Here are two useful rules of thumb for philanthropy:
- First do no harm
- Err on the side of generosity
These are neither new nor radical, but they are important and complementary considerations – and are sometimes neglected.
The “first do no harm” principle is so obvious it is generally taken as read, but I think this should be an explicit criteria when deciding whom to fund. Why? Because it is helpful to intentionally consider both the unintended consequences of an initiative and the impacts on the wider community. This sometimes leads to interesting discussions. Take, for example, providing breakfasts in schools. Who could argue with feeding hungry children? But, does it also have the unintended consequences of disempowering families and/or stigmatising children who need the school to feed them? As an aside, I think the way through this particular example lies in how breakfasts in schools are implemented. Approaches like giving “needy kids” a muesli bar or two could be considered both disempowering and stigmatising – and it also isn’t very helpful to role model the consumption of expensive, pre-packaged food. On the other hand, a programme which involves the children and families in planning, preparing and ideally growing food to share achieves the same result, while also building community.
The “err of the side of generosity” principle is the other side of the equation and has a Yin and Yang relationship with “first do no harm”. Considering a bunch of funding options but none seem perfect? Too often, money remains in the bank because funders are afraid to make a wrong decision. A better approach is to use these principles, and, providing the initiative makes its way through the first do no harm test, to err on the side of generosity and just go ahead and fund.
Because no-one – except perhaps the investment company – benefits from philanthropic money that isn’t given away.