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In “Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy” authors Paul Brest and Hal Harvey offer a vision of strategic philanthropy that is more concerned with social change than selfless love.

Paul Brest and Hal Harvey have released a second edition of Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy. The first edition of the book, and Brest’s strategic philanthropy approach more broadly, have been discussed on Philanthropy Daily before (see the beginning of a debate here, and a recap of the debate here).

The greatest merit of Brest and Harvey’s book is its thoroughness as a guide for donors. Chapter by chapter, the authors bring to donors’ attention all the different questions they might ask themselves about giving away money and making a difference through their philanthropy. The thoughtful donor will have many practical tips to mull over and will approach his giving in a more informed fashion as a result of reading and regularly referring to this book.

To give just a few examples: In chapter 2, the authors help the reader think through the most basic question: which problems do they wish to address through their philanthropy? Chapter 7 explores some differing philanthropic paths. Do donors wish to support a fairly “safe” endeavor, with visible, short-term results—such as founding a museum—or a high-risk, high pay-off project—such as vaccine research—which may not bear fruit in the donor’s lifetime, if at all? Chapter 16 talks through the giving vehicles a donor might use to give away their money, such as donor advised funds or grantmaking foundations. Chapter 17 discusses the tensions between spending down principal to achieve goals more quickly and spending little year over year in order to maintain investments for future giving.

If the authors had limited themselves to the very practical advice and useful questions they propose to donors, the book would have been an excellent work, perhaps a classic in the field of philanthropic advising. Unfortunately, the authors do more than guide donors through the many considerations of giving. Throughout their chapters they advance an ideology under the guise of focusing on impact and philanthropic return on investment, what they call strategic philanthropy. The result is that Money Well Spent will lose its relevance once the fashionable progressivism that informs strategic philanthropy’s assumptions falls out of favor. It will read to future generations like 19th century British travel literature reads to us—historically interesting, but embarrassingly confident in its mistaken assumptions and condescending tone towards “the natives.”

What are some characteristics of their way of thinking? What does strategic philanthropy mean as illustrated by the examples and concepts they present? One important element that emerges is philanthropy as control and manipulation. Brest and Harvey offer ways in which philanthropy might “influence individuals’ behavior,” such as “psychological ‘nudges’ as well as more conventional economic techniques such as incentives and penalties.” They call this a “focus on behavioral strategies” (240).

It is helpful here to contrast persuasion, a legitimate goal of mission-driven nonprofits, with the coercive language Brest and Harvey use. They see philanthropy as a means of “nudging,” “incentivizing,” and “penalizing.” The goal is not people’s good—to help them see a truth more clearly or embrace a better way of life. It is to push them to a desired outcome through “economic techniques” and “behavioral strategies.”

A characteristic of the manipulative mindset is to treat people as raw material to be acted upon. Harvey and Brest warn donors that “a failure to tailor an intervention to deeply held cultural norms may doom the project.” Their focus here is not on the people who reject the “intervention,” or on why they might find it undesirable or offensive. It is rather on the project: We will fail if we are not sufficiently savvy about neutralizing the obstacles to our goal.

Of course, Harvey and Brest cover their bases. They point out that donors should spend time with their target audiences to discover their “deep, often unstated, needs” and try to respond to them (225). But for all the time we spend with those we seek to help, we can only come to know what they really need if we are open to listening, accepting their differences, and being proven wrong in our assumptions. Are proponents of strategic philanthropy capable of this? Are Harvey and Brest? We might conclude that the latter are not, based on their discussion of religious freedom laws.

Later in the book, the authors refer to “so-called religious freedom laws that permit businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers and employees” (274-275). Accusations of discrimination are serious business, as are hasty dismissals of religious Americans’ conscience concerns. Passages like this alert us to Harvey and Brest’s incapacity to adequately understand and empathize with any “target audience.” The authors do not take seriously the sincerity of those who see the world differently. Those religious folks must be bigots. If, like the benighted troglodytes supporting religious freedom laws, the people we sought to help held unenlightened views, would we actually be willing to respect their differences? Or would not the logic of strategic philanthropy drive us, in the name of a greater justice, to make an intervention in their bigoted culture? Would we not be expected to nudge, incentivize, and penalize them toward a more enlightened position?

Clausewitz famously stated that war is politics carried out by other means. Replace “war” with “philanthropy,” and you have the motto of Money Well Spent. The role of philanthropy, the meaning of making an impact and getting a return on philanthropic investment, is to advance one’s agenda. Brest and Harvey are not interested in treating philanthropy as an opportunity to bring generous, selfless love into the world. They wish to use it to “change the social equilibrium” (252). Philanthropy is absorbed into politics. It is simply one more weapon in a growing armory of political action to “make an impact.”

It is too bad. For as Dambisa Moyo wrote in Dead Aid, charity is “small beer” compared to things like government aid. Given over to political agendas, private philanthropy can only rise to the level of junior partner. Where it does have a competitive advantage is in its ability to bring love—charity—into the world as the needy and the needed form bonds of solidarity, trust, and appreciation. Extinguishing that opportunity in the name of strategic philanthropy is tragic indeed. Return on investment is a poor replacement for human bonds built on love.

Brest and Harvey lament that lots of giving is done based on “warm feelings,” which is “not the way to change the world.” It is certainly true that philanthropic dollars are squandered through donations to bad organizations. But the authors tell themselves a false story. What do the authors mean when they deride “warm feelings” incapable of “changing the world,” if not that love is reducible to an impotent sentimentalism? And yet for something so useless, it is something every human being seeks and craves.

For all of their pessimism about “warm feelings,” the authors do tell us that even if Money Well Spent goes unnoticed, writing it has been “a labor of love and voyage of discovery” (4). Yes, it is funny how at the end of the day, despite their “low impact,” acts of love help us to grow, to make the world a happier place—and they are worth every minute, and dollar, that we pour into them.

Paul Brest and Hal Harvey, Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018. $30.00


1 thought on “Nudging, Incentivizing, and Penalizing: A Review of “Money Well Spent””

  1. Scott Walter says:

    This is a wonderful critique of an interesting book.

    And for an example of how “low impact” acts of love can help us grow and make the world a happier place, try this old piece: https://philanthropydaily.com/charity-endures/

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