Philanthropy and Mistakes: An Untapped Resource

by Robert Giloth; Susan Gewirtz

Jan 1, 2009

Not all foundation mistakes are the same, but three aspects of philanthropic investing are mistakes that can be avoided. First, foundations mismatch their reach and their resources. They sometimes overreach in the ambition of their investments, thinking they alone can address the complexity and scale of important social issues. Conversely, foundations sometimes underperform by not taking substantial risks on behalf of change and innovation. Second, foundations sometimes ignore the need to generate knowledge, by failing to commit to and invest in evaluation, self-reflection, and communicating lessons to relevant audiences. Third, foundations are sometimes not transparent about their knowledge of what works and what does not.


Philanthropy provides high-risk financial resources to help solve messy social problems and improve our overall quality of life. This role involves not only generating social innovations, but also discovering how they can be adopted and spread throughout society. There is no tried-and-true road map for this role, and foundations confront multiple dilemmas in mission, culture, and operational strategies. Hence, philanthropy inevitably makes mistakes.

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