What are the hard problems in philanthropy?

Probably my favorite blog, my one go-to, the only I keep in Google Reader (all the philanthropy blogs I read in Bloglines), is Marginal Revolution, written by George Mason University economists Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok. Cowen is the leading voice among the two, and he defines the words “erudite” and “catholic” – with a small “c,” meaning “having wide-ranging interests.”

MR had a link yesterday to a symposium at Harvard a few weeks ago with 12 leading social scientists addressing the question, “what are the hard problems in the social sciences, and what would it take to solve them?” The responses were incredibly varied, from Ann Swidler of UC Berkeley (a sociologist of culture from whom I took a great class in grad school) offering “how societies create institutions and restore damaged ones” to her polar methodological opposite Gary King saying “post-treatment bias” – the problem that in controlling for variables that matter for your analysis, you may unintentionally control for the variable really at play. (The example he gives is fascinating. If you’re looking at pay inequality in a corporation accused of racial bias, and 99% of mailroom employees are black and 99% of executives are white, but within each group, pay is pretty equal, if you control for the variable “type of position,” on the reasonable assumption that people in higher positions get paid more and so you need to control for that, you’ll end up saying pay is actually pretty equal according to your analysis, and the company may get off the hook though inequality reigns.) And the other 10 speakers ran the gamut.

So what are the hard problems in our field, in philanthropy? “The ones that most need solving, and which are most worthy of time spent working on a solution?” There are of course the social issues philanthropy works on, and that discussion is a vital one, but here I’m talking about problems within the field of philanthropy, the practice.

I’ll suggest a couple:

  • How do we ensure that program officers, who according to Tim Ogden may have the hardest job in the world, stay true to the communities they serve and don’t OD on the privilege of their position? (I’ve played a grantmaker role in the past and, no lie, that is heady stuff.)
  • How do we achieve the laudable and completely reasonable goals of Project Streamline without more regulation of the field? If the problem is that grantees are beset by having to tweak their applications subtly for a dozen different funders, how do we ameliorate that – greater coordination among funders? Achieved how? What about the beauty of an independent foundation sector where 70,000 flowers can bloom, each with the right to figure out their own indicators that respond to their own unique donor vision? At what cost to the grantees working with them? This tension is part of what I’m getting at with my first question, and this specific issue for me is one of the toughest parts about it. I’d like to think there’s actually an easy answer to this and I’m just dense, but I’m not sure…

What else? What are the hard problems in our field that most need solving?



2 Responses to “What are the hard problems in philanthropy?”

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