Maximizing the Value of Philanthropic Efforts through Planned Partnerships between the U.S. Government and Private Foundations. Conceptualizing Change at Different Levels

05/01/2009

In their book, Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy (2008), foundation leaders Paul Brest and Hal Harvey use a graphic model of a small cube within a big cube to illustrate the nature of different problems, the potential for philanthropic impact, and the potential roles for foundations and USG philanthropy. Small cube philanthropy seeks to address near-term, non-life-threatening needs of a relatively small number of people (p. 24). Such philanthropy lends itself to straightforward evaluation since the processes of change are direct and readily graspable; causal links between philanthropy and results tend to be clear; and results tend to be visible, tangible, and discernable in the near term. Such problems may be more appealing targets for USG, rather than foundations, given the federal governments accountability standards. Moreover, such efforts also involve relatively low risks, which may also appeal to government (cf. Fink and Ebbe 2005; Sandfort 2008). Still, according to Brest and Harvey, such small cube philanthropy has less potential for big impacts and perhaps less leverage for bringing other organizations on board.

In contrast, big cube philanthropy can address issues that improve hundreds of millions of lives. However it requires that funders deal with ambiguity and complexity, both in terms of intervention design and impact measurementsomething the authors claim foundations typically have done more effectively than USG. The Gates Foundations workin particular, its Grand Challenges in Global Health programprovides examples of big cube philanthropy.

Brest and Harvey suggest that collaboration and interaction between foundations and USG may be much more important with big cube philanthropy. In particular, they suggest that such systems-oriented philanthropy may play a special role in goading businesses and governments into tackling a certain problem, (p. 26) which appears to have been the case with malaria. The authors observe, however, that global, long-term problems, even though potentially catastrophic, do not align with the rhythms or boundaries of our political systems or the incentives of managers (p. 26). In sum, Brest and Harveys argument suggestsand case studies appear to supportthat USG may be more naturally inclined and structured to deal with immediate problems where results are measurable, whereas foundations may be better equipped for those initiatives dealing with ambiguous problems and the potential for hard-to-measure, systemic effects.

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