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Big-Dollar Philanthropy Gets the Broad-Brush Treatment

December 03, 2013

(David Jacobs is director of foundation information management at the Foundation Center. In his last post, he claimed to be shocked – shocked! – that the IRS was subjecting conservative and Tea Party organizations applying for tax-exempt status to extra scrutiny.)

Blue_paintIs big-dollar, high-profile celebrity philanthropy really just for show? That's what Guy Sorman, a City Journal contributing editor and public intellectual in France, seems to think. Writing in the fall issue of CJ, Sorman cites a CNN story from March that begins: "Bill Gates is putting out a call to inventors, but he's not looking for software or the latest high-tech gadget. This time he's in search of a better condom."

"Incongruous as the story seemed," writes Sorman,

the former Microsoft titan had joined the struggle against sexually transmitted diseases. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was offering a $100,000 start-up grant to anyone who could design a condom that didn't interfere with sexual pleasure. Rachel Zimmerman, host of public radio’s CommonHealth, called the Gates Foundation's initiative "truly inspired." But was it? After all, the latex industry has pursued the same goal for decades and devoted many millions of dollars to the effort. What's the point of a philanthropist trying to do what the market is already doing?

Call this philanthropy for show, a kind of celebrity giving designed for a mediatized age, based on grand gestures, big dollars, and heartwarming proclamations -- but too little concern with actual results, which often prove paltry, redundant (as with the condom initiative), or even destructive. The American media often revel in controversy, so one might expect that the gap between expansive promises and disappointing outcomes would prompt intense journalistic interest. But for the most part, would-be statesmen-humanitarians -- such as Bill Clinton, Gates, and Al Gore, along with entertainment-world benefactors like Oprah Winfrey and academic superstars like Columbia development economist Jeffrey Sachs, have gotten a free pass for their good philanthropic intentions. They and their cohorts deserve closer scrutiny....

While I very much want to agree with Sorman's premise, I think his article is a bit unfair. For instance, he criticizes the Gates Foundation's agricultural development efforts in Africa for failing to achieve the results of the Green Revolution, the mid-twentieth-century development effort funded in part by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations:

But the foundation's funding strategy is precisely the opposite of what worked in India decades ago. To improve Indian wheat-seed yields, Rockefeller operated its own research labs in Mexico under the direction of American agronomist Norman Borlaug, who would win the Nobel Prize for his work in 1970. The Gates Foundation's African food project, by contrast, funds seed research overseen by Kenya's corrupt government. In other words, the foundation conducts itself in the region as if it were a state donor or the World Bank, offering foreign aid to a government recipient....

Which may seem a reasonable criticism -- until one remembers that Kenya is not India, and what works in one part of the world may not work well -- or at all -- in another. The issue of NGOs dealing with corrupt regimes is a thorny one, and while I'd love to be the first to say that NGOs should never agree to do so, it's much too complicated an issue to paint with a broad brush.

Sorman further undermines his credibility by asking (after Harvard macroeconomist Robert Barro): "Wouldn't it be better simply to distribute the $700 million to African peasants directly each year? Surely, they would know better what to do with it than Kenyan government officials would?"

Presumably so, but if the Kenyan government is too corrupt to work with on seed research, how does Sorman propose that Gates distribute $700 million to those farmers without the knowledge or cooperation of the government? And just how long does he think the cash would remain in private hands before being confiscated by those same corrupt officials? Those are the kind of questions he doesn't ask, or even consider.

Sorman's critique isn't entirely off the mark: the criticisms he raises about the Clinton Global Initiative are valid. And oftentimes, as his example of Winfrey's initial foray into educational philanthropy demonstrates, celebrities can indeed be so eager to embrace a good cause that they forget about things like effectiveness and accountability, resulting in the squandering of well-intentioned -- and all-too-scarce -- dollars. The learning curve in philanthropy can be steep and unforgiving to those who fail to do their homework.

The real value of Surman's article is that it serves as a reminder of basic practices that NGOs and individual donors -- celebrity or otherwise -- often neglect but would do well to remember: Develop metrics to track outcomes. Evaluate programs for effectiveness. Embrace transparency. Learn from your mistakes. While these practices are no guarantee of success, they certainly increase the chances of success. Even for superstar philanthropists.

-- David Jacobs

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Posted by Suzie Rivo Solender  |   December 04, 2013 at 10:21 AM

I, for one, am happy that the IRS is stepping in on this issue. It is time that restrictions are put in place and investigations are made.

Posted by Rachel  |   December 26, 2013 at 07:12 PM

I don't believe that celebrity philanthropy is all for show, but it does certainly appear that many of their initiatives are not well researched. I wonder if the considerations for effectiveness and accountability go down as the asset base of the foundation goes up - an inverse ratio perhaps? After all, a $100,000 start up grant for condom research is barely a blip to such a large foundation.

It is also possible that the Gates Foundation (and others) have earmarked a small portion of funding dollars just for these sorts of apparently redundant or 'risky' projects, without detracting from the overall mission of the foundation.

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