Give SmartThis is the first of three posts that review the book “Give Smart: Philanthropy That Gets Results” by Thomas J. Tierney and Joel L. Fleishman (PublicAffairs, 2011). 

Overview:  On average, philanthropy is … well …average. The current state of philanthropy is that it overhypes and underperforms. Market forces do not come into play, and the power imbalance between donors who have money and nonprofits who seek it can have a chilling effect on real time and useful feedback.Give Smart looks at what it takes to utterly transform this. Outstanding donors demand excellence of themselves and do not settle for mediocre results. They develop true and open partnerships with grantees and are not afraid of failure and the valuable lessons it can teach. They are clear about their values and beliefs and realistic about what they hope to accomplish. They have gone through the process of thoughtfully defining success and have a plan to achieve it. Most tellingly, donors who “give smart” continuously ask, “Am I getting better?” and consciously learn to improve over time.

1.  Philanthropy has three “terrible truths.”  First, all philanthropy is personal, whether the donor is an individual, a company or a foundation. Second, results of philanthropy are not always visible, so it is difficult to determine if you’ve “made a difference.” And third, if you are going to improve as a philanthropist, you will have to impose that excellence upon yourself.

2.  Traps for the unwary: 
  • Fuzzy headedness: This happens when donors allow their emotions to rule their logic and analysis. A telltale symptom of this trap is when the donor becomes unrealistic about what outcomes are possible.
  • Flying solo: Collaborations with many other players, including your grantees, other donors, government agencies, business and civic leaders will improve your chances of accomplishing more.
  • Underestimating and underinvesting: Everything takes longer and costs much more than you initially anticipate.
  • Nonprofit neglect: Would you want to fly with an airline that is known for investing the least amount of overhead in airplane maintenance?  The resistance to providing general operating support for nonprofits has got to stop!  The authors are big proponents of ending the ‘nonprofit starvation cycle.”
  • Satisfactory underperformance: Don’t be complacent! Have courage to ask the hard questions, including what’s working and what isn’t.
3.  What are my values and beliefs? 
  • Deciding to “do good” isn’t enough. Deciding to get specific is a much better approach. Outstanding philanthropy is measured not by how much is given, but by what is accomplished. And while clarifying your philanthropic priorities is difficult, it is a necessary prerequisite to success.
  • Data isn’t the answer at this stage because it will never define your value and beliefs. Decide what you care about first, and only then use data to make you a more articulate, knowledgeable, and persuasive champion of the cause.