Book Review: Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan For Smart Philanthropy

Book by Paul Brest And Hal Harvey, Bloomberg Press; 2008.
Reviewed by Duncan Peppercorn; Founder of Social Ventures Australia Consulting.

Thank goodness for this book. I hope that it quickly becomes obligatory reading for all those who want to invest in creating a better Australia. Brest and Harvey have managed, with great clarity and appropriate simplicity, to outline the rationale for philanthropists — and by extension all funders of social change — to take a strategic approach to their investment. In practice, this means working-out up front what you are trying to achieve and setting clear goals, putting resources into ensuring that you have a well-argued and evidencebased plan to achieve them (and are investing accordingly), and making sure that you take the time (and resources, again) to demonstrate that you have achieved what you set out to do. This is in contrast to the charitable approach of looking for people doing good works, and funding them in a hopeful fashion.

This argument — with plenty of thoughtful examples — is laid out in the very first chapter (which provides an excellent executive summary for those without the time or inclination to read further.) I was a little concerned that the remaining 250 pages might water down the argument, or head off in new and more esoteric directions. But no: the authors dig deeper (into creativity, capacity funding, venture philanthropy, social return on investment and the challenges of collaboration, among other things), but the basic thesis remains. It’s very refreshing. Plenty of examples from their own experience are elucidated — failures as well as successes — and by the end it is hard to believe that any funder or organisation would have any doubts about the validity of the argument.

Many years working with and encouraging Australian organizations to take the same approach has confirmed for me the wisdom of strategy in both fundraising and achieving social impact. From the National Breast Cancer Foundation, who focused around some clear fundraising goals and ended up massively exceeding them, to the Queensland Ballet who likewise set clear audience targets and drove towards — and delivered — on them; there are many in Australia who would confirm Money Well Spent’s thesis.

If the book has a shortcoming, it is in trying to cover all bases: from a new philanthropist considering where to invest to a huge foundation making long-term, multi-million dollar choices. The underlying philosophy remains, but the detail is inherently different. Also, from the Australian perspective, there are some references to the legal framework under which American foundations operate which are not pertinent here, e.g. tax laws and constraints on lobbying.

But perhaps the biggest question mark is of scale. When the authors propose significant investment in planning and evaluation (hundreds of thousands of dollars) it will undoubtedly make sense for a foundation investing millions of dollars over many years, with many partners and massive objectives. But it is much harder for philanthropists with fewer funds who would rather target their money at the issue itself. None-the-less, if the first step is to realise the importance of a strategic approach and consider how to put it into practice with all social investments, of any size, Money Well Spent makes the case compellingly.

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