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Philanthropy on Trial: Is the Impact on Society Justifiable?

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This year's Council on Foundations Conference ended with a unique session that placed the entire field of philanthropy on trial. The charge: Philanthropy is not fulfilling its mission of advancing the common good. Gara LaMarche, president and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies, represented the prosecution, and Ralph R. Smith, executive vice president of The Annie E. Casey Foundation and former Council board chair, served as the defense attorney. A former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice, the honorable Jane Cutler Greenspan, acted as the judge.

In his opening remarks, LaMarche painted a damning picture of philanthropy, linking it to a motivation to do good, but operating without any real sense or understanding of the overall situation. He said the sector remains too focused on charity -- what I call random acts of kindness -- rather than strategic investments. And he suggested that the sector itself is not representative of the communities it is trying to serve, pointing out that only 4 percent of grant making board members are Hispanic.

Ralph Smith mounted a rousing defense by portraying the importance of philanthropy and the impacts it can make. "At the end of the day," Smith said, "philanthropy persists in the expression of generosity and to perform in pursuit of the common good." He spoke about the growth of philanthropy and the recent "giving pledge" that many members of the younger generation have signed to sustain social change. He argued that the practitioners of philanthropy are leaders who come from different ideological perspectives to serve the most under-served.

Smith's rebuttal led to an interesting, and at times caustic, to and fro. LaMarche demanded evidence of impact in a world with growing disparity, though he did acknowledge that the progress philanthropy has attained was simply not enough. He said he was not convinced that the sector holds itself accountable.

Smith said philanthropy was doing its job by taking what's been left to us to and making it better for the next generation, even if our efforts are imperfect. Philanthropy may not have done enough, he said, but it looks very different today than 10 years ago.

So where did this end? The jury was hung in its verdict but was still in favor of the prosecution by 10-2. Quite a shocking conclusion by the sector and a harsh self-criticism! Was the jury too harsh on philanthropy? What do you think?

I believe the jury was unkind. Much of philanthropy occurs under the most tenuous conditions. Those who work in this sector go beyond passion and show courage, creativity, and compassion (see my blog, "Passion Is Overrated") in the face of endless challenges. On a personal note, I have benefited by the generosity of this sector; It funded my education at a prestigious institution that provided me with the skills and know-how to contribute to society. That, to me, is an example of a lasting contribution that changes one life at a time.