Philanthropy in Interesting Times: Finding Better Ways of Doing Good

By: Melissa Stevens, Executive Director, Center for Strategic Philanthropy

There is a Chinese curse which says “May he live in interesting times.” Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history. And everyone here will ultimately be judged-will ultimately judge himself-on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.

-Robert F. Kennedy, University of Cape Town, South Africa, June 6, 1966

Gender non-inclusive language notwithstanding, the above quote holds up as well in 2018 as it did in 1966 — perhaps even more so. Overlooking the fact that the “interesting times” aphorism is not a Chinese curse (as best one can tell via English language internet searches), it is the first thing that came to mind as I reflected about the state of philanthropy in 2018.

As busy as the season is, Giving Tuesday always offers a good opportunity to step back and think about the past year. And 2018 has certainly been an “interesting” year. Philanthropic giving continues to break records and make headlines: donor-advised funds are proliferating; donor collectives are somehow both expanding and consolidating, and new social impact financial vehicles are cropping up with increasing regularity. Simply put, there is more private capital available for philanthropy than ever before. Ever.

At the same time, 2018 has seen a steady stream of well researched and thoughtful critiques of the role of philanthropy in U.S. society — the most recent of which landed on my doorstep this weekend: Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better by Stanford University political science professor Rob Reich.

Reich and his fellow critics (including Anand Giridharadas in Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World and David Callahan in The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age) raise valid questions that must be explored and satisfactorily reconciled before the sector can ever hope to be truly impactful or strategic. Without constant vigilance, philanthropy can become (and in some cases already is) plutocratic, nontransparent, wasteful, and rife with unintended consequences (harmful and otherwise). These failings are especially worrisome given that most American philanthropy is subsidized by U.S. taxpayers. As Reich warns, we are in danger of missing a window of opportunity to fix the “broken policies” that structure philanthropy in the U.S. This can be hard to do in real time, but Reich does offer a list of policy recommendations that are worth serious consideration.

At the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy (CSP), we continue to wrestle with many of these same questions, as we engage with individual philanthropists and smaller family foundations. To that end, we are immensely fortunate to be able to leverage the global convening platforms of the Milken Institute as we investigate, probe and conceptualize workable strategies. In 2018 alone, we have been able to curate dozens of dialogues, salons, panels and private workshops where we seek to bring together unusual allies in an effort to break down silos and facilitate ways to forge partnerships and co-create solutions.

Earlier this year at our Global Conference, I was lucky enough to moderate a rock star panel that included Silvia Bastante de Unverhau of Co-Impact; Alexandre Mars of Epic, Pamela Norley of Fidelity Charitable, and Fay Twersky of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Next week at our London Summit, I will be exploring similar themes with another stellar line up: Stacey Boyd of Olivela, Badr Jafar, a member of the Giving Pledge, Olivia Leland, also of Co-Impact, and Maurice Ostro, founder of the recently launched Entrepreneurial Giving.

In all of these explorations, one theme arises time and again: the increasingly blurred lines between profit and non-profit which heretofore have been clearly demarcated. As modalities like impact investing, Benefit Corporations and social impact bonds continue to evolve, increasing pressure further strains the creaky, antiquated 20th-century policy infrastructure that now governs philanthropy in the US (created in 1917 no less!).

As we collectively seek to update, reinvigorate and renew this framework, it is imperative that we optimize the comparative advantages of philanthropic capital while mitigating its flaws. Indeed, we have seen first-hand how transformative philanthropic capital can be and we are frustrated that it is not doing more given the challenges we all face.

When well invested, philanthropic capital has a distinct comparative advantage because it is:

  • Patient and not beholden to the pressures of shareholder expectations or the vagaries of election cycles. Philanthropy is well-suited to support efforts that may need years or decades to bear social fruits, well beyond the typical horizons for financial investments.
  • Systems-oriented because philanthropists have the luxury of pulling back to look at the big picture. They can spend time looking for patterns, root causes and the nonobvious drivers of big problems, connections between seemingly unrelated variables, and leverage points with the potential to catalyze a permanent change in a system.
  • Risk-tolerant relative to other sources in a capital stack. It can support cutting-edge research or technology development early in the game, and, ideally, yield high-reward outcomes that can “crowd in” more conventional funding from government and/or commercial financing.
  • Collaborative and can set up structures that enable cooperation and break through silos by incentivizing linkages and forging partnerships — especially among unlikely bedfellows.
  • Inclusive by intentionally raising the voices of underrepresented stakeholders and working to fill gaps in human capital by injecting diverse viewpoints.

Despite its limitations, I remain bullish on philanthropic capital. In fact, I am not sure that we will be able to make it through these “interesting times” without it. My son is three years old. By 2030 — twelve Giving Tuesdays from now — he will be on the cusp of adulthood and getting ready to graduate from high school. No doubt he too will live in interesting times. But, as RFK exhorted 52 years ago, if we muster our “creative energy,” we can reconfigure interesting times to an era that is resilient, sustainable, inclusive, equitable, just, kind and beautiful. I am convinced that philanthropic capital can help us get there.

To learn more about the Center for Strategic Philanthropy, visit our website here.