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Given that the environment is VPF’s topic for 2008, I have been reading up on some of the really great things happening to engage, educate and change the less enviro-friendly habits of my fellow New Yorkers. One of the things I ran across recently is “The Story of Stuff”.

Watch it, learn and be totally amazed at the true story of the new gadget you are crushing on right now. Below is a sneak preview:

And for the whole mini-film go to

How does this relate to VPF? Well, if we are to consider the true meaning of philanthropy (which is “goodwill to fellowmen; especially : active effort to promote human welfare” thanks to Webster’s Dictionary), then caring for our local and global environment has everything to do with it.

Basically, we need to tend to the global nest to ensure a viable future for human beings. Or, in another animal kingdom analogy, we shouldn’t be doing our duty where we we sleep. So if we begin to think about how things are made and who has to deal with the subsequent waste, we quickly realize that it ends up in somebody’s bed. If it’s a somebody, then it’s a human. If it’s human, then a good philanthropist will be concerned. If we are concerned, then we might think twice about what we buy. Get it?


Recently, VPF members elected the environment as the topic we will focus on in 2008 – meaning that our Grants Committee team is currently hard at work developing an RFP to actively seek out New York City’s most innovative, emerging social entrepreneurs that are tackling local environmental issues.

Appropriately, I had a discussion this morning with the Advisory Council about how we can best frame the environmental topic and differentiate ourselves from all the other funders focusing on the exact same thing. I was worried that we would be buried beneath the deluge of money currently being invested into environmental organizations and related projects. I envisioned two months of waiting for our first grant application going by with no biters because of massive wealth to be found elsewhere.

Then, to my utter surprise, I learned that though the environment is showing the largest gains in funding, it still is one of the least funded subject areas overall. For instance, in 2005 education ranked first (of 10 categories) in share of grant dollars claiming 24% of the funding, while the environment ranked sixth and gathered only 6%. Even when looking at the number of total grants given, the environment still came in sixth place (of 10), claiming only  8,195 grants from a total of 130,961 given in 2005. (Click here to see a full report from the Foundation Center 2007 Giving Trends report).

It’s a disappointment to learn this on Earth Day, of all days. But it provides more fuel for the engine – environmentally-friendly, non-polluting, fuel that is.

Forget about the Obama and Clinton snubs and plugs and put aside the blatant patting on the back of the Canadian tax system – this article offers a unique take on what’s wrong with traditional philanthropy. I was so excited to read it I forgot to finish my first cup of coffee this morning – a rare occurrence indeed.

The article uses Oprah’s Big Give as the representational apex of traditional American philanthropy (originating with the Rockefellers and Fords). Funny, I always knew the Oprah’s Big Give gave me the willies but I couldn’t articulate why further than expressing my frustration that it was promoting charity over problem solving. This article takes this basic understanding and explores it with a “US vs. Canadian governmental system” spin.

Using the example of a recent Oprah’s Big Give show in which contestants were tried with helping two impoverished elementary schools in Houston, Linda Diebel, the article’s author, states that during the entire experience “not one contestant turned to another and asked how such bleak Dickensian conditions could exist in American schools in the first place”. This, Diebel argues, is the sad truth happening right here in the US of A. While the infrastructure crumbles as the government turns a blind eye, really big money is being thrown at desperate problems with no larger impact than a temporary bandaid and the birth of another self-congratulating donor.

Yes, it’s an obvious pro-Canadian piece that over simplifies the situation – but it also offers a fascinating way to think about giving, how and why we do it and the invisible forces that drive us.

So often we think of philanthropy as an individual endeavor. Often, but increasingly less so, as something undertaken by the well-to-do and uber-wealthy. Innovation is churning within the philanthropic establishments and creating exiting new ways and means for us to effectively distribute resources where they are needed most.

But what about international states? They too act as unique entities on the philanthropic global stage though admittedly on a different scale. But they too desperately need a new way and means to distribute resources.

What got me thinking about this was this post about a recent OECD report that summarizes recent foreign aid trends amongst the 22 richest countries. Basically, despite the brouhaha Bono and Angelina bring to this work, behind closed doors government officials are scaling back their global philanthropic activities (aka foreign aid).

Dean, from the posted linked above, was on to something when he pointed out the arbitrariness of the 0.7% GNI standard for foreign aid contributors. He says that the amount should be based on “some combination of needs and capabilities to use the money” rather than a UN standard created decades ago .

I’m certainly no expert on foreign aid or it’s technicalities of distribution, but it is rather obvious that the current system is not adequately meeting needs. So what if we push into Dean’s thought further? What if, say, countries have to organize themselves enough to say what they need, how much, for how long and why and really, truly stick to it? What if they are required to state how they intend to play a part in solving the issue they require money for and are held to that, at the cost of future aid?

Admittedly, this reeks a bit of sanctions and unfair in many lights – itself very flawed. But what if we, as intelligent citizens, went with this idea as a thought experiment and wrought its inner workings? What can we take from the innovations within the domestic philanthropy sector? Would any of the ideas provide a pathway out of the current quagmire of ineffective foreign aid?

The questions continue and I can’t help but draw parallels and direct connections between individual philanthropy and foreign aid. But simple answers just no longer work anymore (and that’s all I seem capable of coming up with) and I am left dumbfounded in the wake of this recent downturn in global citizenship.

For too long now we, the public, have understood that there is something broken in this system beyond the amount that our state is giving. And people continually shock and amaze me with their ingenuity and innovation in the private and nonprofit sectors. So why a more open public is not called on to help innovate this area and help it break free of itself is really beyond me.

For now, keep your donations up at Kiva and your favorite nonprofit overseas…they need you more than ever.

I found a great post detailing a very intelligent and relatively easy way for a donor to evaluate a nonprofits. So while the effectiveness knot is being worked out within the philanthropy world, an individual can take it upon themselves to use these very clever points to dig deeper.

A recent entry by Sean Stannard-Stockton on Tactical Philanthropy discusses some interesting and perplexing trends we are seeing throughout philanthropy. It’s worth a read.

Gwyneth at Gucci/Unicef eventBasically, philanthropy’s popularity is growing thanks to celebrities and super star-studded events that attract attention (example: pictures of Gucci-Unicef event). But, the amount of philanthropy is not directly correlated to its effectiveness and it’s here that we find the crux of a messy matter (or the cause for the mild, constant headache amongstDrew Barrymore at Gucci/Unicef event philanthropy professionals…) : people give money because they want to help solve an issue but they want their money to be a vehicle towards an effective solution. But, the measurement of effectiveness is Gordian knot unto itself .

Stannard-Stockton rightly points to philanthropic institutions themselves as the bearer of this burden. I have heard all too many times that donors should be responsible for researching, monitoring and ultimately correctly judging the effectiveness of the institution they give their money to. But when was the last time you wrote a check after studying impact measurement graphs? There really is a very good reason why pictures of hungry African children produce more donations than ROI/SROI reports.

The “global philanthropic marketplace” is an interesting idea but 1) I am not convinced that this is a solution to ensuring that the bulk of dollars goes to the best organizations and 2) this puts the bulk of the work and responsibility back in the hands of the donors.

Ultimately, giving will always be what giving is: an emotional practice based on a desire to take care of our fellow humans and the planet we live on. No matter the brilliant structures built to guide funds into the correct pot – we will loosen our pocketbooks for a good story or a kind face over a sound, rational model of impact and effectiveness any day.

Ideally, the responsibility falls onto philanthropic institutions to ensure that money is well spent on effective projects and programs. But with collaboration between organizations gamely limping along, a lack of standardized measurement across institutions, and a growing percentage of individual donations coming from the anonymous, online environment – you begin to sink into the center of that Gordian knot and it becomes ever more understandable why responsibility is being shrugged off and given to the donors.

The good news is that people are talking about it and actively pursuing solutions. And my guess is that, like most great ideas these days, the answer lies somewhere in between.



April 2008
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