A frank discussion with Phil Buchanan about how he is getting it done right.
A majority of American households give to charity in some form or another--from local donations to food banks, religious organizations, or schools, to contributions to prevent disease or protect basic freedoms. Whether you're in a position to give $1 or $1 million, every giver needs to answer the same question: How do I channel my giving effectively to make the greatest difference?
In Giving Done Right, Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, arms donors with what it takes to do more good more quickly and to avoid predictable errors that lead too many astray. This crucial book reveals the secrets and lessons learned from some of the biggest givers, from the work of software entrepreneur Tim Gill and his foundation to expand rights for LGBTQ people to the efforts of a midwestern entrepreneur whose faith told him he must do something about childhood slavery in Ghana. It busts commonly held myths and challenging the idea that "business thinking" holds the answer to effective philanthropy. And it offers the intellectual frameworks, data-driven insights, tools, and practical examples to allow readers to understand exactly what it takes to make a difference.
I am thankful to have had the chance to sit down with Phil to discuss how he is getting it done right.
Juliana: What inspired you to found the Center for Effective Philanthropy? What was lacking in the market or what did you witness when you knew it had to be done?
Phil: I was the first “chief executive”, but there was a founding board that preceded me. That’s a whole soap opera we don’t have to get into here but the short version is that the two founding board members didn’t see eye to eye with me about the path of opportunity for CEP – and they rotated off the board a couple of years after I joined the organization.
I would say that the opportunity that the early staff saw – myself and my colleague Kevin Bolduc – as well as some of the early board members was this: to provide resources to help foundations learn and improve. Specifically, there were few feedback mechanisms to break what I call the “bubble of positivity” in which funders, especially large foundations, can reside by virtue of the power dynamics between funders and the funded. So we created tools such as the Grantee Perception Report (GPR) and Applicant Perception Report (APR) to bring candid, comparative feedback to these institutions.
We also created a research agenda because there was little rigorous research on the practice of philanthropy that could really inform funders. My colleague Ellie Buteau brought her research and analytic ability to the task and we have been able to provide resources on topics from foundation strategy to performance assessment to funder-grantee relationships – resources that are really rooted in data and sound analysis. The vision for CEP really emerged iteratively as our early staff – including Ellie and Kevin and our colleague Alyse d’Amico (all of whom are still at CEP) and Judy Huang (who has moved on to other things) listened to the needs of foundation leaders. Early board members like Phil Giudice, Alexa Culwell, Joel Fleishman, Ricardo Millett, and others also played really, really crucial roles. It was a collective effort!
Phil Buchanan strategizing with staff from the Center For Effective Philanthropy.
Juliana: Giving Done Right discusses the lessons learned from top philanthropists. Based on your research, what do you think is the key lesson for donors to learn before they begin or expand their philanthropic giving?
Phil: I think it’s about humility, first and foremost. That starts with a recognition that, contrary to pervasive stereotypes, nonprofit leaders and staff are often among the most talented people you’ll meet – and you have more to learn from them than they have to learn from you. Nonprofits are working on the toughest challenges – the ones that have defied market or government solutions. So many aspects of the job of leading a nonprofit are tougher than leading an equivalent size business. Take performance assessment. Running a business, your ultimate measure – profit – is captured in the financial statements.
Not so for nonprofits, where the ultimate measures are not financial.
So really understanding the difficulty of the nonprofit terrain is crucial for donors to provide the kind of support nonprofits need to effectively pursue shared goals.
Juliana: Alternatively, what do you think is the key lesson fundraising professionals must learn to maximize a donation and ensure their fundraising program is effective?
Phil: I think it’s crucial to lead from goals and strategy – from the big vision of what the organization seeks to achieve. Prioritize seeking flexible funding to support the organization and look for the donors whose goals overlap with the organization’s. Don’t force a fit.
