Skip to content

#378 Whatever Happened to Noblesse Oblige? Have We Gone too Far? – A COVID-19 Takeaway

May 15th, 2020

Richard Marker

This is our 12th article for funders, philanthropists, and foundations regarding COVID-19. As always, we welcome your thoughts and reactions to any and all.

Two decades ago, noblesse oblige was still the standard rationale for funders to be charitable and philanthropic. If asked why one gives, the answer was likely to be “to give back.” With riches come responsibilities.
The underpinning of that thinking is that there are those less fortunate who need something that a generous gift might provide. While most funders had opinions about which organizations or causes they cared most about, on the whole giving had a social context, in every sense of the word. Some of that social had to do with communal leadership responsibilities; some had to do with responding to peers’ requests. Most funders didn’t assume that they knew better than those who worked in the fields they funded about how best to use the money, only that the recipients certainly needed it.

Approximately two decades ago, a mostly healthy corrective began to supersede that rationale. For all sorts of reasons, the subjects of all too many books and articles that one can read on this subject, loyalty was summarily discounted as an imperative for supporting organizations, and measuring impact became the new value-added. After all, why continue to support a literacy initiative year after year if people still cannot read? Why do organizations dealing with homelessness warrant support if there are still so many homeless? The motivation for giving thus morphed from altruism to efficacy.

At first, there was denial from legacy institutions. Despite the growing anecdotal and statistical evidence to the contrary, those 20th century institutions convinced themselves that this was simply a temporary or transient aberration. When people got older, got married, got jobs, had kids, their giving patterns would revert to the past practices of their parents and grandparents. As time went on, as the change became more pervasive, it also became more persuasive, and many of those organizations had to pivot to find ways to catch up to the zeitgeist. Some did and some never did.

In the meantime, newer funding models emerged, all of which were based on some sort of measure of impact. There are a variety of models of those systems, often differing on what the true bottom line of effectiveness is, how far out a longitudinal perspective must look, which stakeholders or sectors have the greatest claim, how subjective the giving might allow or how comparatively demanding the objective claim, how “profit sector” they behaved, and more. Not only did funders not feel any assumed loyalty to organizations, but their giving was increasingly conditional. “We will fund this – IF you do that” or “We will fund that as long as you can demonstrate that our metrics are being met.” Not only did it reflect the changed motivation for giving, but it changed the way organizations had to deal with funders.

Implicit in all of these changes was a set of assumptions that have proven all too specious. It assumed that funders knew better than the experts what would work, how to do the work, and what constituencies deserved service. After all, funders made their money in the for-profit world; that alone, they believed, demonstrated that they must know more than those who are stuck in the non-profit world. [Need I say more?]

Over time this led to the institutionalization of attempts to develop standard ratios – such as “overhead” to program, or appropriate balance of sources of income, or cash reserves. Using these new metrics, some organizations began to rate nonprofits, and woe to one whose rating slipped. Eventually, though, most of the raters saw that they were imposing a very limited and limiting set of metrics to a very complex field. Did it really make sense to use the same rating system for a local food pantry as for a university? And if that food pantry were to have a mediocre rating but was the only one in a food desert neighborhood, would that be sufficient reason to discontinue funding it?

Thus, over the last few years, more sophisticated means of determining impact have been developed. [including, inter alia, the cutting-edge methodology developed by the UPenn Center for High Impact Philanthropy with which I have a part time connection.] These looked more deeply beyond simple-to-measure efficiency and to longer terms effectiveness as a means to decide where to put substantial funding. There is no doubt that our funding world was developing ever more useful way of making sure that our resources were used to bring about the changes we hoped for and in the ways that made the best use of our money.

Then COVID-19 hit.

And, suddenly we recognized that, for all of our sophistication, for all of our rigor, those non-profits on the ground doing the daily hard work were certainly better equipped to know where the immediate needs are, where the preferred interventions should be, how to spend precious dollars, and which skills are most applicable. Our field – or at least 700+ foundations and philanthropy support organizations – avowed [or perhaps acknowledged] that our reporting systems, our proposal systems, our laser focused funding approaches [and perhaps even our investment policies] were no match for the needs of the moment.

Maybe, we had strayed too far from the long standing, seemingly dated noblesse oblige rationale for giving. Maybe our demand for metrics, too often based on our categories, contingent on our priorities, reflecting our own systems overwhelmed the reason for philanthropy in the first place. Maybe, we are being reminded, that altruism is a social value, and that our own demands for systematic analysis everywhere along the line may be handcuffing those whose real job is to provide services to those in need.

Over 20 years ago, my first published article on philanthropy was entitled: “Hubris vs. Humility”. At that time I was the CEO of a major foundation, and I learned how easy it is for us to think we know everything, how fortunate we are to have the resources to try to make a difference, how seductive the power imbalance – and how arrogant so many of my colleagues appeared. [Of course, I never was. 😊] But I also recognized that, not only was that ethically problematic, but it was also pragmatically wrong. After all, it meant that grantees were less likely to be fully honest, that it allowed us to pretend that we are never wrong, and it allowed us to function in a self-referential bubble.

Over the last couple of decades, our field became so committed to the efficacy of impact and results that we often forgot about the nobility of “giving back.” COVID-19 seems to have forced a rebalancing. Perhaps a bit overdue.

Endnotes: I know my colleagues in the field quite well and can anticipate some rebuttals, so permit some addenda:

• Yes, funders sometimes do have perspectives or expertise their grantees lack. But even when a funder is more “right”, implementation should rarely be top down and requires a relationship that allows the “right” and the “real” to become aligned.

• Yes, of course there were always funders who wanted results – even in the days of noblesse oblige. But before the days of impact and metrics, the norm was more typically that funders gave, nfp/npo’s spent.

Yes, due diligence and program evaluation is indispensable. But too often due diligence and the post program evaluations go way beyond gathering information that will truly inform our decisions. If we as funders don’t need the info, why impose extra work on grantees?

Yes, there is great value in research as a basis for sophisticated decision making – but… One admittedly extreme contrary example: in an Advanced Grantmakers course I taught a few years ago, I invited a guest speaker who was considered the national expert on a particular then- hot initiative in the field. It turned out that the expert whose work was widely published, had never met with any foundation, never worked in a foundation, never spoke with any practitioners. I am sure that no one knew more about the research or the laws related to that initiative than the guest speaker. However, the “expert” was fully unable to answer a single question on its functional application from the room full of very experienced funders. Surely this is indeed an extreme example; it does, though, remind us that research that isn’t rooted in real experience is simply a contribution to general academic knowledge, but of questionable value to those who must make decisions on its basis.

Yes, I agree that there are certain times when a restricted gift serves the grantee organization. 2 examples: when a non-profit wants to explore an initiative beyond its core budget; or, perhaps, when it is for a capital project. But in general the tendency of some funders to give only restricted gifts, to be unwilling to fund infrastructure of that same organization, to give for a year at a time, to give less than the amount necessary for the project to succeed, etc. typically handcuffs the recipient organization and limits the ability of that organization to bring the impact the funder claims to want. Our funding should enable the greatest likelihood of the success of a project. That doesn’t mean there should be no limits; it does mean that a funder must make sure the relationship with grantees is open, honest, and trusting. Given the power imbalance, that relationship only works if we as funders enable it to.

Final point: Yes, it is true that I have been teaching and advising funders on how to make good decisions for a long time and hope to continue to do so. So, I don’t want to appear disingenuous in my statements about overreach in due diligence. My hope is that we as funders “right size” our processes and decision making – to make our own lives and the lives of those whom we empower with delivering services easier.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS