There was a time when the act of philanthropy was (mostly) enough to earn respect, good public opinion, and favorable public policy.

Over time, however, our views on philanthropy have grown more nuanced. Thoughtful research began to illuminate the various traditions of giving – such as charity (to alleviate suffering or ameliorate problems), patronage (to encourage talent and achievement), and the modern philanthropic practice of working to solve problems at their root causes.

But these more nuanced understandings of philanthropy have come with an ongoing, negative side effect: the desire to rank one approach over the other. Work intended to help us understand purpose and strategy occasionally has been used to judge the merits of goal and impact – and often to find the giving of others lacking in these attributes.

The notion that these (and many other giving traditions) can all play a critical role in advancing healthy communities has also at times been minimized, or not mentioned at all.

[Let me admit a personal conundrum: I am an enthusiastic proponent of critique and improvement, of assessment and renewal. But I’ve never quite understood why there is not at least as much criticism of those who don’t give and don’t plan to as there is of those who give but with whom we disagree over intent or method. As is often the case, I digress.]

When we move past judging and instead turn our attention to how our improved knowledge can influence the outcome of our giving, we see some wonderful results. Today, the practice of philanthropy is under continuous review – and not just by our critics or those who look suspiciously at big endowments. Those who want the very best for our field and the greatest impact for our work are also looking beyond why we give to examine the how.

A number of questions that seek to align values and practice, priorities and impact are surfacing in provocative, helpful, and exciting ways. Among them:

  1. What is our obligation to be accountable and what is a reasonable expectation of privacy (for families, this is especially poignant when it comes to personal privacy)?
  2. Do potential grantees have their own reasonable expectation of responsiveness when it comes to accepting proposals and what role is there for those who would identify a mission and seek out partners to work with them?
  3. Can we invest for maximum return and for enhancing the impact of our program priorities?
  4. Can our board and advisory structures reflect the diversity of those we seek to serve and the family who established and sustains the giving?
  5. How do we understand the opportunities and pressures of establishing a foundation in perpetuity and the different but equally compelling opportunities and pressures of limiting the lifespan of a foundation?

In my ideal world, we will resist the temptation to judge one another (and, by unsurprising consequence, likely find our choice the more worthy!). Instead, we will look at what we are trying to accomplish in terms of charitable impact and family participation. Understanding our choices in terms of our goals can help to thoughtfully vet options. And what other filters have I seen donor families employ to make good, appropriate choices?

  • Accommodating personal preference and style;
  • Ensuring the best possible returns (charitable impact; financial; favorable public policy; other?); and
  • Fulfilling the public trust implicit in the civic compact that makes private philanthropy possible in a democracy.

What happens when the choice prompted by one filter is different than one prompted by another? That’s where – as family and community foundation trustee, Paul Ylvisaker, used to say, that “values stated and values played out” should align. Our search for effectiveness will be better off for an honest and healthy dose of integrity.

Happily, few things in life are either/or. I’m generally a bit suspicious of those who stand stridently in one camp or another with little capacity for empathy or tolerance. Imagine a spectrum and plot yourself along the line that bridges two extremes:

  • Efficiency… and compassion;
  • Responsiveness…. and initiative
  • Setting high standards for success… and supporting understandable failure;
  • Respectful collaboration… and the courage to go it alone;
  • Risk tolerance… and aversion;
  • The urgency of now… and the long view;
  • Too many more to include here!

I’m not advocating bland or blind acceptance of one another’s position. If we are passionate advocates for our strategies and face apathy or disagreement, let’s have a rousing yet respectful conversation. Let’s look to one another to inspire, inform and illustrate why we do what we do and what works. And even though we likely come away still disagreeing, we just might leave with a little more understanding of both what we advocate for and against. (Even if the unsurprising result is the assurance we are the more worthy!)