I think fundraisers have a difficult job, and they’re often under a lot of pressure. So the other advice I’d have is to look to work for an organizations with a leader who can really articulate goals and strategy, and make the case for how funding will help them achieve a desired change. And look for leaders who will prioritize integrity and taking the long view in cultivating donor relationships, not just hitting the short-term numbers.
"Prioritize seeking flexible funding to support the organization and look for the donors whose goals overlap with the organization’s. Don’t force a fit."
Juliana: You speak about how some private sector titans view the nonprofit sector as broadly broken and need an injection of ‘business thinking’. This is not your viewpoint and you go onto claim that this does a disservice to our field and that you are ‘concerned that the counsel to operate like a business is confusing and runs counter to achieving impact.’ As I kick off a series on ethical fundraising, I am hoping you can speak more to this distinction (i.e. competitive vs collaborative dynamics). What does a fundraiser need to know to be truly effective, ethical and data-driven?
Phil: I think it’s important to remember that the purpose of nonprofits is bigger, as I said, than the financial results. Growth in revenue doesn’t necessarily translate directly to growth in impact.
Nonprofits exist to pursue crucial goals and often those goals cannot be achieved by that organization alone. The dynamics are collaborative, not competitive – or at least they should be.
If you are an investor in the for-profit world, you’re interested in the growth of the company you have invested in, and it’s typically a zero-sum competitive environment. As a donor, you’re presumably interested in an impact or outcome – and often that’s something that requires a network of organizations to achieve. So that’s a big difference. And fundraisers should keep this in mind as they approach donors. Be wary of working for organizations or leaders who see everything through a competitive frame and don’t step back and think about the mission and the ecosystem of organizations required to achieve it.
On your point about the advice for nonprofits to operate more “like business” – yes, this always makes me laugh (or cry). Like which one? Patagonia or Wells Fargo? Or the neighborhood dry cleaner? It’s a meaningless phrase. I have an MBA and worked as a strategy consultant in the business world and I agree with Jim Collins, one of the few business gurus who really gets it: most businesses, like most of everything in life, are mediocre. No sector has a monopoly on effectiveness.
Juliana: Does any of the sector criticism resonate with you?
Phil: Yes – there are lots of good points that have been made by critics such as Anand Giridharadas, Rob Reich and Edgar Villanueva. Most of the arguments are not particularly new, but they’re important and they’re getting a lot of attention. So I agree, for example, with Anand when he questions the corporate happy-talk that suggests that all our most challenging social problems can be solved by companies, or that equate joining McKinsey with joining the Peace Corps. He does a good job exploding those myths. I agree with Rob that funders that seek to influence policy should be mindful of their role in a democratic society and I agree with Edgar that funders should really seek to elevate and empower those closest to the challenges they’re seeking to confront. I saw someone on Twitter say something like “lived experience” is really just the most hard-earned form of expertise. And I love that and agree with that. We should be really careful not to presume that we know better than others what they need.
"Critics tend to over-generalize their critiques and under-appreciate the tremendous good that philanthropy – and the nonprofits it supports – have helped to bring about."
All that said, I think the critics tend to over-generalize their critiques and under-appreciate the tremendous good that philanthropy – and the nonprofits it supports – have helped to bring about. Think about the vaccine developed by the Rockefeller Foundation. Having this vaccine means we don’t worry anymore about our kids dying of Yellow Fever. This wasn’t some “self-protective ruse,” to use the words that Anand has used to describe what he calls “elite philanthropy.” Neither was the effort by the Gill, Haas Jr., and other foundations to win the right to marry for LGBT people which I would argue has strengthened our democracy – by expanding equity – rather than undermining it. Neither was the work of the Gates Foundation or others in global health – that has contributed to saving millions of lives. Or consider the funders that have listened carefully to those they seek to help, such as when the Stuart Foundation worked to better life outcomes for foster youth – a story I describe in Giving Done Right– something that I think happens more than, for example, Edgar allows. But, again, I think he and I would agree absolutely that it doesn’t happen enough!
Never miss an opportunity to snag an autographed copy of this must-read book!
