The importance of seeing the impact of philanthropy

Monday, June 8, 2015

The importance of seeing the impact of philanthropy

By Tamara Copeland
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

This post was originally published on the Daily WRAG as part of Tamara's monthly column, A Voice from Philanthropy.

On May 31, the New York Times published an op-ed entitled “Who Will Watch the Charities?” written by David Callahan, the founder and editor of a site called Inside Philanthropy. In it, he raises many concerns that seem to surface from time to time about the perceived lack of oversight and transparency of philanthropy, the ineffective use of funds, and what he refers to as the “charade that all philanthropy is somehow charitable.”

His comments have created a bit of an uproar in the philanthropic community. Some have noted his conflation of private foundations and public charities. Others have commented on his flippant likening of the charitable (or my preferred term, “social profit”) sector to the Wild West, suggesting an “anything goes” reality. That is not the case.

Contrary to what Mr. Callahan’s title suggests, there is a system of oversight in place that rests with the federal and state governments. What is missing is just plain sight – the actual act of seeing. Ironically, while the general public can see the results of philanthropic investments in their communities, they may not realize, for example, that private foundations are what enabled that new job training program to open or that senior housing center to be built. Local philanthropy is often invisible.

Private foundations are deeply engaged in philanthropy to effectively address entrenched social problems. (We highlighted this impact a few years ago in our report Beyond Dollars: Philanthopy and BIG Change in the Greater Washington Region, which we shared with our region’s Congressional delegation to make sure they were aware of the impact). Private foundations and their social profit partners are both meeting immediate needs in our communities, as well as working to create structural change so that everyone can thrive.

Painting the social profit sector with a broad brush, as Mr. Callahan does, is a disservice to the important work that both private foundations and their grantees are doing to make our country a better place for everyone. Can that work be improved? Of course. But maybe the real questions is “who will celebrate philanthropy?”

Read reactions to the op-ed from the Council on Foundations, the Center for Effective Philanthropy, and our colleagues at the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy, Philanthropy New York, and the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers.