THE BLOG
12/21/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Top-Down and Bottom-Up

This is my second blog post on what I've called "listening to communities," and it comes after a lively public discussion with Bill Somerville, president and founder of Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, moderated by Sean Stannard-Stockton, author of the Tactical Philanthropy blog. In effect, the discussion was designed to flag differences between Bill's book, Grassroots Philanthropy: Field Notes of a Maverick Grantmaker, and Hal Harvey's and my newly released book Money Well Spent: A Strategic Guide to Smart Philanthropy. In reporting on last night's discussion, I'll also respond to some of the comments on my first post.

While Bill Schambra's embrace of communities comes from the right, Bill Somerville's comes from the progressive side. But he too talks as if the only nonprofits in existence are community-based organizations and argues that we should give them little or no scrutiny to ensure that they're actually doing something useful.

While community-based groups play vital roles in society, they are only a small part of the nonprofit sector. Regional, national, and international organizations concerned with civil rights, education, the environment, and global poverty, and hundreds of other issues play equally important roles in making the world a better place.

Whatever a philanthropist's goals, it would be arrogant and foolhardy not to learn from the field about which approaches work and don't work. As David Bonbright writes, this includes not just the directors of organizations and expert practitioners and scholars in the field, but those whose lives the organizations seek to improve.

Sean framed the debate as top-down (Brest & Harvey) versus bottom-up (Bill Somerville) philanthropy. But it doesn't work that way. Philanthropy is both.

Philanthropy is inevitably top-down in the sense that a philanthropist must choose his or her goals. You are not likely to be open to any and all organizations that come along--an animal shelter in Des Moines, a music program for disadvantaged youth in Newark, protecting ecosystems in Montana, and preventing malaria in Tanzania. To make the point with an extreme case, no philanthropist would fund both a group advocating for gay marriage and a group seeking to ban it.

Must philanthropists also choose the strategies to achieve those goals? Not necessarily. At the outset of a new effort, letting a hundred flowers bloom may be the best plan. But over time, evidence often builds up--if you care to listen--that some approaches work better than others. Several decades ago, reasonable people could doubt whether CO2 emissions contribute to global warming, but the science has become all too clear about the relation. By the same token, studies indicate that abstinence-only programs are less effective in preventing teen pregnancy than abstinence counseling coupled with sex education.

So if you let a hundred flowers bloom, you need to discover which deserve nourishment and which turn out to be weeds. DurhamCares' story of the success of a intuitively-based, low budget football program for disadvantaged kids is a great example of a seed that produced a wonderful flower. But we only know this because someone studied their graduation rates.

Bill Somerville argued passionately for the importance of trust in the leaders and organizations you support--and there's no disagreement here. Whatever its origins, the best strategy will fall flat on its face without a strong leader of a strong organization to implement it. Feedback on a grantee's performance is essential for the organization as well as its funders. But no system for monitoring and evaluation can substitute for a relationship built on confidence and trust.

For more about the discussion with Bill Somerville, click here.