Authors Explore How to ‘Give Smart’ to Charities When Every Dollar Counts

BY News Desk  September 21, 2011 at 2:33 PM EDT

Even in a sluggish economy, Americans still give away billions of dollars to charitable causes.

With this in mind, Judy Woodruff spoke with the authors of a new book aimed at making charitable giving more effective. Titled “Give Smart: Philanthropy That Gets Results,” the book is motivated by new thinking about the urgency of getting the most out of every dollar given away.

One author is Tom Tierney, co-founder of the Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit focused on helping donors and nonprofit leaders to act in ways that accelerate social change. The other is Joel Fleishman, a Duke University professor of law and public policy, and a long-time expert on philanthropy.

They encourage donors — large and small — to ask themselves hard questions before they write a check. And they tell us the timing of the book is even more relevant because the economy is so weak.

You can read an extended transcript of their discussion after the jump.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hello, I’m Judy Woodruff and I’m here with authors of a new book, “Give Smart: Philanthropy that Gets Results.” The authors are, on my far right, Joel Fleishman, he’s a professor of public policy and law at Duke University, and Tom Tierney, who is the co-founder and the chairman of the Bridgespan Group, which is an organization that advises non-profits.

Thank you both for being with us to talk about this book.

Joel, you are somebody who has long studied and written about philanthropy, and Tom Tierney, you are someone, who advises, as we said, non-profits on the best way to give. I think most people look at a book like this and say “OK, you’re just talking to the wealthy, to rich people.”

Who is this book addressed at?

TOM TIERNEY: It’s addressed to anyone who wants to get more bang for the buck, to anyone who is giving money away and volunteering time, who would like to see more impact from their effort.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Joel, what would you add to that? Who is this aimed at?

JOEL FLEISHMAN: Philanthropic dollars are a scarce commodity. They are, I regard them as sacred dollars, in a sense, that they are being used to benefit the public in a way and they are very, very scarce.

While Americans give away a lot of money, the fact of the matter is people don’t — philanthropists and others don’t — really focus on what kind of results they’re getting out of them. It’s very easy to write a check and forget about it.

This book is designed to enable people to understand the kinds of things they can do in order to bring about better results for the money that they’re spending. And to understand how they relate to the non-profit organizations they give money to in order to get those organizations to do better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So anybody who gives their time or writes a check to a non-profit organization is who you’re addressing this to. Tom Tierney, one of the points you make in here is that today many non-profits are not performing at the level they should. What do you mean by that? That’s a pretty tough criticism.

TOM TIERNEY: Well, it is. The statement we made in the book is that the natural state of philanthropy is under-performance and people say, “What do you mean by that?” What we mean by that is when you give money away, if you do it well, certain positive things happen in the community. If you do it poorly, the community suffers, but there are no consequences for you. In other words, it’s easy to under-perform and not actually know it.

It’s easy to feel good about the philanthropy, but not actually do good and this is the point that Joel just made, that, no matter what, we have scarce resources. No philanthropist has enough money to solve all the world’s problems or even their communities’ problems. So how we can improve the performance 10 percent or 20 percent of those scarce resources? Hugely important.

JOEL FLEISHMAN: And it’s also important to understand that philanthropy has no external forces that make it accountable in a sense. It’s not like a market system, where a company produces a product and nobody buys it, then they don’t get to produce the product anymore. In the case of philanthropy, there are no forces to which philanthropy is accountable and this book is designed to enable people to figure out how to compensate for that. They have to be — we say in the book that if you want to get results you have to take responsibility as a donor — however little or however much you spend — you’ve got to take responsibility. It’s your responsibility for achieving excellence. Nobody is going to be looking over your shoulders and saying “Do better!”

JUDY WOODRUFF: So part of your focus is not just on how much you give, clearly, but on how you give.

