Reviewed by Michael Alberg-Seberich
This book is like a Matterhorn expedition in the world of philanthropy. As in mountaineering, you need to be prepared for a steep ascent when the author, German scholar, Ekkehard Thümler, explores the nature of philanthropic actions and social impact but, at the top, there are some fine views.
First, the book provides an extensive grounding of philanthropy in the philosophical school of pragmatism, adding to the still-small body of work on a theory of philanthropy.
Second, on the basis of case studies of foundation initiatives to tackle social problems, some new frames of analysis of social impact are developed, which could become the maps, ropes and pickaxes – the actual tools of analysis – of the philanthropy-mountaineers.
The language is also part of the ascent. The book was mainly written for an academic community and draws on the concepts and language of philosophy, sociology and other disciplines.
The author grounds his thinking in the philosophy of pragmatism which developed in the late 1800s in the US and was led by John Dewey.
His Theory of Action is a plausible starting point for a theory of societal change initiated by philanthropic action combining the application of the ‘scientifically tenable and morally relevant’.
The author develops a strong critique of ‘strategic’ or ‘effective philanthropy’ drawing on pragmatism’s philosophical base in human values, behaviour and evolutionary experimentation.
This critique undermines the managerial, rational belief in social change that frames most philanthropy discourses.
The theory is applied by the author in the analysis of case studies concerning a school-job transition programme of The Change Foundation in Switzerland, a programme to promote intercultural community gardens of the Foundation Interkultur in Germany, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics initiated by the Nuffield Foundation and the campaign for a freedom of information act in the UK supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Philanthropy would profit from more such detailed case studies.
But the main impact of Thümler’s work is in the blending of technological innovation research with pragmatism. Decisive for philanthropy is his application of the Door-Opener Mechanism and of Small Niche Management as important levers of social impact.
The Door-Opener Mechanism allows the identification of a variety of philanthropic resources – not just money – that support social impact. Niche management – as introduced by the author in publications on philanthropic levers in education – is a way to initiate innovation on a small scale, experiment with these innovations and try to advocate for wider change on the basis of the niche experience.
Philanthropy in Practice is a thought-provoking work for a field that so easily draws its tools from the policy and business world. It is a call to reason and an expression of hope that philanthropy can have an impact on the more straightforward social problems.
This at least should be the starting point so that after the Matterhorn you may be able to climb Mount Everest.
Michael Alberg-Seberich is a managing partner at Active Philanthropy and Beyond Philanthropy.
About the book
Published by: Routledge
To order: http://www.routledge.com