Philanthropy is innovative, invests in long-term solutions, and take risks, right? Isn’t that what we always say when called on to explain why foundations should be independent, free from excessive regulation, and not told how to spend their money? On Tuesday, George Soros walked the talk with a $100 million grant to Human Rights Watch.
The fact that the Soros gift should seem remarkable is, in itself, remarkable. Despite claims to the contrary, philanthropy in general is quite risk averse. In 2008, the largest share of grant dollars went to Health (23 percent) and Education (22 percent). Within each of these areas, some risky grants were made. Any donor who has chosen to fund reproductive health is well aware of the political firestorm that can erupt around that issue. Likewise, the first donors who funded charter schools were roundly criticized for breaking with education reform orthodoxy. But much philanthropy in these areas goes to wealthy alma maters and major hospitals. That is to be applauded; the American system depends on the generosity of donors for these institutions to thrive, but it would be a stretch to say such grants are risky.