TOM TIERNEY: We think the upside is in giving smarter. It’s not a matter of more money or, frankly, more time — that’s nice — but the real upside is to take the resources Americans are currently contributing to our communities and improve the impact of those resources by 10 or 20, 30 percent. We say in the book, “Excellence is self-imposed.” It’s not just about writing a check and giving money away as Joel said. It’s about being tough-minded and asking: “How do we get the most for our money?”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just give us a few pieces of advice that you’re giving people, Joel Fleishman.

JOEL FLEISHMAN: Before you write a check, ask yourself the question. The first question in the book is, “What do I really care about? What are my values?”

And if you don’t give to organizations that you care deeply about then you’re not going to give all the other resources — the time — you’re not going to spend the mental energy in trying to figure out how to do it. “Am I getting better?” Ask yourself a question: “Am I getting better about doing this?” And if you don’t ask the question, then for sure you’re not getting better. We all know if we don’t try to get better every day, with respect to whatever our professions happen to be, you start sliding backwards. The same thing is true about philanthropy. Most people don’t ask the question, “Am I getting better?”

JUDY WOODRUFF: What’s another question?

TOM TIERNEY: This issue of questions is hugely important. We concluded, not surprisingly, philanthropy is deeply personal. And because it’s deeply personal no one can tell you what to do. There are no proscriptions, per se. Einstein said questions are more important than answers. So pursuing those questions aggressively is how people get to better answers. What are my values and beliefs? What is success and how am I going to achieve it? Success meaning: “What do I want to achieve with my time and with my money?” What am I accountable for? How do I work with grantees? What does it take to get the job done … Am I getting better?

Six questions, six chapters, kind of a self-help book for folks that want to get more out of their scare resources.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this coming, Joel Fleishman – you were just telling me – at a time when giving – the old models for giving are kind of being turned on their head. It’s not happening the way it used to.

JOEL FLEISHMAN: That’s partially because of the fact that we have too many non-profit organizations. We have something like two million non-profit organizations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And a lot of us get multiple pieces of mail daily every single day.

JOEL FLEISHMAN: In any typical city, there are 50 organizations trying to do the same thing. And so, what we are saying is, find good organizations that are doing a job and getting results and help them to it better. That’s really the change that’s occurred. Instead of waiting for a proposal from somebody — if you’re in a foundation or a philanthropist — spend some time doing due diligence. Which organizations are doing a really good job at the problems you care about? And then give them money in order to enable them to do it better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why are you so passionate about this issue?

TOM TIERNEY: We are in an historic era. We have a chance — and this is primarily, but not exclusively the baby-boom generation — in the next two, three decades there is this wealth transfer that everybody talks about. All this money, which doesn’t feel that way right now, given the economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: No it doesn’t.

TOM TIERNEY: But more important than the wealth transfer is the talent transfer. People are putting time in. People are volunteering. People are giving while living and that’s what’s driving innovation. It’s the combination of the money and the time that’s driving change about how we can more effectively use our scare resources. So what gets us excited is this historic opportunity to take scarce philanthropic resources and put them to work more effectively than ever before in our communities — this year, next year, and the year after.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Joel, what Tom just said, especially right now when times are very tough, unemployment is so high, and people are thinking money is scarce. What you’re saying is, this book is still very relevant.

JOEL FLEISHMAN: This book is even more relevant because of the fact that when money is scarce you want to put it to better use. You want to be sure you get the maximum bang out of the buck. Americans are giving away – on average, at this point – something like $300 billion right now, despite the economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That didn’t go down? Even in the recession?

JOEL FLEISHMAN: It went down very slightly, when compared, but the point is, it is $300 billion. Think about the difference it would make if you could get people to do 10 percent better. That’s $30 billion more. Right? And so our point is when dollars are scarce you want to be sure you’re spending them well. And dollars are always scarce in philanthropy, especially today, but nonetheless, that’s the time in which to focus on it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the book is called “Give Smart: Philanthropy that Gets Results.” And we are just delighted to have the two of you to talk about it. Tom Tierney, Joel Fleishman.

JOEL FLEISHMAN: We’re honored to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you very much.

TOM TIERNEY: It’s our pleasure.