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Last Thursday William Schambra, director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, introduced a panel of speakers to address the question “Is Philanthropy a Profession? Should It Be?” (Scott Walter previewed the program earlier on this blog.) Schambra asked whether philanthropy is, or should aspire to become, a body of rational knowledge worthy of scholarly specialization and the awarding of academic credentials. Can it ever achieve measurable levels of certainty and teach methodologies for replicating and diffusing knowledge? Or is philanthropy a kind of liberal arts “wisdom” based on lived experience and roughly fashioned by trial-and-error?

The latter opinion was the view of the principal speaker, Karl Stauber, president of the Danville (Va.) Regional Foundation, whose summary of his published paper in the Foundation Review kicked off the discussion. Stauber’s article, “Philanthropy: Are We a Profession? Should We Be?” raised more questions than it answered, but concluded “[M]y fear is that the ‘scientific’ approach most often drives us to focus on what is easiest to measure, which is not the same thing as what is most important.”

Unlike doctors and medical schools, which accumulate and disseminate ever-more precise bodies of knowledge, Stauber noted that practitioners of foundation philanthropy have few theories of knowledge or standards of measurement. Their achievement, said Stauber, typically consists of the finding the “right” people with “vision” and “principle” and “commitment,” concepts notably lacking in rigor and clarity but essential to successful philanthropy. While successful philanthropic programs and projects can be shared with others, there is no telling whether the results can be repeated. The reasons for a grant's success or failure are indeterminate, conclusive one time, inconclusive the next.

Stauber remained upbeat about the potential of philanthropy. As a practicing philanthropist, how could he not be? But can philanthropy become a profession? No.

Three persons responded to Stauber’s presentation: Teri Behrens, the editor of the aforementioned Foundation Review (which identifies itself on its front cover as “the peer-reviewed journal of philanthropy”); Joseph Paulus, who is getting a Ph.D. from the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy; and Susan Wolf Ditkoff, a partner at the Bridgespan Group, a management consulting and executive search firm spun-off from Bain & Company. Bridgespan assists nonprofits that want to learn how to “recruit leaders,” “manage performance,” “fund our mission,” “develop a strategy,” and “build our organization.”

It’s fair to say that overall the three respondents took the pro-profession position. They argued that philanthropic expertise is needed. You have to be able to evaluate funding proposals regarding the provision of health, housing, education, you name it, and the more complex the need, the greater the demand for philanthropic expertise. A practitioner of foundation philanthropy—I gather the term “grantmaker” is now considered vulgar and inappropriate—needs real knowledge about the capacity of funding proposals to achieve their objectives and whether grant recipients are able to innovate to respond to new needs and changing conditions.

This requires knowing how to “do” philanthropy well and how to do it better, which implies that philanthropy must become a profession: Philanthropists need to have specialized knowledge; they must develop techniques for sharing what they know and create methods for training others who would understand and apply what is known (and give them the credentials that acknowledge their authority). No wonder you need to go to grad school.

The advocates admitted that there are pitfalls on the road to professionalization—mistaken ideas and exaggerated expectations. Ditkoff pointed to the ignorant venture philanthropist who wants to create a “Morningstar for nonprofits” to evaluate 501(c)3s. Then there is the compulsive process-oriented grantmaker who in return for a nominal sum expects harried and over-stretched charities to submit lengthy applications and post-grant evaluations to ensure due diligence. Ditkoff’s advice: If a grant applicant is engaged in disaster relief, “just give them the money.” Nonetheless, she argued that donors need to know how much time and money and expertise is needed for grantees to solve problems and maximize returns, and this speaks to the need for becoming professional.

Stauber had suggested that philanthropy may lose sight of what is important if it focuses on data and the fad of measuring “effectiveness.” But Schambra offered some concluding criticisms of professionalized philanthropy that cut more deeply. As he has frequently observed, advocates of philanthropic professionalism favor systemic “root cause” explanations of social problems, and they often disparage “band-aid” approaches to giving.  Those who consider themselves most progressive support so-called “social change philanthropy,” a funding strategy that requires more than producing better metrics to evaluate educational achievement or healthcare quality. It requires giving money to support community organizing, social activism and political advocacy. But this type of grantmaking affects power and values, matters that are never measured like improvements in reading scores.

Foundation leaders look enviously at social science professionals who invoke their claims to expertise to influence politicians and judges. Is it any wonder that they envision a comparable influence for themselves, one in which entering the magic circle of “peer-reviewed” scholarship will give them a similar cachet?