05/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Philanthropy by the Numbers

In this final post on the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy's Criteria for Philanthropy at its Best®, I will discuss its mandate that a foundation must provide "at least 50 percent of its grant dollars to benefit lower-income communities, communities of color, and other marginalized groups, broadly defined."

NCRP makes a compelling case for philanthropy's role in addressing poverty and racism as deep systemic and structural problems -- so compelling that one can't help but wonder why the Criteria are focused only on the United States when the vast majority of marginalized groups live in developing countries. Be that as it may, more foundation money for reducing poverty and discrimination, especially if spent strategically, would be valuable. But there are other important social goals as well.

It is not hard to imagine alternative versions of the Criteria that argue that at least 50 percent of foundations' grant dollars should, for example, be spent on:

• preventing or adapting to climate change
• preventing nuclear proliferation
• preventing global pandemics
• addressing the coming crises in providing and financing health care, social security, and other entitlements
• supporting research in all aspects of health and medicine
• promoting international human rights
• supporting global social and economic development
• addressing the problems of aging
• supporting museums, the arts, and other cultural institutions
• preserving endangered species and habitats

Of course, many of these issues have tremendous implications for the members of marginalized groups. Recognizing this, NCRP acknowledges that "if a foundation supports climate change, cancer research or the arts in ways that benefit marginalized communities, those grants certainly should 'count.'" NCRP puts scare quotes around "count" because it says it's not counting. In fact, its report devotes about fifteen pages to an honor roll of foundations that meet its various numerical Criteria. (Not that I'm counting.)

But word play is not the main problem here. NCRP asserts that whatever a foundation's goals may be, it can meet its quota with an additional dose of diversity. For example, the version of the Criteria circulated for endorsement suggests that even a foundation "promoting animal rights can find important ways to advance its mission by investing in underserved populations." But effectively addressing structural racism and poverty is not something that a program officer with expertise in animal rights can do on the side. You don't improve a serious program for protecting animal rights by picking up stray dogs in impoverished neighborhoods; you just dilute its effectiveness. By trivializing the complexity of this work, NCRP relegates philanthropy for marginalized groups to the margin.

One could make a similar point about NCRP's requirement that a foundation "devote at least 25 percent of its grant dollars for advocacy, organizing and civic engagement to promote
equity, opportunity and justice in our society." Some foundations are likely to have much more impact on marginalized communities by providing direct services to them, or engaging in the sort of research about poverty and racism on which NCRP bases much of the Criteria.

But the broader problem with this and NCRP's entire set of metrics is its effort to use crude proxies for impact -- measuring the percent of grant dollars spent on advocacy or general operating support -- rather than focusing on impact itself. NCRP claims that the Criteria are not asking foundations to paint by numbers. Perhaps so. Rather, it is telling a painter that, whatever her subject, A Painting at its Best must have 25 percent red and 25 percent green paint, that 50 percent of the strokes must be done with a number 6 pointed brush, and so on.

The Criteria cover some of the most important issues facing philanthropy today. NCRP states that its only goal is to press foundation board and staff members to come to terms with those issues. If so, it has lost a great opportunity by substituting meaningless metrics and tendentious advocacy for thoughtful, even-handed, empirically based analysis.

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Almost five months of writing a weekly blog have increased my admiration of columnists who write several times a week, and philanthropy bloggers like Sean Stannard-Stockton, who come up with fresh material every day. Without planning to cease publication, I think I'll become more intermittent for a while. If nothing else, after this month-long slog through NCRP's Criteria, readers deserve a break.