Red Bull in a China Shop,” Ed Schipul

September 5, 2018; Australia Pro Bono

NPQ has looked with interest and trepidation at the growth of a new era of mega-philanthropists. As they amass personal fortunes, some seek to use their wealth for societal benefit, taking the same innovative, disruptive approach to their philanthropy that they use in their businesses.

This desire for breakthrough impact has led to a more activist approach, as NPQ highlighted when it quoted Columbia University professor Jeffrey R. Henig in Education Week.

The role of the foundations was to fund demonstration projects and service delivery, and they were often willing to support these movements for a long-term basis. […] The more strategic philanthropy that we’re seeing now…combines research and advocacy with a deliberate attempt to use their donations to change public policy. […] It’s…a reflection on the part of the donors that even with the fairly substantial amounts of money they’re putting into the play, the only long-term, sustainable changes are only going to come about if they can alter the policy environment.

Larry Kramer, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, describes the tension that an innovative spirit brings to the nonprofit world.

We don’t do the work that matters: we support other people and organizations who do. Yet that must be balanced against our responsibility to steward the foundation’s resources wisely—a duty that lies here, with us, and that cannot be outsourced to others. How, then, should we weigh what our grantees say and want against our own best judgment about what’s happening and what we should do? How do we find the right balance between change and continuity? That’s a difficult question in the best of circumstances.

In a recent interview with Pro Bono News, Kramer expresses concern that many new philanthropists are not finding the right balance point, harming the services and people philanthropy is supposed to benefit. “There’s a whole lot of things being done that I think are not very effective,” Kramer says, “and in the meantime, a lot of things that are effective are finding it harder and harder to find support.”

It’s actually quite a complicated business and instead of just rushing to grab the latest fad, it’s important to really think it through and figure out what you want to do, learn and experiment.

If, as Kramer notes, the best philanthropy comes out of passion tempered by “thinking hard” about how and where to make a difference, it’s understandable that a generation of philanthropists whose passions include disruptive change to the established order would energetically approach charitable giving in the same way. Their great wealth provides them with a great ability to effect their visions. The danger is not in their desire to do good, but in the lack of a mechanism for mediating between personal vision and public good.—Martin Levine