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Philanthropy Must Go Beyond Traditional Grantmaking

COVID-19 has changed people's approach to charitable causes

In his thoughtful essay, Larry Kramer argues that “there is no one right answer to the question whether to pay out more during a financial crisis” and that the optimal expenditure amount “depends on balancing the needs of present and future beneficiaries and so varies depending on a funders’ goals and objectives.” At first reading, these statements seem to proclaim the obvious. Upon further reflection, we realize that the argument says little about the possibility of wrong, misguided, or irrelevant answers, even though there may not be a single “right” one. Additionally, the emphasis on the goals and objectives of the funders fails to account for the needs of the beneficiaries

The funder-centric view that dominates the essay is not surprising, given that Kramer is the head of one of the world’s largest foundations. As a whole, however, the essay leaves one to wonder what the actual problem is, other than to respond to critiques of how Kramer is managing the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s endowment during the COVID crisis.

This is fine, of course, but the essay does not address the underlying issues and neglects much of the context needed to come to a richer understanding of what foundations can contribute in times of crisis. In my view, Kramer should have asked: Do conventional grantmaking foundations offer the right instruments for times of crisis or are there alternative approaches?

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