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Current Approach to Strategic Philanthropy Is Limiting

Current Approach to Strategic Philanthropy Is Limiting

News (International)

The current top-down approach to strategic philanthropy limits its overall effectiveness, leading to a widening disparity between the amount of money invested in communities and what is actually being accomplished. That was the conclusion of a new study by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), which pushed for a greater emphasis on social justice philanthropy.


The report, “Real Results: Why Strategic Philanthropy is Social Justice Philanthropy,” was written by Niki Jagpal, NCRP’s research and policy director, and Kevin Laskowski, the organization’s senior research and policy associate. The two authors argued that today’s strategic philanthropy practiced by nonprofits favors short-term metrics and is largely disconnected from the communities these organizations serve.


Jagpal and Laskowski wrote that unless grantmakers explicitly address the needs of underserved communities and invest in policy and community engagement, they are unlikely to achieve their goals of helping communities. In other words, they contend that strategic philanthropy must adopt the techniques favored by social justice philanthropists.


“All grantmakers want to maximize the impact of their grants,” said Aaron Dorfman, executive director of NCRP. “What they may not realize is that the missing piece in their grantmaking strategy is the social justice lens.”


The report noted that the concept of strategic philanthropy gained increased popularity in recent years as donors tried to maximize the impact of their grants. In their 2008 book “Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy,” Paul Brest and Hal Harvey stated that strategic philanthropy “deploys resources to have the maximum impact – to make the biggest difference possible.”


Yet the evidence appears to show that big differences have not always been made.


Despite strategic philanthropy’s good intentions, the authors claimed the practice is limited by its preference for “linear, top-down, technocratic solutions to community problems.” They cited some disparities in American communities to highlight the problem philanthropists are facing. For instance, NCRP’s High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy (HISP) series noted that despite grantmakers’ provision of $10 billion in grants to environmental causes from 200 through 2009, initiatives have been stalled at the federal level for decades while existing regulations have been rolled back and undermined.


The authors questioned how truly effective today’s philanthropy is if these disparities persists despite intervention from donors.


“When so many systemic disparities persist despite billions of philanthropic dollars being invested in various programs and communities, how successful have even the most strategic philanthropic interventions really been?”


Albert Ruesga, president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, is also quoted in the report as saying that these disparities highlight the “significant shortcomings of philanthropy-as-usual.”


“To make the same kinds of grants year after year to the same communities, to see the same disparities persist and even


widen, and not to question deeply one’s whole approach to giving, is to do philanthropy in bad faith,” he said in the article “What is Social Justice Philanthropy?” on his White Courtesy Telephone blog.


That’s why the authors argue that the practice of social justice philanthropy – contributions made to nonprofits that work for structural change – is what is missing from the current focus of philanthropic endeavors. Specifically, they mention three aspects that organizations must practice:


  • A clear understanding of one's goals includes not only the desired impact but also identifies who will benefit (or not) and how.
  • A commitment to evidence-based strategy cannot ignore the tangible, positive impact – and often the necessity – of influencing public policy.
  • Keeping a philanthropic strategy on course requires the input of those who stand to gain or lose the most from grantmaking: the grantees and the communities they serve.

It is hoped that these three goals will help rid strategic philanthropy of its worst limits – a narrow foci, burdensome paperwork, and a linear, technocratic view of social change – and turn them into assets that promote targeted universalism, advocacy activities, and a strategy driven by grantees and the communities they serve.


“If more grantmakers employ targeting and social justice in their philanthropy,” Jagpal and Laskowski wrote, “a more just and democratic society is possible.”


NCRP is a national watchdog, research, and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Its mission is to promote philanthropy that serves the public good, and is responsive to people in need.


You can download the full report for free at

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