Susan Herr in Her Own Voice
For H. Peter Karoff, The Private Transcript

Peter Frumkin, "Strategic Giving"

Philanthropy is emerging as not only a fashionable topic in the mass media, and as a profession for advisors and foundation people, but also as a serious object of academic study.  Peter Frumkin, a Professor of Public Affairs and Director of the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the LBJ School, is a PhD. In a field notable for "talented amateurs," he is a thoughtful scholar. I have been reading his new book, Strategic Giving, at the rate of one chapter a day, as a respite from the daily grind. I find myself underlining almost every sentence. Peter has strongly held personal opinions, about donor intent and the way it gets watered down by trustees and staff in foundations after the donor dies. His opinions are well argued and interesting, and give a kind of dramatic lift to the book, by endowing it with heroes and villains. But the permanent achievement, one that transcends opinion, are the conceptual schemas that he patiently develops chapter by chapter. 

Peter views philanthropy through a "prism," defined by the following inter-connected points:

  • Donor identity and style
  • Time frame of giving
  • Vehicle or institution through which the gift is made
  • Value produced through giving
  • Logic model supporting the gift

The points connected make a five pointed star. Connecting the points around the edges makes a pentagon. The central space inside the star, where the lines intersect to define a small pentagonal, represents the balance or fit among these different ways of "seeing" or understanding a gift. 

The prism is a very useful tool for discussing a gift with a donor. It is more than a "checklist;" it encourages the donor to look at the gift through various lenses:

  • Is the gift self expression? Oriented to family? To personal taste and predilections?
  • Is the gift oriented primarily to a vehicle, like a foundation, or an existing charity?
  • Is it oriented to a specific end in view for society?
  • Is it guided by a strategic plan, or logic model?
  • And is the giving oriented to a specific time-line: giving now versus later?

Any gift can be seen under each of these aspects. A great gift balances these complentary/competing considerations in a well-concieved, expressive, effective, timely, way - satisfying the donor and satisfying a public need. 

Along the way, Peter makes other important distinctions:

  • Is the gift effective?
  • Accountable?
  • Legitimate as a private act in a public context, for a purported public good?

Or, to invoke another of Peter's favorite distinctions, a gift is part art, part science. We can ask of a gift:

  • Is it like a work of art, expressive of what is deepest in the donor? Stunning? Uplfiting? Inspiring? Moving? Grand? Or narrow, petty, self-serving, tacky, tasteless, flashy? Vain?
  • Is the work like a business strategy or political strategy logically well-calculated, even scientifically managed, to produce a key end in view? Is the gift efficient? Impactful? Supported by a well-validated theory of change? Backed up with data? Measured like an engineering feat with well-chosen metrics? Can it be replicated, as might a scientific experiment? Is it like a road-building exercise, or a Roman aqueduct, well managed from blueprint, through creation, to delivery?

Agreeing or disagreeing with Peter's particular personal opinions seems almost secondary. What he has laid out for the field is a conceptual apparatus from which anyone working with donors, or foundations, can benefit in thinking seriously about gifts and grants, about giving as a private act in a public space, about accountability of wealth to society, and the legitimacy of private wealth used to move society towards a donor's vision of "the world we want."

For the record, the opinion Peter presses is that donor's contribute to a pluralistic democratic ferment of ideas and institutions by making gifts with passion, or based on their own lights, however idiosyncratic, and that we lose something as the larger than life donor passes on, and dry and cautious professionals and trustees step in to manage a foundation with a rather timid view of the public good in mind, and with a fading memory of their passionate founder's vision. I can agree or disagree with that thesis, but I would find myself doing so within the "prism" of considerations  that Peter has presented. For that I am very much in his debt, as will be any other donor or professional who studies his book.

By the way, Peter has a blog.