New Name for the Same Old Thing?

“Catalytic philanthropy sounds good” said a guest attending the Do More than Give event at The Newseum in Washington, D.C.,“but isn’t this just a new word for the same old thing?”

The questioner said by way of example that labels for youth have morphed from at-risk, to disadvantaged, to most recently under-served. “But aren’t we just talking about the same thing? What’s really changed in philanthropy?”

Fair question.

Jean Case gave a provocative response. As co-founder and CEO of the Case Foundation, she pointed to America’s Giving Challenge, an online social media campaign that raised last year more than $2 million for nonprofits from about 100,000 donations in just 30 days. “That’s change,” said Jean, whose Foundation is a pioneer in leveraging social media networks and other online platforms to advance causes.

Jean Case was a featured panelist at the Newseum event along with Matthew Bishop, who writes for The Economist and is co-author of Philanthrocapitalism, Paula Ellis of Knight Foundation, and Mario Morino of Venture Philanthropy Partners. The Case Foundation was featured for it its catalytic campaigns such as the Make It Your Own Awards, which incite local community members “from all walks of life” to convene and discuss what matters most to them, then decide what kind of community they want, and finally, take action together. The first Awards had thousands of applicants and more than 15,000 voters. It’s an excellent example of Practice #4: Empower the People in Do More Than Give. Catalytic donors don’t just treat individuals as “recipients of charity” or part of a “problem to be solved.” Instead, they engage individual community members in devising their own solution to a problem—and then support them in tackling it.

Donors catalyze change offline too. They forge networks on the ground, like Knight Foundation, which has built a national network of community and place-based Foundations and galvanized them to tackle the news and information crises in their hometowns. Locally-relevant information and news “is as vital to a well-functioning of a community as clean water or good schools,” said Knight’s Paula Ellis. But instead of making top-down grants to local nonprofits from its headquarters – Knight is $2 billion+ national foundation based in Miami, Florida—Ellis and her team instead forged networks of foundation peers and provided them with tools and resources to tackle the problem in a decentralized way. It’s an excellent example of Practice #3: Forge Nonprofit Peer Networks.

“Managing to outcomes” is another gem of philanthropy jargon—one that’s bound to stay in vogue for a while with the publication of Mario Morino’s much-anticipated book, Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an era of scarcity (releases May 19; to download a free copy visit the book site. Morino laments the fuzzy phraseology—“frankly, I wish I had a better term,” he says—but it’s a huge problem. “The vast majority of nonprofits have no reliable way to know whether they’re on track to deliver what they promise to those they serve. They rely on little more than anecdotes and intuition.”

By extension, this presents a huge problem for donors, who want to know if their grants “worked.” But we advise donors to move away from evaluating their grantees in order to claim attribution for their gifts. Instead donors should strive to understand how they have contributed to advancing the outcomes they seek. (We write more about this in Practice #6: Learn to Create Change.) Matthew Bishop notes that Venture Philanthropy Partners is one of the few self-styled funds that actually delivers on the promise of “venture” philanthropy. Bishop studied VPP and other entrepreneurial business leaders who apply their corporate know-how and management discipline to address social problems in his seminal book Philanthrocapitalism.

Is all of this just new jargon for the same old concepts? My response is, I’m not sure it matters. People have been trying to create positive change in the world for as long as history has been recorded. My beef is that philanthropy, as commonly practiced today, is not focused on solving problems and catalyzing change. Most donors still define their role primarily as giving away money. So while catalytic philanthropy is not new, it is rare. And that’s what we hope to change. We want catalytic philanthropy to become the new normal in this 21st century Golden Age of Giving.

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