One of the many changes between what the large foundations did a hundred years ago and what they’re doing today is that the donors of the past could explain what they did simply and precisely—“I built a hospital.” “I built a library.” “I funded research that helped prevent hookworm and other diseases.”

But today the large foundations seem determined to wrap themselves in knots and then bitterly complain about the grinding complexity of their jobs. That many of these bitter complaints take place in plush resorts does not reduce their agony. That these complaints often result from idealistic youth who entered the nonprofit world hoping to make the world better only to discover their primary task is reifying logic models does not lessen the pain that these well-paid elitists face.

Part of the problem is that the great foundations appear determined to make themselves tiny. For example, here is what Judith Rodin declared when she became president of the Rockefeller Foundation:

Our value-add as a foundation is very different from 75 years ago. Then we were filling a void, and we had to put our own labs in the field, do the basic science, the delivery, and the whole value chain in order to construct a solution. Today, the foundation’s resources are most useful in rewiring connections between existing players within activities that are already under way . . . taking advantage of changes that are already in motion.

Aside from the hardened ugliness of some of these phrases (“our value-add”) this is philanthropy leading from behind. Instead of fighting disease and perfecting better crops, we learn that the goal of the foundation is in “rewiring connections between existing players.” The role of a large foundation is to be . . . the cable guy. No wonder the program officers at these foundations find their jobs, drained of romance and adventure, so frustrating.

In a lengthy article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Patty Russell of the consulting group FSG argue that donors do a better job if instead of embracing “a linear chain of causation” (our grants will change things!) they practice an “emergent model” (“our grants will change things, but we don’t know how things will change”).

Consider school reform. “The predictive model of philanthropy frequently assumes that rational solutions offering better outcomes will automatically be embraced across the system,” the authors say. So funders such the Annenberg Foundation show up with substantial grants and then wonder why their money didn’t result in effective change.

One reason schools don’t change is because the teachers don’t trust anyone, including outsiders. Anthony Bryk and his colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago Schools Research spent ten years looking at elementary schools in that city and found that the more teachers were able to trust other groups the more likely a school was to accept change. Without such trust, schools ended up in petty but protracted wars over issues such as kindergarten graduation ceremonies.

The follower of predictive philanthropy might argue that it’s hard to design a grant for something so nebulous as “increasing teachers’ ability to trust outsiders.” The advocate of “emergent strategies” counters that as long as something is changing our grants are worthwhile, even if all the money we spend is ultimately used for advocacy.

One of the case studies in the article is Canada’s J. W. McConnell Family Foundation, which is that country’s oldest large foundation. The foundation decided that it would be a good idea to get kids involved in sports because, ummm, “Research found that sports are a powerful force in building social capital and community resilience among children and teens, especially in disadvantaged communities where strong schools and after school programs are scarce.”

There are so many clichés in the previous sentence that I am forced to conclude that the McConnell Family Foundation hired very expensive consultants. If you want to help poor kids play sports, wouldn’t the best thing to do is provide grants for facilities, uniforms, or maybe field trips? Of course not. The foundation decided on

investments in system fitness that built the connective tissue between players in the field and accelerated collective knowledge sharing and problem solving. Many unanticipated opportunities emerged during the course of the initiative, such as challenging limitations in federal charity laws, creating a "sport for change" Web platform, providing organizations and networks for training, and supporting the development of new business models.

The foundation created the Sport Matters Group, a coalition “organized to advocate for sports infrastructure in deprived communities.” The coalition apparently got the Canadian government to spend C$3 billion “in the construction or renovation of sport facilities” as part of that country’s stimulus program after the Great Recession of 2008.

As far as I can tell, none of the money committed by the McConnell Family Foundation under this initiative actually went to help poor children participate in sports. Instead, it went for lobbying, networking, public service announcements, and other activities where the rich handsomely pay themselves to agonize about the misery of the poor. It is the equivalent of foundations that think the best way to support art is to fund “arts advocacy” groups that expertly moan about the plight of the artist but do nothing to help artists succeed in their life and in their work.

What does “emergent philanthropy” really mean? It is a new, jargon-laden theory that will take lots of time for donors to absorb and for grant writers to rewrite their proposals to adapt to a new set of clichés. And when emergent philanthropy fails, as it inevitably will, another new theory will be created to explain why the large foundations spend so much and do so little.

It would be nice if the big foundations recognized that the best way to fight poverty, support the arts, and aid scientists is to give grants that directly helped the poor, aided artists, and supported science. Perhaps then program officers could actually explain what they do without relying on jargon that cloaks nonprofits in pomposity and self-importance.