Catalytic Philanthropy

I am so deeply offended, I felt compelled to write, and now share with you. The following is my reply to Catalytic Philanthropy, an article in the Standford Innovation Review by Mark Kramer. It is subtitled: “Despite spending vast amounts of money and helping to create the world’s largest nonprofit sector, philanthropists have fallen far short of solving America’s most pressing problems. What the nation needs is “catalytic philanthropy”—a new approach that is already being practiced by some of the most innovative donors”


I must agree with Ryan [in the comments]. The arrogance and condescension in this article is disgraceful. Articles such as What is a Donor To Do? [pdf] have a much more respectful approach to addressing the evolution of donors from checkbook philanthropy to transformational giving. Furthermore, playing a blame game with the subtitle, as if it is ills that business and government have failed to address should be solved by philanthropy (when they weren’t solved by business or government). The last thing we need to do is blame the generous souls who go beyond their peers with their compassion by offering their resources. If anything we should point the finger at the business sector for externalizing costs at the expense of their workers, their consumers, and the communities they touch with usual flagrant disregard for the systems in which they operate. Granted personhood and yet acting all too often with little compassion, respect, or even citizenship, the business sector as a whole could take a few lessons from Mr. Kramer, if we adjust a bit of the language. But finger pointing is not going to move us into the world we want.

I suggest a good read and then digestion of Claire Gaudiani’s book, Greater Good: How Philanthropy the American Economy and Can Save Capitalism (

I am an advocate of social entrepreneurship and a fan of blended models of business and social benefit. I believe it is more that these address gaps in our tool belt. I agree that we need to collaborate more, and innovate ever more effective ways of addressing the issues we face – individually and collectively. I have doubts that nonprofits are eager for donors to take leadership role in guiding their programs as a learning ground for trying new tactics. Wise philanthropists know how to honor the wisdom and resources of a nonprofit while leveraging the impact of their own dollars.

Finally, I have to question the issue of audience this article addresses, for if it hopes to lure in donors and potential donors into an evolved model of philanthropy, it might be best not to insult the form of philanthropy they have been practicing. If however, it seeks an audience of non-philanthropic individuals driven by the business-approach can solve the world mentality…well then, write on. (although business collaboration networks in competitive markets….mmm…yeah, where are those?)

To be clear, I appreciate the success stories here…and I don’t dispute them. Nor do I dispute the need for evolving philanthropy. In fact, I am an avid supporter of evolving philanthropy. What I take issue with here is the style, tone, and framing.

8 thoughts on “Catalytic Philanthropy

  • I beg to differ on the comments posted here about Kramer being arrogant and condescending. He gives due credit to traditional grantmaking and states quite clearly that philanthropy cananot be blamed for the persistence of many of the problems that ail us. I agree with him that nonprofits for far too long have acted alone and not worked collaboratively to create “workable solutions for large-scale societal problems”. What he is saying is that we can no longer afford to have organizational success and collective failure.

  • We can respectfully disagree then Miguel. I find the whole of the writing style to be arrogant and condescending. You don’t. That is subjective.
    Can I ask what it gets for you to defend his honor?

    I think it is a broad generalization and erroneous statement to say that nonprofits have not created workable solutions for large scale societal problems. For example, I think of the Measles Initiative, which involves both nonprofits and governmental organizations to address Measles (and other health issues.)

    What bugs me is the pointing the finger at the whole of the field and crying foul. Should we look at business and say the whole lot of them has failed to make the world a better place or uplift the communities in which they are embedded? Instead they make the rich richer? No! That would be false and unjust.

    If you want the nonprofit sector to be transformed, more healthy, and more effective, then condescending “you fail” lectures will not be the most successful approach you can take. Worse, they come off as arrogant and “above it all” in a way that is patently false. We are all, each and every one of us, responsible for the society we live in. Be more strategic in the criticism and support.

    Oh, and welcome to a new paradigm.

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