BOOK REVIEW

By Lauren Tulp

Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy
Paul Brest and Hal Harvey
288 pages
Bloomberg Press, 2008

Money Well Spent by Paul Brest and Hal Harvey presents a balanced, well-articulated overview of recent thinking on philanthropy. Supported with informative anecdotes and examples from the authors’ own significant experience in the field, the book highlights the ways in which donors, foundations, and other philanthropic vehicles can become more strategic in their philanthropic giving.

Throughout the book, the authors encourage clarity of vision, consistency in focus, and sufficient planning in order to make an impact. The beginning chapters outline the issues for individuals and foundations to consider in defining one or more areas of focus and the scope of their grantmaking. Of primary importance is defining one’s “theory of change,” or hypothesis about how the world works regarding the particular social problem to be addressed. Equally vital is making explicit one’s philanthropic goals from the outset and determining how one will know when success has been achieved.

Regarding the importance of advance planning, one particularly striking example is the caveat to adequately prepare for the possibility of success. Successful projects need support to communicate their results and encourage widespread adoption, and this can entail a long-term funding relationship. Although some projects might speak for themselves, “the chances of adoption are greatly increased by treating the demonstration project as only one stage in an overall strategy for impact.” This type of insight-seeming common sense, yet often overlooked in everyday grantmaking-is typical of Brest and Harvey’s book.

The example of preparing for success also highlights another theme of Money Well Spent-the necessity of focus and constancy in strategic giving. Whereas funding the next new idea might be exciting, real impact on an issue usually takes many years of funding, often for the same organizations and projects. The field of philanthropy has been preoccupied recently with the topic of general operating support for nonprofit organizations. Many argue that general operating support, particularly over multiple years, allows nonprofits the flexibility to respond to society’s most pressing social problems. Brest and Harvey take this view, emphasizing “supporting an organization as a whole,” so long as the organization is well-matched with one’s funding interests and goals. Since the book’s publication in 2008, general operating support has become even more important, given the cash flow issues and other problems many nonprofits are facing in the current fiscal crisis.

The book goes on to review the myriad tools available to philanthropists, including “developing and disseminating knowledge,” supporting “the provision of goods and services” to those who need them, and “changing behavior.” The authors encourage a comprehensive philanthropic strategy that makes full use of the philanthropic toolkit. They write that, “No car mechanic would exclude a Phillips screwdriver from his tool chest. Nor should you handicap yourself by refusing to use the tools available to philanthropy.” The authors highlight the important roles that foundations and philanthropic investors can play beyond distributing funds, such as convening stakeholders and bringing together grantees to discuss common challenges. Again, these techniques are particularly well-suited to the needs and realities of an economic downturn.

Brest and Harvey also place due importance on evaluation and analysis to determine if one’s giving is making an impact. There are many possible ways of measuring progress depending on the type of project or organization being supported. But for all grants, the authors emphasize the value of monitoring grantee progress consistently so as to recognize unanticipated challenges and act on the need for any corrections mid-grant period. In their discussion of evaluation, Brest and Harvey clearly recognize the value of philanthropic failures. Rather than something to be avoided, the authors consider the possibility of failure to be a corollary of funding projects with the potential for very high impact. These failures could be potentially impactful in themselves if they are communicated to a wider audience so that others can avoid making the same mistakes. For a more detailed look at measuring impact, chapter ten of the book gives an excellent summary of some of the leading methods for quantitatively measuring social impact. Even for individuals and small foundations without the capacity to apply this type of analysis consistently in their philanthropy, the introduction of these methodologies provides a useful conceptual framework.

If one criticism could be made, it might be that the book is written entirely from a grantmaker’s perspective. A crucial component of successful philanthropy-and Brest and Harvey would no doubt agree-is effective collaboration with grantees. More discussion of how this can be done effectively, with particular attention to the viewpoints and needs of nonprofits, would be a welcome addition to the text.

Overall, however, the book is excellent philanthropy reading. The real strength of the Brest and Harvey text lies in its broad applicability to a wide range of philanthropic structures and levels of experience-from an individual writing checks to a large, staffed foundation. The message from the authors is that all philanthropy has the potential to be strategic, and all philanthropic funds have the potential to be “money well spent.”

Lauren Tulp is a Foundation Assistant at GMA.