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In my last post, I dwelt on some problems with charity rating systems like Charity Navigator. My chief objection to undertakings of this kind is that it creates a system in which a donor is ceding authority to self-declared experts in lieu of his or her own common sense and personal knowledge. This undermines the personal relationships on which philanthropy should be based. It also takes philanthropy to be a science rather than an art.

Philanthropy as science oversimplifies causes and effects, privileges data often without sufficient context, and creates an artificial separation between the donor (as scientist) and the charitable cause (the experiment). At the end of the day, any experiment is affected by the skill of the scientist himself and the presuppositions he brings to the task at hand. There is always a human behind the machine. This human element is obscured entirely (and deliberately) by reductive rating systems, which produce scores that give donors a false confidence in the ratings’ comprehensiveness and authority.

When viewed as an art, philanthropy has an entirely different set of motives and results in mind. Let me define my terms. By art I mean, with Merriam-Webster, "the conscious use of skill and creative imagination." Art in this sense is first conscious. It requires intellectual engagement on the part of a donor and adequate knowledge of the situation. It is primarily motivated by doing, oriented toward creating a concrete thing that is a manifestation of the artist’s vision (the donor’s philanthropic aims). It also requires skill, the fruit of discipline, cultivation, and practice. While the goodness of a particular piece of art may not necessarily be affected by the character of the artist (a terrible person could nevertheless produce a beautiful thing), the artist uses his skill and all his human virtues to direct his actions and bring a thing of beauty into being. It also involves creative imagination. In the context of philanthropy, this could include innovation as to how to achieve one’s philanthropic goals, flexibility in formulating and applying various giving strategies, and the ability to step back from one’s work periodically to see the bigger picture.   

When practiced in this way, good philanthropy requires much of a person. It requires a proper understanding of the “work” to be produced, the end goal of one’s philanthropy. It also requires discernment about the means of bringing about this end. What do you as a donor wish to accomplish? How will you go about it? You yourself will not be engaging in this work directly, but partnering with others to accomplish it. How are the mission and fruits of this particular organization related to your broader philanthropic goals? How do you enable them to pursue that mission most effectively?

Philanthropy as art also requires skill and moral virtue on the part of the donor, particularly prudence--Aristotle’s practical wisdom. Because philanthropy is so deeply personal, it is in many ways an extension of a donor’s character, for good or ill. Prudence is the ability to distinguish between virtue and vice, situating these definitions within a context--doing the right place, in the right time, for the right reasons, and so on. This is most manifest in evaluating the results of one’s philanthropy. Just because a project failed to achieve its stated goals does not mean it was a complete flop. Perhaps they were not the right goals. Perhaps there were unforeseen or insurmountable obstacles. Putting these details into perspective requires prudence and the ability to look beyond the immediate.

Philanthropy as art also requires humility and temperance. As a donor, your chief aim should be to help your chosen charity accomplish its mission—to do what it is already engaged in doing—more effectively. This could mean subsuming your own ego, listening attentively to their needs and the local situation, and responding thoughtfully and generously.  It could mean questioning your own motives for giving and for your involvement. Are you exerting too much control over an organization, forcing it off its original course? It could mean sustained investment in core operating funds rather than in less flexible projects. It could mean investing in training, fundraising capacity, or infrastructure to make the organization stronger and more viable in the future. Truly helping an organization may not be glamorous, be particularly exciting, or result in your name emblazoned on every surface of the building.

All of these conversations and relationships can only happen within a personal context.  Because philanthropy is essentially an investment in people, you (or your trusted adviser) have to know, trust, and respect the people in whose organizations you are investing.  The kind of relationship being created and the good that results from that relationship (the philanthropist-artist’s “work”) is directly impacted by the virtue and motivations of the leader of the charity, and also of the person (whether that be a donor, a trusted friend or an employee) primarily involved in forging those bonds. This is why having good people involved in the process is a vital necessity.

According to Tolstoy, art is “a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity” (Leo Tolstoy, “What Is Art?”). This is a lot to aspire to, but a wonderful thing of which to be a part. 

1 thought on “Art of philanthropy”

  1. Tony Macklin says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful essay on the art of philanthropy. However, I suspect there will always be a market for charity review and ranking sites.

    To continue your analogy. In the art world, there are plenty of people who don’t have the time or inclination to be artful on their own. They purchase “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination” from others, sometimes through a third party they choose to trust (regardless of that party’s actual expertise in spotting good art).

    Perhaps Charity Navigator and its ilk are similar to art stores or galleries that give quick advice on pieces. The customer walks out with a psychological need met (I love art and/or am now seen as someone who loves art) and wasn’t forced to spend brainpower, time, or extra cash for advice. Customers with desire for more control and expertise (and more cash) bypass those galleries and either meet directly with artists or purchase the services of professional advisors.

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