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?