The Business of Giving: The Theory and Practice of Philanthropy, Grantmaking and Social Investment


The Business of Giving
Magazine article

By Peter Grant, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, January 2012. 280pp. Hardcover. ISBN 978-0230336797 £26.00

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By virtue of being a British-authored book about philanthropy, this book is likely to endear itself to the readership of Philanthropy UK before the first page has even been turned, as the number of books of similar provenance is so pitiably low. However, the appropriately-named author, Peter Grant, resists the urge to over-play his Union Jack-patterned trump card, and instead incorporates ideas, example and references from across the globe, including notably – if predictably – from the USA.

This book further distinguishes itself by being solely concerned with the processes and management of grantmaking, as the author says upfront: “Unlike some books about philanthropy, it will not tell you what field or what type of organisation to fund… What it will do is tell you how best to fund it once you’ve made that choice”.

Grant’s central premise is that philanthropy (or ‘social investment’ as it is often termed within the text), “is a process-related business that can be analysed like any other”. He argues that the contemporary philanthropy sector is overly focused on helping donors to develop a philanthropic strategy (for example choosing which areas to fund) at the expense of helping funders to operationalise that strategy. Yet having a robust philanthropic process in place to guide the implementation of giving decisions is described as ‘essential’ in order to achieve social change and to ensure “the maximum impact at the minimum cost to the funders resources”.

Grant knows of what he writes. He spent 20 years helping to allocate over £5 bn of philanthropic funding, largely in his time working for the grantmaking arm of the UK’s National Lottery, and he continues to advise foundations and lead a unique Masters course on grantmaking at Cass Business School in London. Whilst this is an undeniably impressive career that ensures authorial credibility, it does influence the book’s focus, which is largely about formal philanthropic institutions (i.e. professional charitable trusts and foundations) rather than informal, personal philanthropic giving. As such it may be of greater value to foundation staff rather than individual philanthropists. That said, all inhabitants of Planet Philanthropy will find much useful food for thought, as Grant offers interesting riffs on a number of pressing questions, such as whether there is anything new about ‘new’ or ‘venture’ philanthropy.

The bulk of the book involves describing and illustrating a wide range of concepts, models and ideas from the business world that – it is argued – can be applied to improve philanthropic processes and outcomes. For example, logic frameworks, or ‘logframes’, are analytical tools used for planning, monitoring and evaluation, which set out the logical linkages that connect the means and ends of a project.

Grant acknowledges the inherent difficulties in applying such a model to philanthropic initiatives, such as quantifying intangible outcomes (how does one measure enhanced self esteem amongst young people or a ‘better death’ amongst hospice users?) and the problem of taking adequate account of external factors (such as changes in government policy or the input of other funders) that simultaneously influence the outcomes being pursued. But Grant remains firm that, “Despite the many difficulties in the utilisation of logical models, they are… a key essential if a funder wants to design a programme to bring about social change”. Likewise, the book is unapologetic in arguing that business principles have a place in philanthropy because, “good management is good management in whatever sector one is working and good governance is essential and has similar characteristics in all areas”.

Whilst it makes sense that what Grant terms, ‘thinking funders’ can achieve better philanthropic processes and outcomes, this approach involves potentially problematic assumptions that philanthropy is about ‘thinking’ rather than ‘feeling’, and that funding decisions are solely concerned with creating external change.

An exclusive focus on the impact that philanthropy can have in the wider world, risks overlooking an arguably equally important aspect – and driver - of philanthropic activity, which is the change it can bring about in the donor’s own life. No doubt some givers are solely concerned with solving a social problem, but a great many donors are also hoping to put their money to some use in a way they will find personally enjoyable and rewarding. Whilst Grant does not dispute this – and could reasonably argue that donor benefit is the subject of another book – it is possible that philanthropic processes that do not incorporate donors’ needs will be ultimately less successful because they impair the virtuous cycle of giving-enjoyment-giving again. Without wishing to labour the point, this book views philanthropy as a ‘business’ (as its title makes clear), yet philanthropy is also about morals, values, emotions and identity work: the ‘optimal’ funding model may be one that is aligned with the donor’s worldview (for example funding a faith-based organisation or saving a beloved work of art for the nation), rather than the most ‘effective’ grant that achieves the biggest impact.

But perhaps this is the typical quibble of a social scientist (me) with someone working in a business school (Grant), and it in no way shakes my contention that this is a useful addition to anyone’s philanthropic bookshelf. There is increasing acceptance that all types of funders ought to understand standard business processes such as strategic planning, performance management, risk assessment and evaluation. This book not only supplies a clear, readable guide to these topics and many more, it does so from the pen of one of the UK’s most experienced grantmakers. An entirely cheese-free piece of home-grown wisdom is surely cause for celebration and book buying.

Declaration of interest: The author is known to the reviewer in a professional context (they are both involved in the Voluntary Action History Society, and are guest lecturing on each other’s university courses). Whilst this interaction is not surprising given the small size of the philanthropy sector in the UK, Philanthropy UK believes it is important to be transparent about such issues.