How good is philanthropy?

Theresa Lloyd

Giving – it’s all good

Recent articles, news stories and your own latest editorial in the June issue of Alliance have continued to keep alive questions related to donor intent and the issue of whether all ‘philanthropy’ is good and whether tax benefits should really go to all giving, however idiosyncratic.

There is a risk, perhaps not surprising in Alliance, that these issues are looked at only in the context of hugely pressing global social issues. But of course the charitable sector extends far beyond international development and climate change, to include medical research and health, higher education, cultural institutions and, yes, animal welfare. Some donors have strong views about the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ – whether the focus is drug dependency, prisoner welfare, or single mothers. Definitions of what is legally charitable will vary from country to country. 

While we all recognize that some new donors may be naive and arrogant, we should also recognize that (plainly) the various ‘solutions’ advocated over recent decades by ‘experts’ have failed. In the international development field, at different times different types of intervention have been heralded as the best way forward. As you report in June, a recent IFC paper tells us that ‘serious evaluations will show that some things do not work’. ‘Voices close to the ground’ are in fact often translated by large international NGOs who claim to have listened and accurately interpreted their wishes and priorities. 

It seems to me that there are at least three questions:

Should all charitable giving be regarded as ‘good’? Yes, and the definition of charity must be left to the legal framework rather than the individual bureaucrat, however distasteful some people may find individual donations.

Should there be more opportunities for donor education? Yes, and there is every indication of a growing interest and demand, whether in well-designed donor education programmes and resources such as the Global Philanthropy Forum and other networks on which you report, or in research reports such as those produced by New Philanthropy Capital.

Should beneficiaries invest much more in donor engagement? Yes. With a few exceptions in my experience, many international NGOs and other social welfare organizations could significantly improve the way in which they manage relationships with prospects and donors. 

As my research for Why Rich People Give showed, ‘new’ philanthropists are interested in effectiveness and in learning. As an Alliance reader, I sometimes feel that donors are occasionally chastised for wanting too much information and evidence of impact, and sometimes for naivety if they ask very basic questions or explore new approaches. As donors gain experience they learn to trust their own judgement, appreciate the joys of learning more about the issues first hand, and develop their own sense of what questions to raise and where intervention, particularly in capacity building, may be most effective.

Theresa Lloyd
Theresa Lloyd Associates


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