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High Impact Philanthropy is insulting

What is High Impact Philanthropy?

It’s a group of philanthropists deciding that they care about a particular issue, and instead of giving to one cause, deciding to target their giving to do the most good in a particular cause area.

So, it says that they try to educate themselves, but it’s basically a bunch of rich people sitting in a room deciding that the little nonprofits and the people they serve do not know how to solve their issues.

So instead, people with no experience in the field will solve their problem for them. They will make “high impact” giving a priority, giving in one particular area, to solve something they deem a priority.

It occurs to me that instead of letting a bunch of people removed from the problem take their theory of giving into their own hands, we might be better served if people receiving services, nonprofits and government worked more hand in hand, forging collaborations and best practices across the nation, sharing ideas, and forging goals collectively, instead of donors forging the goals.

Anecdote: When I was living in Indonesia, I was working with the poorest in Jakarta’s slums. They were living by picking trash and most had a lean-to or at best a concrete walled room with a mat to sleep on. Dirty water was everywhere, because in Jakarta there isn’t a sewer system or a way to dispose of garbage without burning it or dumping it, and these people were living in filth.

I walked in there, the privileged American, assuming that what the community really needed was condoms. I was certain that this would solve their problems. And then I got there, and worked in clinics. And what I found out surprised me. We saw an overwhelming number of skin diseases, with people lining up around the block. I saw people with their skin flaking all over their bodies. I saw people with fingers, hands, feet and toes missing because of skin disease.

With our temporary and makeshift facilities, we couldn’t do much other than hand out basic pills, give basic advice, and send the most serious cases to the nearest hospital.

So it turned out that my version of high impact philanthropy, to distribute condoms, would have been a really bad idea because of religious and cultural values. If I had walked in and just started passing out condoms, we wouldn’t have been allowed back. Instead, wiser people than me were there to show me how it was done, by working within the community to diagnose and treat its gravest ills, we came from a place of openness, working with people on the same level, instead of dictating what they should do.

What people needed was access to clean water, not condoms.

The program is still going on today, and has developed into a water program called WatSan Water Action, which helps people in the slums get water filters, which they use to cook with, clean their clothes, brush their teeth, and do everything we take for granted in the west. Some women who have received this service have now even started a cottage industry where they sell clean water to other slums. This enables them to buy uniforms for their children to go to school, helping the whole community by educating its children. By going directly to the people with the problem, you can have “high impact” and even give a source of income as a side benefit.

Do you see why High impact Philanthropy rubs me the wrong way?

Don’t get me wrong, so many nonprofits operate in this vacuum where they can’t think of a better way to do something, or do not want to collaborate with others. They need more resources, and we could always use more philanthropists. But why not team up with not just nonprofits and think tanks, but with the people ACTUALLY RECEIVING THE SERVICES? Get on the ground.

We should persuade nonprofits and governments to do this.

It would make our nonprofits stronger, and more able to help those who really need the help. Imagine, a government sponsored homeless shelter, where people come in, and can receive the nonprofit’s services. Homeless find out about the shelter through government sponsored billboards. Nonprofits get government money to provide services and work together. Shelter is one-stop-shop for medical care, transitional housing, childcare, dress for success closets, etc, whatever the person needs most in that moment. Homeless person doesn’t have to run all over the city getting services from one place or another. It’s all in one convenient location.

They are doing this with domestic violence survivors in CA currently, but I would like to see it happen across the board for our society’s most needy.

To my mind, that would have more of an impact.

What do you think?

5 responses on “High Impact Philanthropy is insulting

  1. Mazarine says:

    This idea is finally gaining ground at the Nonprofit Quarterly.

    People are finally starting to agree with what Phil Cubeta and I have been saying!

    Check it out:

  2. Mazarine says:

    Phil Cubeta writes that Strategic Philathropy is the new colonialism

    YOU SEE???

  3. Autumn says:

    Hi Mazarine,

    I’m glad to see your opinion and I remember you from a comment on our blog not long ago. From my experience working in “high impact philanthropy” it does not involve “a bunch of rich people sitting in a room deciding that the little nonprofits and the people they serve do not know how to solve their issues.” Our work (none of us are philanthropists) starts with finding out the unmet needs on the ground. When we do research on an effective nonprofit model, we get the information directly from the nonprofit: how much does the service cost? how many people does it reach? how long does it take to reach them? Many of our student research assistants have done service work at nonprofits and have first-hand experience of the models we discuss. In fact, our Center is based in the School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2) at Penn. I’ve even been to PEC as it is right down the street from our office in university City, and I attended a class that was taught by Gloria Guard, PEC’s executive director.

    Now, there may be instances when a donor takes up a cause and decides they want to invest in it without knowing what is needed; however, we aim to provide this type of donor audience with things to consider before investing. Your concerns about people with influence doing things and getting involved without knowing what is really needed is right-on but I don’t think that “high impact philanthropy”, at least the way we think about it, is they way you have described it.

    My two cents. 🙂

  4. Mazarine Mazarine says:

    Thank you for commenting Susan! I really was worried about posting this, because I wasn’t sure how people would react, since there are some philanthropy people who read this blog.

    I didn’t want to make them angry, but I did want to help them understand how arrogant it is to stand outside of something and think, “I can solve this.”

    Appreciate your thoughts and I will check out your link!


  5. Susan Daily says:

    I think you are right. People’s Emergency Center in Philadelphia created “a continuum of care” that meets real needs in real time. This model focuses on collaboration and real world understanding, not theory. Other models that include the recipients as participants also operate more effectively and engender viable partnerships between funding sources and nonprofits. Why assume that you are the “expert” just because you want to be? I get what you are saying.