What the Ancient Greeks can teach philanthropists

This guest blog comes from Perla Ni. Perla was the founder and former publisher of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the leading journal on nonprofit management and philanthropy. She is currently the CEO of GreatNonprofits, an organisation that lets people share their own experiences of nonprofits.

Modern philanthropy is going in the wrong direction, argues Bruce Sievers, Visiting Scholar at the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University.  Instead of narrowly focused goals, philanthropists need to strengthen the fundamental platform required to achieve public good – civil society.

In his book, ‘Civil Society, Philanthropy, and the Fate of the Commons’, he examines societies beginning with the ancient Greeks, to the Dutch, and through to modern times.  Sievers identifies seven elements for strong civil society: philanthropy, commitment to the common good, rule of law, nonprofit and voluntary institutions; individual rights, and tolerance.

If these seven elements are strong, he argues, we see a society in which citizens connect their private interests to a larger sense of public commitment and collective action.

And so it is these institutions, traditions and social norms that philanthropists should support, argues Sievers, because they are the basis of collective action. ‘The most pervasive problems facing society today – deficient provision of such public goods as education, public health, environmental protection, intercultural understanding, and global security – are problems of the commons which philanthropy should be most able to engage.’

Philanthropists in recent years, however, have missed this. Instead, they are going down the road of applying business approaches to philanthropy, focusing on management effectiveness, efficiency and measureable deliverables. But history has already proven, argues Sievers, that private market forces are fundamentally flawed in both it’s ability to provide and to be responsible for public goods. ‘The complex problems of human society do not lend themselves to “linear” solutions,’ writes Sievers. ‘The market model is based on the single question – does it make money or not? There is no equivalent unitary test in the broader social world.’

Instead of narrowly focused, metrics-oriented, specific goals, this book recommends that philanthropists can better solve social problems by strengthening the seven pillars necessary to support a society committed to common good.

How can this be done? The book presents concrete suggestions of programs that ‘draw people into the public decision-making processes’, that philanthropists can fund such as, civic education in schools, documentary films, and newspapers, just to name a few. (Read the last chapter for all the great suggestions of program areas worthy of funding!)

This serious and important book will change your mind about what you thought you knew about philanthropy. You will be guided by the knowledgeable Sievers through the history of philanthropy and then arrive at the present with a new found perspective and urgency to preserve, and strengthen the civil society we have, and that for centuries people before us have worked so hard to create.