Creative Philanthropy: Towards a new philanthropy for the 21st century – Helmut Anheier and Diana Leat

Anheier and Leat set themselves the dual task of chronicling the development of creative philanthropy and making the case for it to become the dominant model for foundation activity. This book is therefore a curious, yet compelling, mix of theory and practice.

While this duality is in many ways its strength, I suspect that much of the readership will be more interested in one element and may find themselves skimming the other half. This would be a shame as practitioners may benefit from the more theoretical elements and theoreticians may have much to learn from the ‘how to’ sections.

The essence of the book is a strongly argued case that unless foundations embrace the creative approach, they will become increasingly inadequate in their attempts to address the challenges of the 21st century. The authors are severe in their criticism of foundations that resist change, accusing them of having inappropriate roles and expectations and being unable to inspire the next generation of philanthropists. However, those foundations that are receptive to the message are promised the ability to maximize their potential, to strengthen and defend democracy, and to help usher in a new golden age in philanthropy.

But what is the nature of this elixir? As ‘creativity’ is a nebulous concept, more than half the book is taken up with examples of creative philanthropy in practice. These case studies are biased towards the US, with just two examples from the UK and one from Australia, but they do cover a good range of foundations that differ in size, age and area of activity.

The case studies are also useful for more than their intended purpose of illustrating the creative philanthropy approach. They are fascinating vignettes that cover each foundation’s historical development and provide an insight into the key debates and decisions that have shaped their priorities and activities. Some of the narrative in this section gives the reader a sense of being a fly-on-the-wall in a foundation board meeting. This is fascinating in itself but should also prove useful to grantseekers who struggle to understand how ‘philanthropoids’ think.

The one major flaw of this book lies not within its pages but on the cover. The unsuspecting reader might imagine that the title’s promise of ‘creative philanthropy’ refers to all kinds of giving, not just foundation philanthropy. While grantmaking foundations are a significant donor, responsible for over $30 billion in the US and over £2 billion in the UK, this is only around 10-15 per cent of the total income of the voluntary sector in each country. It therefore seems disproportionate to make exaggerated claims for the impact of reforming this smallish slice of the philanthropic pie.

That said, no one would deny that extracting more bang from the foundation buck is a useful goal. All those involved in foundation philanthropy – founders, staff, board members and potential grantees – would benefit from reading and rising to the challenge set out by Anheier and Leat.

Beth Breeze is a consultant to the Institute for Philanthropy in London. Email beth.breeze@blueyonder.co.uk

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