It’s good to give a little something back. If you plan or care about a social investment, Paul Brest and Hal Harvey’s book can advise you on how to develop a strategy to ensure that your money is ‘well spent’. It addresses potential and practising donors eager to know how to improve the effect of their philanthropic activities. And, with its clear view on how to strategically approach a philanthropic mission and an abundance of insights and examples from the experience of two philanthropy professionals, it does so successfully.
While there have been seminal contributions on philanthropy and strategic giving in recent years (for example by Peter Frumkin and Joel Fleishman), Brest and Harvey set out to boil this thinking down to practice, doing for philanthropists what books on business strategy do for business entrepreneurs and executives. They cover the whole range of strategic social investment, introducing readers to the pertinent topics and terminology of the field – like theory of change and logic models, programme-related investments and the SROI concept, and the eternal questions surrounding social impact measurement.
Their presentation is engaging, too. For example, they present a three-dimensional model for categorizing philanthropic goals and go on to talk about ‘philanthropy in the small cube’ (addressing short-term, small-scale problems that affect people’s quality of life) and ‘philanthropy in the big cube’ (the fight against long-term, life-threatening and global problems). They also invent Sally Holder, president of a hypothetical medium-sized foundation, and invite the reader to share a day in her life.
The authors discuss key issues (like specifying goals and tracking progress) repeatedly and from different perspectives, giving examples and discussing pitfalls. Reading all or only part of the book, therefore, the potential donor will gain both knowledge of, and a good feeling for, what really matters in strategic philanthropy.
The book is in three parts: a ‘framework of strategic philanthropy’, a discussion of the characteristics and limitations of different tools available to the philanthropist, and a discussion of the structures donors can use for realizing their philanthropic mission.
Brest and Harvey know that philanthropic strategy does not start with the work of grantee organizations but with the donor or the foundation itself. Choosing goals, designing strategies, monitoring performance and measuring impact need to be considered at the two levels likewise. The same holds true for evaluation – a somewhat neglected child in the field. Since randomized controlled studies, the ‘gold standard of evaluation’, are difficult, expensive and not mandated for social interventions, they are seldom done. Donors prefer to put their money into programmes and there is therefore little knowledge about what actually works. Brest and Harvey therefore encourage funders to invest in evaluation – in order to develop basic knowledge for their strategic spending. They acknowledge that not everything is measurable, but they rightly point out that ‘the very discipline of trying to define measurable goals helps clarify what you’re trying to accomplish’.
It should be noted that the book focuses on philanthropy in the US. The authors’ thinking is geared to the US grantmaking model and their examples are mainly taken from US foundations. They provide a thoughtful discussion of venture philanthropy principles, including the idea of becoming more engaged with grantee organizations, but devote only a few paragraphs to the operating foundation model – which is much more influential and multifaceted, for example, in European philanthropy. The perfect complement to their book would be one that applied their insights to the societies and philanthropic traditions of Europe and other parts of the world.
It’s always good when experienced practitioners share their knowledge and we should be particularly grateful when they do so in such a comprehensive and insightful way. Brest and Harvey claim to provide readers with the concepts necessary for designing a strategy to achieve their charitable goals. They take it to be the ‘theory of change’ of their book to improve the effectiveness of the reader’s philanthropy and ‘whet others’ appetites’ – with the ultimate goal of making the world a better place. We think we are justified in saying they have a good chance of success.
Dr Volker Then is Managing Director of the Centre for Social Investment at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert Münscher is project manager and consultant in the Advisory Services Department. Email email@example.com
Money Well Spent: A strategic plan for smart philanthropy
Paul Brest and Hal Harvey Bloomberg Press $27.95/£13.99