Is my philanthropy effective? Am I “making a difference?” When I see a panhandler on the street, I can imagine different ways to “make a difference.”
Make a difference at the individual level
I could take him home, cook him a meal, talk to him, listen to him. Or, if I didn’t want to get that close but still wanted to help, I could simply give him money for a decent meal. Or if I didn’t want to deal with him at all but felt sympathetic to his plight, I could send a larger check to the neighborhood emergency food shelf. That all counts as effective philanthropy.
Make a difference at the community level
Or, from a different perspective, we could remember where food comes from. If people could grow their own food, they’d also be learning about cooking and nutrition, becoming healthier and more productive. So I could make a difference very locally by supporting my local youth farm and market project. Maybe I could show kids how to cook something I know how to cook, and they could get other kids involved, and older folks, and new arrivals, and shut-ins, helping neighbors connect and engage productively with local issues. That all counts as effective philanthropy.
Make a difference at the system level
Or, having spent some time packing bags at the food shelf myself, I got to ask a lot of questions. “How can we get more healthy and nutritious food into the hands of people who are genuinely hurting for food? What has to be done differently?” Turns out it’s a complex, multi-layered system, with lots of weak or broken parts. It’s a challenge to fix, but a focus on effective philanthropy could help. I could support my local alliance for advocating and implementing changes to the good food distribution system – to overcome food deserts, transportation and spoilage issues, counterproductive farm policies. That all counts as effective philanthropy.
Make a difference at the organizational level
Finally, each of the organizations mentioned above could use some help getting to the next level of effectiveness. My donation could support their effort to discover and plan better ways to do things, for example. I could write a check to each of those organizations for that purpose, and to the local nonprofit management assistance center. That could be considered effective philanthropy.
Bottom line: Effective philanthropy can mean doing good and creating benefits at the individual level, the community level, the systems level, and the organizational level. Doing good and making a difference at each level requires a very different focus and approach, so that making a difference in one of these levels is quite independent of making a difference at any of the others. Each requires a different program, with a different set of actions. Each offers its own set of opportunities for engagement or partnering, and each throws off its own evidence of success.
To address hunger at a level where it doesn’t just return at the next mealtime, to a level where we can say “we’ve reduced hunger in this community,” one must link these different kinds of efforts, with sustained resources and effort, such that we can “move the needle” in that particular community.
Stay tuned for more on “Effective Philanthropy.” In the meantime, let’s not ignore the guy on the corner.
Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D.
Originally published February 21, 2011
Lightly revised November 5, 2020