What would a philanthropist want to know?

How to giveaway money is a tricky business. There are lots of worthy causes. Although I have yet to face this problem, it is fun to speculate on what a philanthropist would want to know to make a giving decision. Given the potential depth of this inquiry, this is just a starting point.

To manage expectations, I think a donor would like to understand how the funds will help. One way to get a handle on this is to consider at what level the investment will carry through a system. Bed nets for instance are life-saving one individual at a time. It is a one-to-one transaction and eventually the net needs to be replaced.

Then there is support given to ongoing activities. Many people like to give to their alma matter. Some choose to provide an annual scholarship thus contributing to a well-educated society. The efforts now affect a network, and the importance of the individual agent fades as the success of the group dominates. The analysis turns to whether the food shelf is serving the group of people in need, or whether the neighborhood clinic is improving local health outcomes.

And finally, there is the most adventuresome type of giving, the dollars spent to create something new altogether. It may be a novel medical treatment or a library system.

By 1920—less than 150 years after Benjamin Franklin first donated what would become a town’s first public library collection—there were more than 3,500 public libraries in the United States. This rapid expansion of the US public library can be traced back to another American man’s donation—steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie’s funding had built about half of these 3,500 public libraries, earning him the nickname, the “Patron Saint of Libraries.”

Carnegie Libraries

These are far more risky investments as you can’t be sure that the new drug will work or that the libraries will be maintained. But in the instance of success, the public good is significant.