Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Money Well Spent

I received my review copy of Money Well Spent, the new book on strategic philanthropy by Paul Brest and Hal Harvey, back in August. I sat right down and read the book, but waited to post this review to align with the timing of the book’s public availability. Given that there’s been a “slight” change in our financial structures since August, I’m glad I held back. Harvey and Brest can’t rewrite the book before it hits the shelves to account for the changing economic fortunes across the U.S. or the new landscape of investment banking, Wall Street, and mortgage lenders (to say nothing of taxpayers and mortgage owners). Nor can (this edition of) the book ponder the implications of these crisis-driven shifts in the financial industry or regulatory systems on the philanthropic industry.

But I can. So let me use the occasion of this book review to remind us of how interconnected the business of giving is with the fortunes of finance and the vagaries of regulation. I have always contended that philanthropy is a regulated industry. Three forces define the outlines of philanthropy as we know it – markets are the first and regulatory structures around personal taxes and institutional tax exemptions make up the second. The third, a concern for others, is the only one of these forces that flows from within humanity and stands outside of human institutions and systems.

Lets get on with it. The book marks a significant moment in the marketization of philanthropy. It is, in its own words:

"...intended to do for philanthropists what the best books on business strategy do for business entrepreneurs and executives: provide readers with the concepts necessary to design a strategy to achieve their goals - in this case their charitable goals." (preface, page xi, review copy)

Why does this matter? Because such a 'manual' couldn't have been published 10, maybe even 5 years ago. Why? For at least three reasons: First, there was not enough material, hadn't been enough discussion, not enough real development of strategic technique and thinking. Even though foundation philanthropy - which the two authors know best of philanthropy's many forms - has been around for almost 100 years, there was not, until recently, the commitment to an industry, a demand for strategy, lasting challenges to the status quo, or a significant quantity of players, thinkers, institutions, vehicles and experiments about philanthropic practice to actually inform a book such as this.

Second, and perhaps more important, there was no visible demand. The market of individuals who might become philanthropic, and of philanthropists who might become strategic, and of advisers who'd like to sell to this market, and of financial companies who wish to manage assets for these individuals - these were all too fragmented, too under-the-radar, and too quiet. Only in the boom of the last six or seven years have critical numbers of each of these developed to the point where there was an identifiable, reachable target market.

Finally, the book is published by Bloomberg, which is an example of the changes that have occurred in the philanthropy marketplace and of those to come. That a financial press is bringing out this first guide for the mass market is telling - their readers care about this stuff, they see philanthropy as a core business skill, and the business press intends to serve them.

That said, what about the book's contents? The authors divide the work into three sections - Framework, Tools, and Organizing Your Resources. The first two are relevant to all their intended audiences - the last one is best for individual donors and their financial or legal advisers. Professional foundation staff (a small group, about 18,000 or so nationally, including both of the authors) may be less interested in the third section.

The logic of the sections is important - Brest and Harvey go to great lengths to present strategy absent ideology or issue. Their frame for thinking, their recommendations on strategy development, programmatic approach, asset allocation, evaluation, structure, and so on are determinedly issue-agnostic. It doesn't matter, assert the authors, if you are interested in the arts or health care, whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, whether you want your philanthropy to support micro-finance in Zimbabwe or Zen studies in Michigan - the guidance they offer is relevant.

And much of it is. Of particular use is the frame that the author's provide to help a donor locate their goals. They present a frame for thinking about the scale of philanthropic goals that I believe is truly important. This scale offer three dimensions to consider:

* Does the problem diminish the quality of life or does it threaten life itself?
* How long will the harm persist?
* What is the scope of the problem? (pp. 22-28, review copy)

These are three, judgement-free, axes that will help a donor articulate his/her goals and escape "zero-sum"comparisons of "infants or immigrants, arts or AIDS." This is valuable, it effectively "de-escalates" judgement value on values that often paralyze people.

Working from this three-dimensional analysis, Brest and Harvey take readers through carefully chosen, well-documented stories that illustrate real-life choices to define a problem, establish a funding strategy, and evaluate the support that is provided. They provide accessible, and relevant, discussions of technicalities such as expenditure responsibility grants, prizes and awards, and payout rates that will help donors make better decisions about their philanthropy. Simply put, the advice in this book will help people give smarter.

As useful as the advice is, I still found myself pondering two ironies as I finished my read. The first irony is that the same place the book succeeds is where I also think it falls short. No doubt about it, Brest and Harvey have synthesized and presented key elements of rational, strategic giving. Their chapters on goal articulation, strategy and evaluation logically lead them to their final section on organizing resources - the book takes to heart the idea that form should follow function. What it leaves out is the heart. Philanthropy is an industry, enterprises within it do compete as businesses, and it is becoming ever more rational, measurable and visible because of this. These are good things.

Philanthropy is also a labor of love. It is perhaps the only business where passion and volunteerism play major roles. No matter how strategic a donor or foundation becomes, they may still be pursue what some will consider to be foolish, frivolous, or redundant goals. No matter how strategic or effective (or neither) a foundation may be, at any point in time for any number of reasons (some rational, others perhaps not) the donor may pull the plug, redirect the resources, or simply decide to no longer participate. There is little to put an endowed foundation out of business, nothing to tell a donor "don't do that, it is actually harmful," or little that can keep someone from packing up her philanthropic playthings and going home. The most strategic foundation, the most carefully evaluated program strategy, and the most well-weighted goals will still be pre-defined by the donor's interests - be they environmental, health related, artistic, justice oriented, equality-seeking, or none of the above. So while the focus on strategy and measurement are in sync with two of the defining forces of philanthropy (markets and regulation), they are out of sync with the third, the heart and human nature.

The second irony of the book has to do with the timing of its release. Just as this book could not have been published 10 or 5 years ago, it is somewhat fitting that it is being released in the midst of a crisis-induced restructuring of American financial markets and the public systems that oversee them. The book was written during a boom that seemed to have no end, it is informed by a mindset that philanthropy as an industry will continue to grow in size and sophistication and it is intended to inform that growth strategically. Only hindsight will tell us if this transformative moment for markets and regulations is also a transformative moment for the business of giving.

One can easily see a need to be more strategic with declining philanthropic resources, just as Harvey and Brest lay out the need to be more strategic during boom times. Whether or not that will happen, however, is anyone’s guess. If it does, it will more than likely depend on that amorphous, irrational, non-strategic third defining force, the heart of philanthropy, as the roles and shapes of markets and regulation are reconstituted.

The publication timing for Money Well Spent will either prove to be deeply ironic or deeply prescient. In either case, since any valid philanthropic strategy must account for the context of relationships between independent actions, public systems, and private markets, Brest and Harvey’s message remains important, we just can’t predict how well it will be heard.

Full disclosure: I had several opportunities to discuss the developing book with the authors and provided feedback on a penultimate version of the manuscript. I have to say, for all my love of blogs and RSS feeds, and reading the news on my iPhone it is still exciting to see a book become a book (as in the real artifact, bound paper with a nice cover, table of contents, index, the whole shebang). Even as it is, of course, also a website. (

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