Rhyme and Reason in Philanthropy: How Should Donors Choose?

November 29, 2016

With apologies to Shakespeare: Tell me, where is philanthropy bred? In the heart, or in the head? (See Merchant of Venice, Act III, scene 2.)

Less poetically: Should philanthropists follow the guidance of Duke Prof. Joel Fleishman and his co-author Tom Tierney, in the 2011 book Give Smart, and devote their giving to the causes that most move their hearts? Or should they emulate Facebook billionaires Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz, who select their charitable targets with cerebral dispassion, assessing how many people will benefit from any given contribution, how great and lasting the benefit might be relative to the cost, and how much risk of failure they will confront along the way. They publish the results of some of this research at the website Givewell.org.

In a recent presentation to our Foundation Impact Research Group, the philanthropist, investor, and Duke alumnus J.B. Pritzker started out by siding emphatically with Professor Fleishman and Mr. Tierney: “You should be focused on the things you’re passionate about,” he declared, and “organize your philanthropy around those things." He remembers starting his philanthropic career by asking, like an investor, “How can I be the most efficacious?” But then, following some personal advice from Mr. Tierney, he decided the answer was, “Don’t look at your foundation that way. Rather: What do you care deeply about?

And yet, with so strong an appeal to the heart as his starting point, Mr. Pritzker nonetheless followed his passion straight into a field whose risk-return calculation — the balance of scale, potential benefits, and probability of success — would just as easily have appealed to Ms. Tuna and Mr. Moskovitz. He chose to focus on early childhood development, a field in which the outsize benefits of progress have been extensively quantified, most authoritatively by Nobel economist James J. Heckman of the University of Chicago. (See just one of Professor Heckman’s influential articles here.)

“If you want to go after world-changing subject matter,” Mr. Pritzker concluded, “there’s none better than this one. … Investing in it has real returns...This is one that does a lot of good in the world and has a real financial return associated with it — to the taxpayers, to society in general — in a way that nearly nothing else does.” To prove the point, he presented a graph from Professor Heckman showing that “the earlier the investment” in very young children’s development, the higher the economic return to society.

One conclusion is that the head and the heart are not mutually exclusive as motivators of smart giving. They might sometimes pull in different directions, but they need not. And, to an investment-minded donor like Mr. Pritzker (or to the many other young, wealthy stars of American finance and technology now entering philanthropy), it’s quite possible, even likely, that some of the same aspects of giving that stir the heart may also offer the coolest and soundest of bottom-line rationales. 

Blog Topics

Tony Proscio

Events

Oct 05

Rip Rapson
President and CEO
The Kresge Foundation