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David C. Colby

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Wise Distributions: Moving Beyond the Giving Pledge

Posted: 12/21/10 04:18 PM ET

All eyes are on the Giving Pledge, totaling 57 names in its seventh month. With the addition of 17 signatures this month alone -- including Facebook man Mark Zuckerberg -- the Giving Pledge draws the attention of philanthropists, nonprofits and the public alike.

But signing the pledge is only the first step. Philanthropy can be exciting and rewarding, but it can be fraught with difficult decisions. A commitment to put your money to work is noble, but the way in which you do it is just as important. Andrew Carnegie said, "I resolved to stop accumulating and begin the infinitely more serious and difficult task of wise distribution."

Although foundations often make the news, three-quarters of charitable dollars are given by individuals. Imagine how we all could make a better world if we followed Andrew Carnegie in making wise distributions.

At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), we've been giving money away for nearly 40 years. But we never really saw it as just giving money away, just writing a check. Instead, our guiding principles and the legacy of Robert Wood Johnson himself remind us that philanthropy represents a public trust: We are stewards of private resources that must be used in the public's interest, particularly to help the most vulnerable in our society.

Since the beginning, this has been a tall order for us, just as it is for an individual trying to make wise distributions. We rely heavily on evidence to make decisions. Research helps us understand a field or social issues. Evaluation helps us assess if we're making the right investment. Evidence-based decision-making is integral to our organization.

To make wise distributions individual donors can fund projects that have strong evidence of success, or sound research to guide their mission to assure their money will have the maximum impact. Where can individual donors find information about these evidence-based programs? The Coalition for Evidence Based Policy and the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania provide information on programs that positively impact others' lives. Many foundations also provide evidence on their Web sites.

To be sure, RWJF, like individual donors, invests in many projects that do not have an evidence base. Over time, some of these projects have succeeded; others failed miserably. But we have learned from our failures and successes. Robert Wood Johnson said that, "Failure is our most important product." When donors fund projects that lack evidence, it is important to leave a record that allows others to learn from it. Also, individual donors could partner their giving with foundations that are committed to evidence, following the example of Warren Buffett's gift to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, or learning about new organizations doing good work by watching who local and national foundations support. You sure don't need to be a billionaire to make a big difference.

Committing to the Giving Pledge is no small act; but the true work comes after the media buzz: assessing how the money can be used most wisely. Organized philanthropy has resources like The Center for Effective Philanthropy and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations to ensure that the hard part -- the giving-away-wisely part -- is an effective process. For individual philanthropists, the Center for High Impact Philanthropy and others can play that role.

Here at RWJF, our programs are only as successful as our research and evaluation; they hold one another up. As the signers of the Giving Pledge begin the good work of giving away their wealth, we hope they will value the power of evidence to propel their impact and increase their effectiveness.