When Bob sends an email and says, “I would be interested in hearing your views on “What’s Next” in philanthropy, I know that he’s trying to help me get the thoughts out of my head and onto paper.  Prompting me with Monitor Institute’s newest publication on “What’s Next for Philanthropy”, he’s likely a bit stunned by the route I’m about to take – in advocating for some deeply systemic shifts.  (There’s a future body of scholarly work here for me.)

Monitor sets out a beautiful framework, as all very gifted and thoughtful consulting agencies should and sometimes do.  Their graphic on “acting bigger” and “adapting better” certainly makes sense as philanthropy moves into a more evaluated, networked, transparent, and collaborative mode.   How funders work with governments and the public will certainly be of interest moving forward.  Whether interventions produce results will continue to refine strategies.  Hearing directly from the field will enhance top-down decision making.

The “creative tensions” that exist within philanthropy as we know it today are well articulated.  Urgency vs. patience.  Autonomy vs. collaboration.   Rigor vs. risks.  My only critique of the actual document is based on what I see as the core tension of Monitor’s thesis – acting bigger is exactly the thing that will make it difficult to adapt better.  More folks, more interests at the table = harder to shift, change, and be flexible.

What’s fascinating yet challenging to me is much of the thought in philanthropy is driven from an organizational communication/behavior lens.  This lens is absolutely valuable in that it examines behavior and management within complex organizations, and philanthropy is made of people and organizations.   Using this lens we gain insight into the role of funders, relationships between different interest groups, practical measures for improving our daily work, etc.

The organizational behavior allows us room to wiggle in our understanding of philanthropy, but only to a point – as is the case with any lens or world view.   If I was to stop and answer Bob’s question from this lens,  I’d say that Monitor needs to go further in their “what’s next”.  That their actual scope of philanthropy is still too narrow, still using current constructs of funders and beneficiaries.   Rather, from this lens, I’m much more onside with Dan Palotta’s work in Uncharitable for the fact that he gets us to “what’s next” by asking the question of “why we are here”.


The framework that Pallotta uses asks us to first understand where our culture of philanthropy began – Puritanism, in his view – and then challenges us to move further along the organizational behavior spectrum to understand the connection between how we expect nonprofits to run and why social issues continue to exist.  It’s in this space that we are able to examine the concepts and practices of the “socials”: enterprise, entrepreneurship, finance and business.

The Monitor report states that the status quo is not an option, and perhaps, from an organizational behavior standpoint we really can “act bigger” and “adapt better”.  But changing the status quo depends largely on the lens you are using to understand the status quo.   For purposes of really answering Bob’s question, I want to shift our lens of philanthropy a degree or two – just over to a sociological or anthropological view.  It’s an important shift because we’ll end up viewing a concept in a completely new light.

For example, take the concept of entrepreneurship.   From an organizational/business perspective entrepreneurship is a form of work.  However, move over to sociology and you’ll find folks who will tell you its leisure  (serious leisure, though vs. casual leisure).   If we do this same shift with the concept of philanthropy, we might find ourselves less willing to abandon our status quo – though it could do us more good if we did.

Steven Feierman writes[1],

“…philanthropy’s forms are inextricably wedded to the particular forms of dominance and privilege in each historical time and historical place.” (p. 21)

Philanthropy, as we envision it in a Western society and market system, is a desire by successful entrepreneurs to “give back.”[2] In the system that we’ve created, it is a generous and honorable action.  And the successes of philanthropy are well documented, where would we be without Carnegie’s gift of libraries and Rockefellers’ commitment to medical research?

Attempting not to advocate for a different economic system, I don’t think you play by one set of rules on one side of the line and then suddenly want another set for the other side.  (The line being the “profit” line.)  If your economic system is set up to enhance individual actions and reward comparative advantage – then you can’t just say, “well, but our philanthropic/social issues mechanism should be collective & coordinated, based on donations & voluntary, and done for the good of the whole community.”

Under our Western and market system, I struggle to understand why we’re pushing nonprofits and philanthropy to work in a way that we haven’t designed them (organizationally or culturally) to do so.  Western society (generally, North America/Europe), in the study of intercultural communications, values self-realization as our primary goal, advocates people as unique & separate entities, and admires personal success.  We’re not known for valuing group membership, defining ourselves in relation to others, or celebrating a group’s success the same as personal success.  On some level, don’t we actually attribute the success of the West to these characteristics?

To provide one example that would really challenge our true status quo, John Grim writes about aboriginal traditions of the “lifeway”.  Lifeway describes the intrinsic interaction of both world view and economy – the full interaction of the human, spiritual, and material spaces in society.  When speaking of community or philanthropy in this perspective, there is no separate term for “the public good”.  Rather, voluntary service and sharing is not separate from the communal life or lifeway[3].   I think I’ve accidentally hit on this sentiment when I’ve said “philanthropy is a lifestyle.”

Monitor is quite right in their assessment,

“Without rethinking incentive systems that guide behavior, change in philanthropy will likely remain elusive.”

I would argue that we’ve got to know which incentive system we’re talking about and for what kind of change we’re hoping.  “What’s next” for me means that advances in organizational behavior theory won’t get us all of the way there.  At some point we’ll need to ask ourselves, if we are to change the status quo in philanthropy, what does that mean for changing the status quo the way we run our society?

And more importantly and most difficult, from this lens, do we actually want to change the status quo?

(I’ve got more work to do on my thinking, but it’s a direction I enjoy.  Bob, I know this is nothing that you expected, but then I hope you quite enjoy that!)

[1] Feierman, Steven.  “Reciprocity and Assistance in Precolonial Africa.” Philanthropy in the World’s Traditions. Eds. Warren F. Ilchman, Stanley N. Katz, and Edward L. Queen II.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. 3-24.
Harding, Rebecca and Dennis Harding.  “Social Entreprenuership in the UK.” Barclays Social Entrepreneurship Monitor.  2007.
Grim, John.  “A Comparative Study in Native American Philanthropy.” Philanthropy in the World’s Traditions. Eds. Warren F. Ilchman, Stanley N. Katz, and Edward L. Queen II.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. 25-53.


Pin It on Pinterest

Visit Us On LinkedinVisit Us On Twitter