Who doesn’t want to be relevant?

Last year’s Conference on Scaling Impact — an annual gathering for funders and invited nonprofit leaders — posed the provocative question of whether or not scaling up required “unsexy” investments in infrastructure, such as capacity building, data collection, and leadership development.

This year, one panel asked: When is philanthropy (ir)relevant?, with the final audience question focused on the two letters that hadn’t yet been addressed: What about the (ir)?

Isn’t answering that piece, when and where does decision-making suggest philanthropy is or isn’t the best play?, the key to donors focused on impact?

With the conference theme focused on collaboration, a thoughtful group of funders, who had previously talked about how their philanthropy had played a leading role in effective public/private initiatives, then provided answers that many donors wouldn’t be surprised to hear, including:

  1. Sometimes impact investing and other socially-focused financing mechanisms can result in different and potentially more powerful outcomes; and
  2. Context matters: When leadership and key stakeholders aren’t aligned in resource allocation or in spirit with an effort, the risk profile increases.

What I wish there had been time for was a deeper discussion about innovation, timing, and evidence.

When is philanthropy relevant?

Philanthropy is most relevant when trying to generate solutions where the business sector and government have failed. Whether it’s a direct service approach to emergency food provision that takes advantage of a market surplus or an intervention with vulnerable populations that is “returning” more economic and social benefit than the value of the philanthropic input, innovation is at the root of philanthropy. And I don’t just mean support for early-stage, R/D grants.

Many of us may first think about the uptick in prize philanthropy as the “innovative grant-making approach”, but perhaps just as relevant to the discussion ought to be, for example, the delivery of proven, inexpensive medicines to children dying from treatable diseases, like malaria, diarrhea, and pneumonia. Here, philanthropic support for health care workers is the “last mile” — and an innovative and terribly relevant approach to achieving impact.

Evidence is relevant

Without question, there are very powerful ways to align your capital, values, purchasing power, etc., toward social impact. And having a keen understanding of the grant making and investment context dramatically decreases risk. But, for me, the answer to the (ir) comes down to the evidence-base. Without a sense of the evidence-base (e.g., promising indicators to know what might work, or what’s been tried and failed), philanthropy runs the risk of accomplishing little, or at worst, doing harm.

Philanthropy is more than good intentions

(Ir)regardless of good intentions, philanthropy should generate so much more. Practicing high impact philanthropy is relevant, meeting critical public needs and achieving positive and identifiable results for the people and organizations you are trying to help.