Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

A region for giving

By Debra A. Kahn Philanthropy has gotten a lot of media attention lately. Donors, recipients, and observers alike are debating the role of philanthropy, its changing face, and its power to make a difference.

By Debra A. Kahn

Philanthropy has gotten a lot of media attention lately. Donors, recipients, and observers alike are debating the role of philanthropy, its changing face, and its power to make a difference.

Shining a light on philanthropy - actions that spark social change, meet human needs, and create new opportunities - is important. However, we all will be better served if the conversation is based on an accurate and complete portrayal of the philanthropic scene in the Philadelphia region. To that end, during this season of giving, I offer five insights to enhance our understanding of the role and impact of philanthropy:

Be realistic. Philanthropy can't do it all, but it can do a lot. On the one hand, philanthropic dollars from all sources pale in comparison to public-sector funding. On the other hand, philanthropic resources can be more flexible, timely, and catalytic. Funders also can offer tools that extend beyond giving, including the ability to conduct research and make connections that can help organizations advance their goals.

Accountability makes us stronger. While some accuse donors of wanting to control outcomes, it would be irresponsible for funders not to take an active role in overseeing the dollars entrusted to them, and not to set aims for their contributions. Serious and strategic funders of all types want to be educated on best practices in order to make wise decisions about their charitable investments. Philanthropy is most effective when grantors and grantees work together to define reasonable results.

What you see is not all there is. Some of the largest and best known names in philanthropy are noted in newspaper articles, printed in program books, and etched on buildings, and we would hate to imagine our region without them. Still, a lot of vital philanthropy takes place less visibly, through scores of smaller foundations whose giving makes a critical difference to our quality of life. Too often overlooked are the contributions of numerous corporate funders, including those headquartered elsewhere who maintain a strong commitment to Philadelphia. The same applies to out-of-region foundations that are investing in important projects underway here, which they would be unlikely to do without local participation. On top of all this, considering that individuals account for about 75 percent of all giving, it is pretty clear that there is more to the local philanthropic picture than usually meets the eye.

Togetherness counts. Philanthropic leadership is important, and leadership across all sectors is essential, but let's not expect it to appear in the form of a lone hero. At a conference last month, 350 grant makers and civic and nonprofit leaders gathered to discuss how philanthropic dollars and other resources can best be used to address hunger, literacy, youth safety, health-care access, and homelessness across the five-county region. All of us need to take ownership, working in partnership from a common plan, to wield the real power that creates the ideas and marshals the actions that will move the needle.

Philanthropy is dynamic. Time and technology propel changes, and philanthropy keeps pace. Next generations are stepping up to lead family foundations. New types of organizations - aggregators and re-granters - are joining traditional foundations as important sources of philanthropy. Crowd-funding is making giving more accessible and popular. Technology, young entrepreneurs, and other new givers are injecting new vitality and fresh thinking into the evolving philanthropic scene.

Philanthropy in Philadelphia is most accurately viewed as a vibrant blend of individuals, families, foundations, companies, giving circles, public charities, donor-advised funds, and more. The 150 organizations that are members of the newly renamed Philanthropy Network Greater Philadelphia, who together donate more than $500 million to our region every year, represent this complex mix. We have launched a Twitter handle (@philanthropyPHL) to promote the exchange of ideas among funders, grantees, and media, hoping it will become a robust forum that enhances our collective understanding of the workings, impact, and potential of philanthropy.

So during this season of giving, let's focus not on donors of a bygone era, or even on the few individuals with extraordinary capacity to give. Let's think instead about the varied and rich philanthropic assets available now, and how we can come together to spark public-private solutions that will expand the donor base further, and make the dollars that are here work smarter for the greater good.