Strategic philanthropy is all about power and control, says Pablo Eisenberg


Caroline Hartnell

Caroline Hartnell

Caroline Hartnell

Over the summer there has been much debate on ‘strategic philanthropy’ and whether it’s a good thing, with the Hudson Institute’s Bill Schambra airing his doubts and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s former and current presidents Paul Brest and Larry Kramer coming to its defence.

I enjoyed Phil Buchanan’s comments on the debate on the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s blog. ‘No surprise that we here at CEP are in the Paul Brest and Larry Kramer camps on this one,’ he writes, ‘given that we have long pushed for a strategic approach to philanthropy.’

But the take on the debate that interested me most came from Pablo Eisenberg, writing for the Chronicle of Philanthropy – both because I found so much to agree with and because the issues he raises are so similar to those raised in the latest Alliance special feature on ‘Philanthropy and power’.

In Eisenberg’s view, ‘the debate on non-profit blogs and elsewhere that ensued after his [Schramba’s] remarks were published by Nonprofit Quarterly fails to grapple with the real issues raised by strategic philanthropy. It marks a fundamental shift in control and power by donors to call all the shots and exclude nonprofits with great new ideas.’ Paul Brest’s vision, he says, ‘is based on the idea that the goals and priorities of non-profits need to align with those of foundations, in essence saying that philanthropists should set the agenda for nonprofits. Such arguments make it clear why we now face a dangerous shift of the balance of power in the non-profit world.’ He quotes Brad Smith, president of the Foundation Center, as saying that 60 per cent of all American foundations today don’t accept unsolicited proposals.

The dominance of such no-proposal policies limits the access of non-profit groups to grantmakers, he says. Yet, he points out, ‘Almost all of America’s social movements were started with ideas developed by grassroots charities, not by foundation leaders. … Foundations should not look upon non-profits merely as contractors or vendors hired to carry out foundation ideas and programs. And they need to be more, not less, open to ideas emanating from the outside world.’ His conclusion: ‘Non-profits should have a greater role in driving the agenda.’

201309-SeptemberCoverSmallThe Alliance special feature on ‘Philanthropy and power’ deals with the issues raised by Pablo Eisenberg. ‘I fear that as money has grown more influential in our monetarized societies, there has been a tendency for philanthropy to think it knows best,’ writes guest editor Stephen Pittam, former secretary of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, who has over many years expressed the view that foundations should not be driving social change but rather supporting those with ‘fire in their belly’ to do so. ‘If those with wealth are using their power to act as if they are civil society,’ he goes on, ‘and are playing an increasingly influential role in the policy debate, then where will this lead? In the long run it is likely to weaken civil society and the NGO sector, and eventually to weaken our democracies.’

The special feature includes an analysis of different models of power sharing by which foundations can share some of their power with their beneficiaries and others, and a range of examples from Central America, New Orleans and Northern Ireland, among others.

Caroline Hartnell is editor of Alliance magazine

Tagged in: Effectiveness Foundations Power Strategic Philanthropy

Comments (2)

Tony Macklin

Pablo may be right about some foundations, but he's wrong about why 60% don't accept unsolicited proposals. Here's why:

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