Philanthropy as a Profession? Four Approaches
Twenty years ago, my colleagues Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Bill Damon, and I launched the GoodWork Project (originally called “the Humane Creativity Project”). The goal of the project was to describe “good work” in various professions and to determine how best to foster good work in the future. Our story has been told in many places, and this blog is one of many fruits of that collaboration.
For each of the sectors that we studied, we had to raise funds. Somewhat unexpectedly, we found it easy to raise funds to study philanthropy. And, in accordance with the research design, we interviewed many involved in the philanthropic sector and reflected on what it meant to be a good worker therein. Our findings were reported in various articles and also in a book edited by Bill Damon and Susan Verducci called Taking Philanthropy Seriously.
As the study unfolded, Mihaly floated an intriguing idea; he said, “Philanthropy is a field, but it’s not a domain.” Let me unpack this phrase. According to our terminology, a field is any organized activity in which there are participants, careers paths, and gatekeepers who decide who can participate and who gets rewarded. A domain entails a higher bar. A domain is a sector of society dedicated to the pursuit of a clear set of values—values that are publicly stated, carefully monitored, and directed toward a recognized public good. Any occupational area can be a field, but as a rough approximation, we restrict the use of the word domain to organized professions. In 19th century America, it was relatively easy to call oneself a lawyer or a doctor: the field was wide open. In the 20th century, these fields became professionalized: there were clear standards of preparation, a set of ethical principles, and, importantly, criteria by which one could be ostracized from the profession or domain.
And so, in Mihaly’s term, anyone could call herself a philanthropist or (to use another term of art) a philanthropoid—someone who gives away money accumulated by someone else. As long as one obeyed the law and, so to speak, dressed in a suit, one could not be expelled from the practice of philanthropy. It is a field, but not a domain.
In the decades since our work was launched, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many individuals whom we could term philanthropists and/or philanthropoids. Two of their approaches are quite familiar and have been around for a long time:
–Charity. In this oldest form of philanthropy, one gives money or other kinds of support to those most clearly in need: those who are ill, those who are destitute, those who are helpless, or those who beg.
–Standard “SOB” Support. Much of philanthropy consists of giving money to those community organizations that have most visibly relied on such support. The playful acronym “SOB” refers to symphonies, opera, and ballet. But I would extend that characterization to other organizations—many of them quite worthy—that have been around for a long time: annual community drives, The Salvation Army, The Red Cross, and—in the sector that I personally know best—Save the Children or Doctors without Borders. One does not need to scrutinize their activities annually; barring scandal, one assumes that these well-known “do-good” organizations are going about their work in a reasonable fashion.
In the case of my own fundraising, I have dealt primarily with two other forms of philanthropy which, for the sake of this essay, we might think of as “discretionary” philanthropy. One was quite dominant when I began to raise funds decades ago; the other has become dominant in recent years.
–Twentieth Century “Taste” Philanthropy. In this style of philanthropy, funders place bets on individuals or projects that seem promising. Funders focus on the track record of the fund seeker; the importance of the project being put forth; the thoughtfulness with which the case has been made; and the nature of the personal relation between the funder and the funded (often one of candor and trust). For those of us on the GoodWork Project, 20th century philanthropoid John Gardner (no relation), President of the Carnegie Corporation, represented the prototype of this form of philanthropy. Gardner and those like him had excellent taste and many of the projects that they supported—for example, Public Television—were highly successful. The risk of this form of philanthropy was that it relied too much on personal relations between certain individuals and certain institutions; and if you were not part of an “old boy” or “old girl” network, the chances of securing funding were much smaller.
–Contemporary “Accountability: Philanthropy. Partly in reaction to the limitations of philanthropy of decades ago, another form of philanthropy has arisen in recent years. Much influenced by the modes of operation of management consultancies like McKinsey, this form of philanthropy focuses heavily on the specific goals of the project, the methods being used, the steps taken along the way, and the criteria by which success will be judged. It is highly reliant on strategy, on numbers (constantly monitored), and on accountability or “return on investment.” If the applicant does not have much experience in thinking along these lines, or if her project does not lend itself to such matrixes, her chances of securing funding are low.
About a decade ago, I attended a meeting in which a well-known philanthropoid—representing a foundation with billions of dollars—discussed the foundation’s shift from 20th century to contemporary approaches to funding. “No more betting blindly,” he declared, “from now on, we will know exactly what we are funding, whether we are succeeding, and how to cut our losses.” He was wildly cheered by the audience, composed of successful individuals representing various sectors of society.
I then asked to speak. I acknowledged the appeal of the message he was delivering. But I then added, “I’ve been raising funds for nearly forty years. By most accounts, the work that I’ve done has been of quality. I have to say that, under the ground rules that you outlined, I’d never have been able to raise a penny.” And this is because, in my own fundraising, I at most had a promising idea and a reasonable track record. But I never knew ahead of time what I and my colleagues would discover and how we would make sense of it.
I thought back to what John Gardner said to Mihaly, Bill, and me back in 1995, when we first talked with him about what ultimately became the GoodWork Project and today is the Good Project: “It’ll take you five years to figure out what you are trying to accomplish.” And then he helped us to secure our first grant—from the Hewlett Foundation.
In an upcoming blog, using philanthropy as a case study, I’ll discuss how a field can become a domain—or, in lay terms, how does an occupation become a profession, and what might cause it to lose its professional status.