Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Smart Givers Give Smart - and more

What makes for a smart giver? Tom Tierney and Joel Fleishman believe it requires reflection, humility, persistence, and clarity of purpose. I’d agree with them on all of those attributes. I found a lot to like in their new book, Give Smart. It is the most accessible guide for donors I’ve read in a long time. It’s full of stories drawn from the authors’ own work with donors and foundations. Most of these stories identify the people or organizations involved. This lets a studious reader follow up on the ideas or programs discussed.

Of course, the stories with unnamed sources are the most intriguing. These are where the authors take the most freedom to point out basic arrogance or the perfect vision of hindsight. Fleishman and Tierney have drawn out several important themes and laid them out in such a way that the book will be a useful reflection tool for established boards and a primer for startup donors.

Unless, that is, the donor has any pre-existing presence on social networks, has made their own money, or is not yet married with children. It’s not that some of Tierney/Fleishman’s advice doesn’t fit the young, single, tech-savvy donor – but none of it is written for them. Donors without children may find the sections on family value setting quaint. The assumptions simply don’t resonate for donors who have most of their lives ahead of them. Role setting for future generations, the release of control to staff or a board, endowing a foundation in perpetuity – these frames can’t be assumed for a fast growing and influential segment of the book’s target audience.

The book makes no mention of peer networks – online and off – critical components of doing everything for just about everybody younger than a baby boomer. It makes no reference to the changing landscape of data on giving. It largely ignores the growth of tertiary products and services that donors navigate even before they begin giving. This is a funny oversight, since Tierney runs Bridgespan, a dominant firm in the advisory services industry.

Tierney and Fleishman do encourage "smart" donors to consider carefully the relationships between their resources, their aspirations, and public sector support for those issues. This is more important than ever. Public budgets are being slashed and philanthropy, whether it seeks it or not, is getting more and more scrutiny. Let's not fool ourselves - the hottest political question of our day is at stake - what is the proper role of government? Similar questions needs to be asked about philanthropy - what do we really want it to do and how do we want to promote choice and voluntary giving - today. The last time we had this discussion in full, in legislative context, was...well, I'm not sure we've ever really had it.

There is one huge fallacy to be wary of - there is no philanthropy that can make up for public responsibilities. Private dollars are too tiny, too idiosyncratic, too fragmented. To hold simultaneous conversations about cutting public budgets and promoting charitable giving and volunteering without falling into this trap is hard - hence we get discussions like this one that don't ask the bigger questions about the purpose and potential of each sector. The UK is having these conversations right now, quite loudly. We should be listening.

Give Smart also makes short shrift of the selection process from investing to giving that more and more donors (and foundations) are integrating into their strategies.Whether you're a billionaire philanthropist or one of the 100s of millions of people who make up the long tail of the philanthropic revenue stream, you face daily choices about supporting causes by shopping, giving or investing. You can buy a pair of shoes and give a pair of shoes. You can invest your money in a fund that supports microfinance lenders, you can tithe at church, you can give strategically, and you can participate in your company's corporate giving efforts. In fact, more and more of us are doing all of these things. That's the new landscape - and smart givers are navigating it with data, relationships, peer groups, giving circles, and professional advisers. Tierney and Fleishman's book will help them with one important piece of that puzzle. Now if only we had a similiary useful manual for guiding the bigger discussion about public responsibilities and this changing philanthropic landscape.

No comments: