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?
- 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.
just curious - your review is solid enough that even one with zero credentials is emboldened to venture to say the book sounds like a fine analysis of the middleman role. Middlemen everywhere are suspect, but surely no more so than in a field in which one is dealing entirely with other people's money, goals, values, ideals. Keeps reminding me of undertakers. But here seems a practical, common sense analysis, offering a set of tasks that require a variety of practices and skills. Suddenly the middleman seems legit - moreso. Has this book gotten some ink? some recognition for what it's accomplishing? Or is an academic look here, as in so many other fields, the one gaze everyone can agree is de trop before book and author vanish into the space between commodity capital's teeth?
Posted by: Dr. Trotsky | December 13, 2006 at 11:35 PM
Philanthropy really does not yet have an academic literature. You can put together a curriculum of "classics," like Aristolte and Tocqueville, or use an anthology like Dr. Amy Kass's The Ultimate Gift, and their are journals for foundation people, and others for fundraisers, and others for financial professionals, but the field as a whole is just emerging as a discipline. So, Frumkin's book is a landmark, and is getting ink in the funder and foundational professional world. If you Google Frumkin Hudson you will see that Hudson did a convening around the book.
Also, Frumkin worked on the book with Christine Letts at the Hauser Center at Harvard, which trains nonprofit people particularly "social entrepreneurs."
The field, Dr, reminds of literary theory circa 1973. Some of us where passionate about it, but no one had yet done a disseration on it. It was not considered a real field. Frumkin strikes me as one of the very first to have "done his disseration" on philanthropy and set up as a Professor to teach it.
Oddly he denounces professionals, having become a trainer of one, it would seem. He identifies with the Funders, (c.f. Carlyle on Heros and Hero Worship), yet is not one. The story of our time, Dr. Trotsky, or is it Dr. Gramsci?
Posted by: Phil | December 14, 2006 at 08:07 AM
What constitutes a field or discipline? How do you talk about it while it is forming? It happens right here in the posts and comments, and when we occasionally meet face to face.
Posted by: Gerry | December 14, 2006 at 08:34 AM
Discipline: arcane body of knowledge, jargon understood only by fellow practitioners, years of training required, recognized credential, monopoly on a source of income. A professional discipline is affected by the public trust. (Or is, as GB Shaw said, "a conspiracy against the laity."
Posted by: Phil | December 14, 2006 at 10:36 PM
I'd be curious to learn about the fee or commission structure. Does Frumkin talk about that? What is the norm, if there is one, for the services of the professional advisor? Do they advertise? Where? Or is it all done via oldmoney networks, on large estates, or yachts, or nameless restaurants known only to the oldmoniers?
Posted by: Dr. Gromsky | December 15, 2006 at 01:16 AM
Who is a philanthropic advisor? Many established life insurance agents, and investment people call themselves that, and have some expertise in charitable tools, and/or "values-based" estate and financial planning. "The usual charges apply" - most would charge a fee and most would take commissions or fees for product sales and assets under management. These people generally are on what you might call the supply side giving giving, filling up the philanthropic buckets and managing the money in them.
Then there are those who role it is to disburse the philanthropic funds to charities that actually do the work, feed the poor, educate kids, etc. Some of them work on salary for foundations as paid staff. Others are independent professionals who for a fee work with a family or foundation to help them make more effective grants.
So, the field is more diverse than its nomenclature might lead you to believe. Knowing that a person is called a "philanthropic consultant" doesn't tell you much. Frumkin, I am sure, works with individual donors, but he is a Phd teaching college as his main line of work.
My sense is that professionals whose sole focus is helping donors make better grants (TPI or Tracy Gary, for example) do not get rich at it. Often people in those roles, like prep school teachers, are driven to work with philanthropy out of idealism, and can afford it because they have money from others sources.
The investment and financial professionals who wealth consulting and include philanthropy as a hook and a service on top of estate planning or investment management can struggle, but some - a few - do very, very well.
Posted by: Phil | December 15, 2006 at 08:31 AM