Better Giving

When it comes to philanthropic giving, is it enough to simply increase the quantity, or should we also aim to improve the quality as well? And if so, what does it mean in practice to make philanthropy ‘better’?

This essay identifies critical issues and themes that shape debates about philanthropy – both current and historical – and examines what these can tell us about how giving might be ‘improved’. Some of these issues reflect an interpretation of ‘better’ to mean ‘more good’ and raise deep moral and political questions that are unlikely to be answerable in any strict sense. Others, meanwhile, reflect an interpretation of ‘better’ as ‘more effective’- which, while by no means entirely objective, may lend itself more to achieving consensus and identifying practical actions.

Key issues and themes about what makes for ‘better’ philanthropy can be broadly grouped into four areas:

  1. Is giving going to the ‘right’ things? Does philanthropy represent a matching of supply to need – both in terms of cause areas and geography?
  2. Is giving done in the ‘right’ way? Does the approach, choice of vehicle, or the timeframe of philanthropy enhance or undermine efforts to do good? Do they empower or disempower the people and communities we are trying to help? How open and transparent is philanthropy? Does it allow external scrutiny and the opportunity for others to learn from our experiences?
  3. Can the impact of the giving be measured? Are measurement tools proportionate, and do they serve the needs of recipients as well as donors?
  4. What is the broader context for philanthropy? How does it relate to the tax status of the donor or funder? How has wealth been accumulated, and does this raise ethical issues that might undermine the legitimacy of efforts to do good through giving it away?

The essay explores each of these and what they mean for philanthropists and funders who want to make their giving ‘better’ – the questions they should be asking themselves and the practical steps they can take.