Twenty years ago, before I worked in philanthropy, if you had asked me to explain the fundamental purpose of a foundation, I would have given a simple answer: to give money to nonprofits.
That was naive. After joining the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation in 2003, I quickly came to understand that the foundation had a mission beyond giving away money — and a vision for impact that encompassed more than simply supporting good organizations. I also learned that strategy entailed more than just figuring out which issue areas and organizations to fund.
During my nearly 14 years at Meyer, we went through two strategic-planning processes — emerging from each with a somewhat narrowed focus, more concrete ideas about our goals, and an increased commitment to measuring our impact.
That evolution was part of a broader shift by many foundations over the past few decades toward an approach often referred to as “strategic philanthropy.” In a 2009 report, the Center for Effective Philanthropy defined “strategy” as an approach to giving focused on the external context (rather than the foundation itself or its grantees) and the logical connections between use of foundation resources and achievement of goals, with a commitment to measuring progress.
This field-wide shift, though not without detractors, has been positive in many ways. Institutions entrusted with significant philanthropic capital have an obligation to be thoughtful and intentional about how that capital is being deployed. And any effective organization should want to know whether it is making progress toward its goals.
But as our field has embraced strategic philanthropy, “checkbook philanthropy” — the term frequently invoked to describe giving that is the opposite of strategic — has gotten a bad name. Just look at the websites of leading philanthropic advisors, who describe checkbook philanthropy as “ad hoc with little further communication or follow up,” or even “giving without thinking.”
“Checkbook philanthropist” has become a pejorative, and that’s a shame. Simply writing checks to effective organizations doing important work can be an honorable approach to philanthropy and doesn’t have to be mindless, haphazard, or ineffectual.
Checkbook philanthropy isn’t necessarily the opposite of strategic philanthropy. Indeed, strategic funders can pursue their goals while fully funding grantees’ operating costs. But, in my experience, far too few actually do this. More checkbook philanthropy could go a long way toward solving some of the chronic problems with how nonprofit organizations are capitalized.
Read the full article about the need for more checkbook philanthropy by Rick Moyers at cep.org.
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