Sunday’s (March 9) NYT Magazine has a series of articles on philanthropy and fundraising … definitely worth reading, though seasoned practitioners will find some more insightful than others.

The Agitator found three especially intriguing, and we’ll blog on those …

The title alone makes this one worth reading … How Many Billionaires Does It Take to Fix a School System? More on this piece tomorrow.

Second, What Makes People Give? … A fascinating look at what empirically-focused academic researchers are discovering about fundraising. Of course, those of us steeped in the quintessentially empirical world of direct marketing think we have all these answers already! I suspect Roger will be posting on this one.

And the third, which I’ll focus on today, is called For Good, Measure.

This article noted a remarkable statistic. According to a survey by the Urban Institute and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, only 43% of all staffed foundations in the US said they formally evaluated the work financed by their grants to nonprofit organizations. That’s astonishing.

What are the other 57% doing?! Possibly …

  • Throwing mud at the wall … and not caring what sticks.
  • Giving money to vanity projects, where the desired impact is simply seeing one’s name on the plaque or at the top of the annual dinner program.
  • Just taking the tax deduction.

Seriously, what other explanations (setting aside sheer stupidity or laziness) are there for a foundation not to seek to understand what impact it is having … let alone exploring whether other ways of spending their money might have more impact?

Various folks in the biz interviewed in this article comment to the effect that measuring results, comparing alternative strategies, looking either metaphorically or actually for "social returns on investment" are still new concepts for most in the philanthropy world. Wow!

Doesn’t that provide a direct response to the lament of Warren Buffett, quoted in the article, that philanthropies are "tackling problems that have resisted great intellect and lots of money"?

Lots of money maybe … but great intellect? With no evaluation, it seems more likely that "great intellects" might have been busily throwing more good money after bad.

Arguably, this great awakening to mere common sense is better late than never. It’s good to see that the upstart Gates Foundation actually employs someone with the title of "director of impact planning," and the venerable Rockefeller Foundation has recently hired a vice president to focus on evaluations.

Still, with "breakthroughs" like these only now occurring at places like Rockefeller, it’s easy to resonate with the NYT writer’s observation: "…it’s easy to see why some of the newest entrants to the field would look at the political culture of traditional grant-making and ask why they shouldn’t blow it up."

Tom

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