Debating Effective Philanthropy

This spring, for the sixth straight year, Binghamton students will grapple with how to give money away. It’s a great problem to have, but as students tell me every year, it’s not as easy as it looks. In the undergraduate class, I teach, Philanthropy and Civil Society, students have $10,000 to donate to local organizations, provided to them by the Learning by Giving Foundation. Public administration graduate students, too, will be doing philanthropy, using money they raise through the annual “Party with a Purpose.” It’s all part of the University’s Philanthropy Incubator, which emphasizes the central role that giving time and money plays in community life, and preparing students for lives of active citizenship.

In deciding how to give the money away the students’ debates center around one primary question “what is effective philanthropy?” It is a great time to be engaged in this work, because so many people have been debating what it means to do philanthropy well. Stanford Social Innovation Review provides a regular source of articles, blog posts and podcasts; charity rating services, such as Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau/Wise Giving Alliance provide criteria for evaluating giving opportunities (and blog about these issues as well); and the Center for Effective Philanthropy raises questions about what it takes for donors (foundations, in most cases) to do their job well.

In addition, the ethicist Peter Singer and the charity rating organization Give Well have developed a philosophy they call “effective altruism,” which encourages giving based on rigorous evaluation and other quantifiable measures of effectiveness.   Lastly, the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has regularly used his column to get us to think about philanthropy, has published a new book (with Sheryl WuDunn) on this topic, A Path Appears, (PBS debuted a new series this week based on the book). I like the book and am using it in my class this semester. It provides a valuable overview of many big themes in contemporary philanthropy. I credit Kristof, too, for introducing me to one last source of information about philanthropy, another book I use in my class The Power of Half, which tells the story of a family’s decision to sell their home and use half the proceeds for international philanthropy.

So, what is effective philanthropy? Is there a single answer? I like the sources I listed above because they ask good questions about our philanthropic choices, and they have led me to think about philanthropy differently. All good. Here’s what I worry about, though: The debates about effective philanthropy rarely lead to Binghamton or to Upstate New York, for that matter.

The effective altruism movement recommends that we limit our giving to organizations with rigorously demonstrated results in which the impact of individual donations is quantifiable and assessed as making a difference. For Give Well, at present, that means four organizations…in the world. Kristof & WuDunn take a broader view, and also embrace the importance of giving to organizations that can show meaningful results (which I agree are VERY important). They highlight the work of social entrepreneurs many of whom do great work; in many cases, high-profile organizations led by people with high social capital, extensive social networks and schooled at Ivy League institutions. My concern is that these profiles are not representative of those who are making a difference in our community.

While Give Well’s rigorous standards and Kristof and WuDunn’s book provide valuable ways for us to reflect on our giving choices they rarely include the kind of small, workmanlike organizations that build the Binghamton community (and other small communities around the country). These organizations are led by dedicated, professional staff, and too often in Kristof & WuDunn’s book they are dismissed as well-intended but lacking in professional skills. That critique is over-stated, and MPA programs like ours are helping to add skilled professionals to the local nonprofit sector.

Our local nonprofit organizations are essential elements in building civil society, creating bonds of social capital. They reflect what the economist Lester Salamon calls “individual initiative in the public good.” Without them our community would be considerably poorer. Further, my research (with Professor Kristina Lambright) looks at the challenges small nonprofit organizations face in quantifying the results of their work (see examples here and here). Nearly all human service organizations in the six counties in South Central New York we studied embrace some forms of performance measurement, which means they can tell us something about the results of their work. Performance measurement is imperfect but improving.

The lesson for me is that there is no one perfect donation, no one way to make the right giving decision. For me, effective philanthropy must start with the valuable role nonprofit organizations play in places like Broome County, and be followed by information—information about performance, the experience of the people the organization is trying to help, what we know about community needs and the best ways to address particular social problems.

So, as we start another semester of philanthropy at Binghamton University, I say to our students, have at it. Show us all how you make good giving decisions. And after you graduate, do more and change the world.

David Campbell, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Chair
Department of Public Administration
College of Community and Public Affairs
Binghamton University