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Readers will note that I’m the sort of guy who reads the advertisements in magazines. Goodness knows, magazines have fallen on hard times these days. They need help! So if advertisers put articles in magazines, I look at them. I even read most of the advertorials about diseases in the New York Times Magazine. (Not all the diseases, but most of them.)

So when an online bank called Synchrony Bank bought two pages in the December 22/29, 2014, New Yorker to discuss philanthropy, I dutifully read the piece. The anonymous article focuses on a group called the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, which is affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania.

Think about what the group’s name means for a second. Who could possibly be against “high-impact philanthropy?” But when I thought of this group, I was reminded of an organization called the Committee for Western Civilization, which thirty years ago held snooty parties to which I was not invited, which led me to threaten to form the Committee Against Western Civilization. (Mr. Google tells me that this group still exists, holds “an evening of Viennese dancing” each year in Washington, and will happily sell tickets to anyone willing to wear white tie and pay $180. I even think they take PayPal.)

The New Yorker article, which was mostly about getting Millennials to give more, had quotes from the center’s executive director, Katherina Rosqueta, who said that “giving is a blend of the heart and the head.” The author of the article said that the center had issued a report saying that Millennials “follow between one and five causes on social media, constant access not available to previous generations.”

Well, I may be a clueless Baby Boomer, but I find that charities find plenty of opportunities to talk to me. Why, the college I attended held an event where we were supposed to randomly tell strangers how much we loved the school, and then of course pony up some cash as a token of our undying love. The development office then sent out an email saying they were so pleased by their fundraising drive that they were going to go out into the street and shout.

Well, I did my duty and looked up the Center for High Impact Philanthropy. I found that they call themselves “CHIP,” get support from many of the usual suspects, including the Casey, Hewlett, and Ford foundations, and are inhaling extra-deep droughts of philanthropic gas.

Here’s an example from a press release the center released in April about what they were up to. The criteria include:

Potential for social impact and whether there is an opportunity for private funds to make a difference. We make sure that’s what’s at stake is significant. We ask ourselves the question, "With good information and better guidance would funders be prepared to act?"

Our capabilities. We also judge whether our team and our network are well-positioned to give good guidance in a reasonable time frame. This involves assessing our collective skills, training, expertise, and partnerships, as well as our available financial resources.

Quick quiz: how many clichés are there in these two paragraphs? If a client were headed for a major disaster, would this group try to stop them? (As I noted in Great Philanthropic Mistakes, disasters have “social impact.”)

To be fair, a piece this group wrote in 2014 on the nature of evidence in philanthropy (which first appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog) does include the following paragraph:

And while the beneficiaries themselves may not know the latest metrics, policy trends, or strategic planning behind a particular nonprofit or funder’s work, they are the ultimate authorities on whether a change created by a program represents a meaningful improvement in their lives.

Well, that’s right, but my guess is that the large foundations this group advises will continue to ignore beneficiaries in favor of “metrics, policy trends, or strategic planning.”

Finally, this group promises a podcast that is supposed to be the philanthropy version of “Inside the Actors’ Studio.” My guess is that the audience for this podcast would be simpatico with the gentleman who once came up to me on the subway when I was reading a wonky history of American education and asked, “Is that book good?” (He worked for the National Education Association, and I told him he would enjoy it.)

After dutifully reading the Center for High Impact Philanthropy’s materials, I was more confused than ever. So I have a simple question for this group: can you explain, in clear, jargon-free English, what you do and if your clients actually change their minds based on your advice?

And if anyone starts a Center for Minimally Invasive Philanthropy, would you let me know?


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