we’ve been discussing what advice we’d give a major philanthropist (aside from our usual plea to conduct evaluations and share them publicly).
For the most part, our recommendations and criteria are aimed at individual donors, not major philanthropists. We stress the value of given to proven, cost-effective, scalable organizations rather than funding experiments, but we don’t feel that this advice applies to major philanthropists – taking risks with small, untested organizations and approaches makes a great deal of sense when you have the time and funds to follow their work closely, hold them accountable, and perform the evaluation that will hopefully show you (and possibly/eventually the world) how things arae going. However, we do have some thoughts on the kind of risk that’s worth taking.
One of our biggest frustrations in trying to help individual donors has been the difficulty of finding organizations, as opposed to programs or projects, we can be confident in. As we have discussed in our series on room for more funding, we feel that donors can’t take “restricted gifts” at face value, and that they must ultimately either find an organization they can be confident in as a whole or one with a clear and publicly disclosed agenda for it would do with more funding. Such organizations have proven very difficult to find.
- In the area of developing-world aid, we’ve found many organizations with activities so diverse that it’s impossible for us, or for them, to provide any kind of bird’s-eye view of their activities.
- Meanwhile, we’ve also seen very promising intervention categories that we can’t support simply because we can’t match them to strong, focused organizations. See our past discussion of community-led total sanitation; we have similar issues with salt iodization.
- In more informal investigations into other causes, we’ve found a multitude of organizations that seem to act as “umbrellas” for a cause, seemingly doing “many things related to the cause” rather than pursuing narrower, targeted agendas. For an example, see our discussion of anti-cancer organizations.
- For another example, see the organizations listed at Philanthropedia’s report on global warming, which are mostly not focused solely on specific anti-global-warming strategies, but rather extremely broad environmental organizations simultaneously carrying out all manner of global-warming-related activities (forest conservation, political advocacy, research into new energy sources and more), as well as non-global-warming-related activities such as endangered species protection.
Of course, it could make sense for an organization to have varied activities, if there are synergies between them and a clear strategy underlying them. But in all the cases discussed above, that doesn’t appear to be what’s happening. In fact, my impression from the conversations I’ve had with major funders is that most large organizations are essentially loose coalitions of separate offices and projects, some excellent, some poor. Two major funders have stated to me, off the record, that one major international nonprofit does great work in some areas but that they would never endorse a contribution to it. One has stated to me that (paraphrasing) “I don’t think about what organization to fund – it all comes down to which people are good, and people move around a lot.” From scrutinizing nearly any major funder’s list of grants, or from examining the work of the Center for High-Impact Philanthropy at University of Pennsylvania (which aims to advise larger donors), it seems clear that the typical approach of a major funder is to evaluate projects and people, not organizations.
Unfortunately, this attitude is somewhat self-fulfilling. As long as major funders treat organizations as contractors to carry out their projects of choice, organizations will remain loose coalitions; successful projects will be isolated events. We’ll see none of the gains that come with organization-level culture, knowledge and training built around core competencies. And people giving smaller amounts will have no way to know what they’re really giving to.
We’ve argued before that great organizations are born, not made. Rather than trying to wrench existing organizations into their preferred projects, we’d like to see more major funders trying to “birth” great organizations, so that there’s something left over when they move on.