Funders as think tanks
Over at Mission Measurement there's a good little post cautioning against an overly narrow conception of what philanthropic foundations are for. As Kim Silver (the MM author) says, the US National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy's recommendation that a good funder should give 'at least 50 percent of its grant dollars to benefit lower-income communities, communities of color, and other marginalized groups' excludes foundations with entirely different objectives (such as environmental foundations), and makes some unnecessary assumptions about what they should fund.
The independence of funders is an important and a worthwhile thing because it provides pools of capital that can be put to use beyond the kind of specific policy objectives that direct where government charitable funding goes. Just as importantly, though, funders are not simply piggy-banks with human faces. They can, at their most useful, be productive sources of ideas for social change. Foundations often possess the qualities looked for in the best think tanks: intelligent and passionate people, a wealth of knowledge and experience of the areas within which they work, and the resources to invest in (and sometimes even help develop) effective solutions.
At present, only a handful of foundations are taking full advantage of their knowledge base to act as effective advocates, movers and shakers: Joseph Rowntree is a fine example. The growing profile of venture philanthropy is positive in this regard, though their expertise is necessarily often lent to individual charities as part of an investment, rather than to advocacy and reactive work to further their objectives. Just as charities are beginning to explore their freedom to act as campaigners and advocates, it would be positive to see more funders doing the same in order to use what they know, harness the passion of their staff, and supplement their financial giving.
# Alex Steer (28/04/2009)