Few would deny that the social, environmental, and public health problems we face are growing more complex. Or that the consequences of the global financial crisis have put additional pressure on most organizations to do more with less.
At the same time, the idea that philanthropy could be more effective in pursuit of its goals has been a topic of conversation for at least a decade. Indeed, the "golden age" of philanthropy ushered in by the tech and dot-com boom of the mid-1990s has given rise over the years to a number of concepts (capacity building, organizational effectiveness, impact assessment) and frames (venture/high-engagement philanthropy, strategic philanthropy, social justice philanthropy) that seek to illuminate and address the shortcomings of institutional philanthropy.
Mark Rosenman, professor emeritus at the Union Institute and director of Caring to Change (C2C), a project conducted in collaboration with the Aspen Institute's Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation, is the latest to attempt such a synthesis -- and he's done a bang-up job of it.
But first, some background. As Rosenman explains in a new essay and report, the C2C project was conceived with
the premise that while many philanthropists and foundations seek to address deep-seated problems and affect broad-based change, too much grantmaking fails to have lasting, truly consequential, and verifiable impact. Although foundations' grantmaking has accomplished much of extraordinary significance, it is not the purpose of this project to celebrate those achievements. At its heart, [C2C] is an endeavor that aims to be critical and constructive at the same time....
In service of that goal, Rosenman and his colleagues had in-depth conversations with more than fifty leaders in the field and interviewed over a hundred staffers at foundations, nonprofits, and other organizations. All that information and feedback went into the drafting of a working paper that presented suggestions for improved grantmaking strategies. Additional input was then solicited at a retreat of nonprofit and foundation leaders and program officers in 2009. The report based on that work, Foundations for the Common Good (74 pages, PDF), was published a few weeks ago and is beginning to make a splash.
In it, Rosenman says that the rubric of the Common Good "emerged as the unifying theme that best organized and expressed both the wisdom and the longing of those engaged by the project." What does Rosenman mean by the Common Good? In the report, he explains that from the early days of the Republic, it has always been characterized (as the U.S. Constitution puts it) "as the effort to 'establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.'"
"In this conception," says Rosenman, "as a society we get closer to the Common Good when we achieve freedom from untoward interference in our lives, as secured by the Bill of Rights. We also advance toward the Common Good when we enjoy the freedom to have equal opportunities for the pursuit of society's rewards, regardless of the circumstances of our birth, the wealth of our families or our other demographic characteristics...."
Indeed, promotion of an inclusive notion of the Common Good is the foundation on which Rosenman's frame is built. And while he acknowledges "that different people will think differently about Common Good values," he is absolutely clear about what is required of foundations:
[I]t is the whole which must be engaged by foundations. It is this process of grounding grantmaking in the Common Good, of finding its meaning and identifying its implications for actions, that needs to guide foundations. It requires conversation and argument across differences within and outside foundations, and like other institutions in our society, it needs to be given formal priority and have specific procedures to continually reach and refine answers. Without constant and sufficient attention to the Common Good, foundations certainly will produce individual goods in service to some narrower interests -- but may do so in ways which fail to achieve their full or enduring power or which may inadvertently harm the social whole....
Foundations for the Common Good is more than a theoretical exercise, though. In fact, the second half of the report lays out three broad strategies that emerged during the project as central to the C2C vision: 1) philanthropy's role is to advance the Common Good; 2) foundations should promote diversity and vigorous equal opportunity/outcomes; and 3) foundations should work to connect analyses, programs, organizations, and people. For each, the report offers specific suggestions as to how to advance that work. The suggestions include:
- Foundations should acknowledge the centrality of the Common Good and define the core values that motivate their work.
- Foundations should consider grantmaking for programs that intend to explicitly instill, reinforce, and animate Common Good values.
- Foundations should affirm that diversity is a central concern in all program areas and for general support grants.
- Foundations should support nonprofit organizational development initiatives that address concerns of diversity and which vigorously pursue equality of opportunity/outcomes.
- Foundations should convene grantees that are potential collaborators, but don't compel partnerships.
- Foundations should create systems-reform opportunities by collaborating with other foundations.
It's an interesting list and well worth checking out (you can find the complete list below the jump).
But that's enough for now about the report. What do you think? Does philanthropy need a new framework to drive greater impact and effectiveness? And if so, is promotion of the Common Good, as laid out in Rosenman's thoughtful report, the right frame?
Share you thoughts in the comments section....