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Not Your Father’s Philanthropy
Comments () | Published December 1, 2008

Nonprofit scandals—particularly the reports of excess spending at the Smithsonian and the conviction of United Way’s Bill Aramony for fraud in the 1990s—have increased donors’ demands for transparency and accountability.

Nonprofits worry that outcome-driven donors are drawn only to groups that can show a specific return on the dollar. Health-service and early-childhood-education groups can document results in dramatic fashion, Bean says. Less so an advocacy group, whose work can affect thousands but often deals in policy details.

“The idea that you can always quantify outcomes is difficult,” says Tamara Copeland, head of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers. With some services, she says, proper evaluations would require expensive longitudinal studies.

Terri Freeman of the Community Foundation says there’s still a place in philanthropy for “old-time charity”—giving that doesn’t yield quantifiable results. “But the pushback is causing us to think, which is good.”

Ann Luskey considers herself a traditional philanthropist. Her grandparents ran a family foundation, and after her mother died, Luskey started one in her honor, seeking advice from the Cafritz family, longtime philanthropists.

Luskey, 41, typically makes big gifts only to groups that she knows well. Recently she pledged $1 million to Food & Friends, a DC charity that provided her father with daily meals when he was dying of AIDS. She and her children volunteer in the group’s kitchen.

“The experience is incredible,” she says. “You leave feeling empowered.”

Though she works with groups to develop a plan for how her gifts will be used, she doesn’t ask for a bill of particulars. Some things you can’t measure, she says: “For me, it’s more of a feeling. It’s the people involved and the energy.”

Back at the Capital Area Food Bank, Greg Weingast is huddled with Brian Smith and his colleagues. Weingast finished the warehouse tour impressed with the operation. He’s written several small checks to the food bank over the years, and he’ll continue to give.

But he’s begun to think that his $25,000 is too small to leverage change in such a big operation. Last year, one of his major gifts went to Higher Achievement Program, an area afterschool program aimed at boosting low-income middle schoolers’ academic achievement. The nonprofit used the money to hire two part-time tutors. At the end of the year, the kids posted higher test scores and grades, and the program placed more kids in top magnet and private schools.

Weingast believes he shares in that success; his gift leveraged change. He doesn’t see that opportunity at the food bank. “They’re a great organization,” Weingast says later, “and I’ll continue to give to them. But at my giving level, I can’t do anything for them.”

Smith and his colleagues say they’ll revise the fresh-produce proposal. Weingast says he says he’d love to see that. Late for his appointment with the next nonprofit on today’s tour, he heads for the door, the $25,000 still in his pocket.

>>Want more ways to do good? Check out our full charity package

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 12/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles