Monday, September 16, 2013

Book review: Reinventing Philanthropy

Eric Friedman's book Reinventing Philanthropy: A Framework for More Effective Giving came out this month.

The book opens with an example that I find particularly compelling. Friedman gives the example of two sick children, one who received world-class care at an American children's hospital, and the other who perished for lack of basic care at an underfunded clinic in Angola. Both healthcare facilities are “good causes,” and donors might feel proud of supporting either one. But one is funded to the tune of millions of dollars a day, and the other lacks basic supplies. Rather than patting themselves on the back for supporting the state-of-the-art American hospital, Friedman suggests donors should consider funding the Angolan clinic that would be able to save far more children with the same money.

The book emphasizes the difference between giving to feel good and giving to do good (or, as he calls it, the “do-gooder approach” and the “do-bester approach.”) He argues that too much charitable giving is focused on making the donor feel good, regardless of what their money is actually accomplishing. But he proposes that it's possible to have both – to choose effective giving strategies while feeling the warm glow of knowing you helped others the best you could.

I'm sure there are donors out there who will not be persuaded by Friedman's approach – if their mother had Parkinson's, they will devote their charitable giving to Parkinson's research. In fact, the whole industry of charitable fundraising is built around this type of donor preference – show the donor giving opportunities within their chosen area of interest, but don't suggest that they consider some other area, even if they could help more people elsewhere.

But I think others will be compelled by Friedman's questions: what are you actually trying to combat? Is it Parkinson's disease in particular? Is it grief at watching a loved one grow ill and die? Is it human suffering in general? And if what you actually care about is preventing human suffering, shouldn't you fund whatever cause will best accomplish that goal?

Reinventing Philanthropy also provides sections on choosing charities to donate to, choosing whether to restrict your donation to a particular fund within a charity, and choosing to fund innovation vs. proven approaches. It also touches on ways to use your time to help, whether that's working or volunteering for a nonprofit, choosing a career that lets you donate more, or just talking to other people about how you make giving decisions.

Parts of the book are aimed at donors giving substantial amounts of money – for example, those giving a few hundred dollars won't be able to meet with the leadership of nonprofits they are considering, as Friedman advises. But the book's principles are sound, regardless of how much you donate.  By putting in some thought and research, donors at any level can be "do-besters."