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“Think big philanthropy” has dominated the professional and theoretical landscape of grantmaking since the first great modern philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller…

“Think big philanthropy” has dominated the professional and theoretical landscape of grantmaking since the first great modern philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller, uttered the famous words: "the best philanthropy is constantly in search for finalities -- a search for cause, an attempt to cure the evils at their source."

In this view, the old, discredited approach called "charity" only treats the symptoms of social problems, whereas genuinely scientific philanthropy would strive to reach the source of ills and cure them once and for all.

We hear echoes of this in virtually every popular guide to grantmaking today. Each one, typically in its brief opening sketch of the history of philanthropy, will present a scheme of classification for different approaches to giving. Invariably, the scheme begins in the caveman era, when people merely wrote checks to worthy charities. It then ascends to the modern, space age, when foundations don’t stoop to do anything as pathetically negligible as just writing checks. In the space age of philanthropy, they’re “social entrepreneurs,” aiming at nothing less than “changing the world,” by pooling their resources and influence in grand consortia designed to leverage markets and public-private partnerships through synergistic collaboratives. (I think I’ve just won “buzzword bingo!”)

Now, this typical guide will carefully specify that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the old approach of just writing checks, and that we still need that sort of thing. But the clear implication is that if you’re at all smart, imaginative, sophisticated, and concerned with impact, you’ll do “more than give,” as the title of one recent guide puts it. You will instead follow the elaborate, complex recommendations of the authors, who are, of course, available to help you with that for modest consultation fees.

This same “think big philanthropy” emphasis can be found in every publication, every panel at every national conference, every on-line training session in the philanthropic sector today. The irony is that, for all the grand results this approach has promised over the years, there has been precious little pay-off, other than some early successes in science and public health, back in the time when foundations were virtually the only funders in those areas. 

Some of the examples of world-changing success endlessly cited by foundations – the crusade against hookworm, the Green Revolution – are getting a bit dog-eared and musty. The most recent, the Green Revolution, occurred over a half-century ago, and its architect Norman Borlaug noted before he died that foundations would never be able to do today, what they did in his time.

Other grand accomplishments – often cited is the white line down the side of the road are not exactly world-changing. In the field of social welfare -- for all the talk about getting to the root causes of problems -- there has not been one significant social problem to the roots of which foundations have gotten, curing the ill once and for all. It’s a stunning fact that for all “think big philanthropy’s” insistence on measurable outcomes, there are in fact so very few such outcomes to show, for the billions of philanthropic dollars spent now over a century.

What’s the alternative to “think big philanthropy?” What does “think small philanthropy” look like?

Let me illustrate with an example from Milwaukee, the recently sun-setted Elizabeth Brinn Foundation, under the leadership of Rick Wiederhold. Now, when he started at Brinn, Rick could have read one of those guides to “think big philanthropy,” and he could have concluded that the best use of Brinn’s modest resources was to pool them as matching funds for the various collaborative initiatives that the big national foundations periodically troll through Milwaukee’s boardrooms. That’s certainly the advice he would have gotten from all the philanthropic professionals. That way he could have proudly claimed that he was “leveraging” millions of dollars with his small investment.  And the national foundations could have said that Brinn’s modest contribution was evidence of enthusiastic “local buy-in.”

But instead, Rick set out, with some help from our mutual mentor Bob Woodson, to look in the opposite direction -- not to think big, but to think small. Woodson teaches us that embedded in the most hard-pressed neighborhoods around the country are to be found grassroots groups, launched and sustained by the residents themselves. They are already successfully tackling the most difficult problems they face, reflecting the moral and religious principles most important to them. These groups are virtually invisible to the world of foundations, because they don’t have professional fund-raisers or fancy brochures; they don’t speak the arcane language of social science but rather the stark and simple language of faith; above all, they don’t purport to get to the root causes of poverty, just to care for the poor and to help them, one-by-one, work their way out of their condition.

Rick set out to find and support these groups, to engage in “think small philanthropy.” As a result, Brinn punched far above its weight as a foundation. The modest checks it could write often meant the difference between life and death for its smaller grantees. And the fact that Rick was extremely fast and flexible, if necessary writing checks overnight, meant that there was no ponderous process of grant review that otherwise makes foundations virtually useless as a source of funding for small groups. And because the promised results for a grant – we’re going to replace our broken boiler, we’d like to buy a second-hand bus – were refreshingly concrete and specific, Rick could see, immediately and tangibly, the outcomes of his grants.

For Brinn, there was no need to invent illusory benchmarks on the endless road to hopelessly far-fetched goals like changing the world. To be sure, Rick and his board members are not able to claim that they partnered in every collaborative consortium that blew through town during the Brinn Foundation’s lifetime. Rick doesn’t have any plaques of appreciation on his wall from the Ford or Rockefeller foundation. But instead, everywhere they go in Milwaukee, those associated with Brinn can point to buildings they helped improve, vans they helped purchase, playgrounds they helped clean up – the immediate and concrete results of small dollars conscientiously applied to projects in their own backyard, based on local knowledge.

The Brinn Foundation dollars could have vanished without a trace into the great vortex of think big philanthropy. Instead, they helped sustain the small, mundane, practical undertakings that Milwaukee’s neighborhood groups came up with on their own, to solve their own problems. In so doing, Brinn not only left behind a healthier civil society in Milwaukee, it also suggested to its grassroots grantees that their voices were truly being heard -- their hard work at solving their own problems truly appreciated.

In a day and age when our largest institutions seem to have hardened themselves against the voices of everyday people, this is a great achievement, indeed. The Elizabeth Brinn Foundation was an excellent example of “think small philanthropy,” and it deserves emulation across the nation.  Milwaukee and Wisconsin should be proud to have been the hometown of the Brinn family’s legacy and Rick Wiederhold’s work.


Footnote: This is an excerpt from a speech given at the annual meeting of the Donors Forum of Wisconsin on October 27, 2011.


4 thoughts on “Think Big vs. Think Small Philanthropy”

  1. Norm Hapke says:

    One of the things we need to remember that you so clearly point out here Bill is in the philosophy of modesty espoused by the late Irving Kristol. In your piece in 2009 you quoted him thus: “If your aims are modest, you can accomplish an awful lot. When your aims become elevated beyond a reasonable level, you not only don’t accomplish much, but can cause a great deal of damage.” If there’s one sin that modern philanthropy is susceptible to, it is pride. This article both shows how to guard against that and puts philanthropy back on a human level, an important thing.

  2. Jeff Cain says:

    See Albert Ruesga thoughtful, social justice-based response at:


  3. Dan says:

    There are definitely some good points in here- insisting on real, tangible results is often a great thing. On the other hand, many social problems are intractable and likely to never be solved completely- but working on them is still worthwhile.
    I have to say- isn’t the Hudson Institute a prime example of the sort of organization that benefits from the “think big” philanthropy you decry? Don’t you have professional fundraisers and fancy brochures and reports that are likely to sit on a shelf and never be read? All of this work is necessary- what we really need is for more of it to be done.

  4. Keith says:

    Nice post, Bill. Reading it reminds me of another difference between big and small think philanthropy: that the former continually talks about itself (its values, strategies, measures, theories of changes, yada, yada, yada) while the latter talks about this van or that playground and so on.

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