Juliana: Relatedly, how is giving like or unlike investing?
Phil: It is really different. Investing is about ownership and financial returns – which usually is about the growth of a single entity in a competitive context, as I was saying before. Effective philanthropy is about outcomes that often take multiple entities to achieve and, again, it’s about collaborative dynamics. There are so many differences and I go through them pretty methodically in the book. I describe how even some of the proponents of the analogy between philanthropy and venture capital now concede it’s not a very good one! That’s pretty interesting.
"Even some of the proponents of the analogy between philanthropy and venture capital now concede it’s not a very good one!"
Juliana: CEP conducts vital research on philanthropy. What has been your most surprising finding? Based on your research, what is the most urgent finding you’d like to share?
Phil: It’s so hard to choose just one!
But I think if I have to choose it would be a finding from a study we did in 2016 in which we surveyed foundation CEOs about the future of philanthropy. We asked about a range of practices, from impact investing to scaling evidence-based programs – 24 in all. And we asked which ones had the greatest potential to unlock more impact. And the top one was listening to and learning from those foundations seek to help! Second was listening to and learning from grantees. I didn’t expect such widespread agreement that these practices – which we at CEP think are so vital – would be the top two. The challenging part is doing them well! We actually launched an initiative called YouthTruth over a decade ago to help education funders – as well as district and school leaders – learn from students in the schools they are supporting. It’s been a great success, leading to all kinds of insight and change in schools.
Juliana: From a fundraiser’s perspective, what does it take to be effective and earn the trust of donors?
Phil: It’s a cliché but I think it’s all about relationships and I think relationships are all about trust and that this is built by really listening and understanding and by communicating clearly and openly.
Juliana: As you may know, Julianacfre.com focuses on the empowering fundraisers to use data to help ignite social change. Considering this, how do you recommend fundraisers measure effectiveness? Is there any data that is invaluable?
Phil: Obviously there is a lot of invaluable data, including fundraising numbers over time and relative to other like institutions. And then it’s really crucial to be thoughtful in interpreting that data, and to do so in the context of all the relevant information about the context, the economy, and so on. I am definitely not an expert in fundraising metrics but I think there are also probably a lot of helpful leading indicators related to interactions and so on that can be tracked. I think it’s just so important to look at a full basket of related measures and to examine and consider their relationship to each other.
Thanks, Juliana, for your great questions and the opportunity to share my messages with your network!
Phil Buchanan, president of CEP, was in 2001 as the organization’s first chief executive. Phil is author of Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count, published in the spring of 2019 by Public Affairs and named the “best philanthropy book of the year” by Inside Philanthropy. He is co-author of many CEP research reports, a frequent contributor to The Chronicle of Philanthropy (after serving as a columnist there from 2013 to 2019), a frequent blogger for the CEP Blog, author of op-eds that have appeared in publications such as The Financial Time sand The Boston Globe, and a frequent commentator on philanthropy in the media. Phil is also co-founder of YouthTruth, an initiative of CEP’s designed to harness student perceptions to help educators and funders accelerate improvements in K–12 schools and classrooms. In 2016, he was named the Nonprofit Times “influencer of the year.” Phil serves on the boards of directors of Philanthropy Massachusetts and the National Council on Aging. Phil lives in Concord, Massachusetts with his wife and their two daughters.
Juliana M. Weissbein, CFRE is a respected leader and decision influencer in regard to fundraising operations best practices. With over a decade of experience, Juliana thrives on professional growth, team success, measurable results, and inspiring fundraisers to utilize data-based strategies. Juliana currently serves as the Associate Director of Development Operations at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She is an AFP Global Board Member, AFP Global's 2019 Outstanding Young Professional Fundraiser and is a member of the AFP Global Women's Impact Initiative. Juliana is immediate past chair of the AFP New York City chapter’s Emerging Leaders Committee and currently serves on the chapter’s board chairing their mentorship program. She resides in Austin, TX and never turns down a good kombucha.