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The natural state of philanthropy, as characterized by Thomas Tierney and Joel Fleishman in their important book, Give Smart, is a dismal place. Its most prominent feature is “underperformance." “Ignorance” and “arrogance” are its cardinal sins. In the natural state of philanthropy, decision-making is “often clouded by ambiguity and uncertainty” and “insidious traps . . . lie in wait at every turn, undermining good intentions and impeding results.”

Here, nonprofit leaders are inspirational men and women who charm donors with their visionary ideas; but they fall short in critical management activities and discipline. Philanthropists are well intentioned for the most part, but often they are easily misled, arrogant, and “essentially unaccountable to no one but themselves." In the absence of “market dynamics,” Tierney and Fleishman write, the natural state of philanthropy is a hapless “cross between the Galapagos Islands and the mythical Lake Wobegon: there is a blissful absence of predators and all of the children are above average.” In short, grant making in the natural state of philanthropy is unaccountable, undisciplined, and ineffectual.

For Tierney and Fleishman, however, the natural state of philanthropy is not an exotic locus or a mythical Minnesotan village populated by well-intentioned Scandinavians. It is the charitable sector, past and present. The lowly natural state of philanthropy is no place for the new class of results-minded philanthropic CEO’s, consultants, and professionals.

Give Smart posits six wise questions aimed at aiding donors, nonprofit leaders, and foundation executives in contracting out of the natural state of philanthropy. These questions belong to that category of inquiry that have no simply answer and, therefore, are worth asking more than once, turning them over in one’s mind, discussing them, coming back to them from time to time, seeing them anew years hence with fresh eyes.

Part therapeutic self-examination and part business management seminar, the six questions, if they are pursued diligently and honestly, initiate a process that would assist nearly any philanthropist who is serious about achieving what the authors describe in the language of muscular philanthropy as “high-impact results.” In posing these questions, Tierney and Fleishman will hopefully set more than a few donors on a path to more effective giving.

Through anecdote, metaphor, and example, the authors also give their readers an aerial view of the Land of High-Impact Results, a world apart from the natural state of philanthropy.  If all of the inhabitants of the natural state of philanthropy are, by analogy to Lake Wobegon, good looking and above average, then the men and women of the Land of High-Impact Results are totally hot and absolutely brilliant.

Having plumbed the depths of his values, beliefs, and passions, the results-oriented donor in the Land of High-Impact Results is a “visionary leader.” He or she stands astride the nonprofit world, swelling with “disciplined management experience," girded with a well-honed theory of change, a team of experts and professionals at the ready. Having subdued the business world in his first forty years, the results-oriented philanthropist stands soberly prepared to solve the world’s most intractable problems: problems that have heretofore resisted the feeble efforts of governments, international aid organizations, and lowly NGOs. For unlike the natural state of philanthropy, the Land of High-Impact Results is all about accountability and outcomes.

Void of market mechanisms and signals that enforce accountability and discipline, the high-impact philanthropist would be at sea in the natural state of philanthropy but for his willingness “to demand excellence from himself." Self-imposed accountability, the authors allow, is an “unnatural act.”  But for the results-oriented philanthropist in the Land of High-Impact Results, “resolve, perseverance, and the disciplined pursuit of high performance” simply come with the territory.

Philanthropy always comes, as the authors point out, with a heavy dose of “me.” The Land of High-Impact Results is not about modesty. After all, the authors confidently assert, “How you approach your philanthropy offers the most unfiltered manifestation of who you are as a human being." In the Land of High-Impact Results, the ego of the donor becomes the wellspring of philanthropic innovation, discipline, and ultimately results: excellence is self-imposed.

But the results-oriented philanthropist can’t go it alone, even in the Land of High-Impact Results. Unlike the natural state of philanthropy, here philanthropists and nonprofit professionals mutually understand the other’s shortcomings and, through studious self-examination, common exploration, and “a shared definition of success” work beyond them. Tasks that often stress the relationship between nonprofits and donors in the natural state of philanthropy, like assembling facts about programs and finances, evolve into shared dialogues of “developing mutually committed and trusting relationships." “Effective due diligence,” the authors suggest, “is a process of mutual discovery"

Like all great journeys, however, the path that leads beyond the natural state of philanthropy to the Land of High-Impact Results is narrow and not for the feeble or uninitiated: “Effective philanthropists must be disciplined and tough-minded about how they allocate their scarce resources,” the authors warn.

Although the geography and signposts of Give Smart are familiar to many nonprofit professionals, consultants, and social sector academics, the journey to Land of High-Impact Results is a mysterious quest to the bulk of America’s 70,000 private, small, and family foundations as it is to its legions of high-net worth donors, many of whom are quite satisfied with their giving.

Indeed, the chasm that separates the rarefied land of high-impact philanthropy and the natural state of philanthropy appear so formidable, one wonders if there are important features that our cartographers have overlooked, undervalued, or overstated when they mapped the features of these two great lands. Mapmaking, after all, is truly a matter of perspective.

If the natural state of philanthropy is, as so many seem to agree, underperformance, one might take issue with the standard by which it is measured. In the wake of the housing bubble, the collapse of the stock market, and an unprecedented bail out of financial institutions by taxpayers, it seems reasonable to ask whether business sector performance measures and management protocols provide the surest yardstick for taking stock of the philanthropic sector or even individual giving. Do we undervalue the performance of the nonprofit sector because we measure it by private sector standards, asking of it what we would never expect of the marketplace?

The often unstated fear of many nonprofit leaders who labor in the underperforming natural state of philanthropy, and who are carried along in the tide of high impact results as a matter of professional necessity, is that there are jobs that need doing, populations that need serving, and ideas that need advancing that, at the end of the day, fall outside the calculus of the results-minded philanthropist. Are there things worth doing that cannot be counted, programs worth funding that cannot be scaled, or organizations worth supporting that chronically underperform?  That philanthropy can be at ease with itself in an underperforming environment, doing things that the marketplace undervalues, has traditionally been understood as one of its greatest strengths.

Note: These are remarks from a panel discussion of Give Smart that took place at the Hudson Institute on May 23, 2011. To watch a video of the panel, go here.

3 thoughts on “Give Smart: A review”

  1. Norm Hapke says:

    Good piece Jeff. Sorry I missed the panel. I sent this to all our board and a OD consultant we have hired. Suspending the good sense that made them the money in the first place when giving it away is a problem, though some philanthropy doesn’t lend itself to business models; the trick is knowing which is which.

  2. Brigid says:

    Jeff, I appreciated these thoughts at the panel. Most critical is pointing out how we want to stop overemphasizing the donor by… overemphasizing the donor. Your comments on morality were spot on (though agree with Kristi that it’d be hard to enforce).

    Thanks also for your thoughts on my question of how to define failure, through the lens of the donor or the beneficiary. I’m not great at speaking extemporaneously, so I tried to explain a bit more clearly what I meant in this post:

    I’ll continue to think on your comment of harm in advocacy, where it’s a zero-sum game.

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