Is Your Philanthropy Ginger or Mary Ann?

Is Your Philanthropy Ginger or Mary Ann?

Sort of an absurd question, isn’t it?*  To me, the question is as absurd as the continuing debates regarding “checkbook philanthropy” vs. “strategic philanthropy” and “big system-changing grants” vs. “small grassroots grants.”

The debates seem to have picked up again in the philanthropy media this fall.  Just a sampling:

  • Philanthropy Daily’s Jeff Cain called the book Do More Than Giveparticularly dangerous” and skewered the concept of catalytic philanthropy. He didn’t seem excited about Give Smart either.
  • The TCC Group’s Paul Connolly wrote about a variation on the debates – humanistic vs. technocratic philanthropy (longer piece here). The Foundation Review also featured Connolly and others in a thoughtful webinar (slide deck and recording).
  • The Hudson Institute’s Bill Schambra sided in an article with people who “merely write checks” and commends a foundation that focused on the “mundane, practical undertakings” on grassroots groups.  His post includes a response from The Greater New Orleans Foundation’s Albert Ruesga defending strategic, system-change philanthropy.
  • The New York Times’ Stephanie Strom compared the giving approaches of Warren Buffett and his sister Doris, amongst others, in a recent article.

One theme in the articles is the disdain strategic philanthropists supposedly show for giving that isn’t strategic or systemic, and vice versa.  I haven’t experienced that disdain first-hand.  But I have seen donors turned off by the debates, by being told that their philanthropy isn’t good enough.  I’ve seen philanthropy advisors and community foundation staff try to persuade donors that there’s the one right path. Different advisors hyped more strategy…more faith-based…more liberal…more operating support…more policy grants…more Mary Ann…more Ginger…

I call bullcrap.  And here are three reasons why:

  1. These debates falsely portray the ideas as right versus wrong.  They’re not.  They’re right vs. right.  The Institute for Global Ethics’ Dr. Rushworth Kidder explained them as ethical challenges, not moral ones, on a recent National Center for Family Philanthropy webinar.  As ethical challenges, they deserve discussion and exploration based on a donor’s self-defined values and hopes.  The right answers are deeply personal and will evolve as the donor faces different life experiences. Foundations ultimately have to base their answers on the shared values of their board members and staff, but I think many skip the deep and hard values and ethics discussion.
  2. The conversations need to take into account the generational differences in donors’ views of the world, giving, nonprofits, and their own roles in making a difference.
  3. The either-or mentality posed by advocates on both sides seems the most absurd.  My experience is that there’s plenty of room for both-and.  In the articles and webinar mentioned above, Paul Connelly described blending the choice more eloquently than I can.  The Philanthropic Initiative’s Ellen Remmer also described effective philanthropy based on passion.  And, Grassroots Grantmakers’ Janis Foster Richardson often writes about how to include great grassroots grantmaking within larger strategic initiatives.

Perhaps I’m too much of a relativist or take too much of a libertarian view of philanthropy (if there is one).  Likely, I’m still rooted in my Grand Unified Theory of Donor Desire.  Mostly, I believe that the world’s opportunities and challenges are vast enough to accommodate any approach to giving.  And, they’re vast enough that we’d be better off by turning our energies to encouraging increased philanthropy rather than arguing about which approach is better.

Of course, you’re more than welcome to push back…

*If the headline didn’t make sense to you, then click here, sit right back and hear a tale of a fateful trip.