Ken Goldstein, MPPA

Ken Goldstein has been working in nonprofits and local government agencies from Santa Cruz, to Sacramento, and back to Silicon Valley, since 1989. He's been staff, volunteer, board member, executive director, and, since 2003, a consultant to local nonprofit organizations. For more on Ken's background, click here. If you are interested in retaining Ken's services, you may contact him at ken at

Thursday, April 03, 2014

The Rational Aspect of Irrational Philanthropy

A few weeks back I was at a social gathering and, in conversation with another attendee, wound up talking about the use of crowdfunding to help low-income people over hurdles on their way to self-sufficiency.

She found it very interesting, and asked, "What country are they aiding?"

My reply, "Well, um, here. The U.S., including groups down the street, right here in Berkeley!"

She was a bit surprised, but pleased. Because we were talking about small dollar amounts, she had assumed that the donations were going elsewhere, where there would be more "bang for the buck."

Put your money where there will be the greatest impact, right? Isn't that what the big philanthropists do, and the example that they encourage us "everyday donors" ($25-50) to follow?

I remembered this conversation this morning reading Hewlett Ends Effort to Get Donors to Make Dispassionate Choices on Giving on the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Hewlett had been a major funder behind encouraging better and more effective philanthropy through the use of results- and impact-driven data.

Not that this focus on charitable ROI (return on investment) didn't have its critics. William Dietel, a philanthropy adviser and former president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, decried it as an "instant-gratification strategy driven by young, tech-savvy philanthropists."

But the woman I was speaking with at the party was not a young, tech-savvy philanthropist. She was a 50-something sculptor with empty pockets. Such is the extent to which the message of "effective philanthropy" has permeated the culture.

Of course, even with this mindset being promoted, there were still many donors (particularly smaller donors) who didn't bother with the research and just gave "from the heart." And that's how the debate was framed: giving from the heart versus giving from the head.
When Hewlett started the effort in 2006, then-president Paul Brest wrote, "Personal philanthropy may sometimes be so profoundly emotional as to be invulnerable to rational analysis."
And here's where we get to my problem with this so-called "rational analysis." As part of the whole, "nonprofits need to operate more like businesses" meme, the means for analysis are primarily market-driven tools for evaluating programs that exist because of market failures.

Anti-poverty programs are a direct response to the realization that the operation of a free market society will always create a certain number of citizens who fall between the cracks - who are not economically viable. Culture and arts programs, too, exist as nonprofits where and when the free market cannot or will not support them as businesses, so how can you evaluate them as if they were held to the same market principals?

So, why help one person in poverty in the U.S. when the same investment can help ten people, or maybe even 100,  in poverty elsewhere?

The "rational" person, using their head and all the correct data, knows that the third-world philanthropic investment will give them far better ROI and results. Effective Philanthropy Achieved!

The "irrational" person, using only their heart and a little common sense, knows that they are part of a community, and that if they allow poverty to grow around them it will become a cancer, raising crime, lowering property values, and decreasing that immeasurable thing called "happiness."

Yes, we need to evaluate our programs, and yes, as nonprofit professionals we need to be as effective as we can be with the limited resources at our disposal. But the idea that one can eliminate the heart from philanthropy is one that I'm very pleased to see fading.

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