Philanthropy Is an Intervention

Philanthropy Is an Intervention

As part of the same Good Work Project that has produced the examination of business leaders in this book, our team also has examined the leadership of people engaged in philanthropy at many of America’s largest foundations (for the most part, a billion dollars or more in assets).[1] Our research team conducted in-depth interviews with people operating at the highest levels in these foundations: the donors who made their billions in business, board members, executive officers, and influential program officers. We also interviewed recipients of the foundations’ largesse. The team asked about their experiences in philanthropy, their ambitions, their satisfactions, and their frustrations. The ultimate question is: what does it mean to do good work—as opposed to harmful and counterproductive work— in philanthropy? We wanted to know whether they are accomplishing the purposes that they imagined when they decided to do philanthropy in the first place.

This is a surprising question for those—probably most people—who assume that giving money away can only lead to good. In a similar vein, it strikes some medical students as odd that their profession’s founding oath starts with the less-than-inspiring injunction “Do no harm.” What a defensive way to begin thinking about a noble craft that relieves disease and suffering! Yet Hippocrates was conveying the point that all medical acts (other than telling a patient to do nothing) are interventions, and any intervention, no matter how benign and well intended, has the potential to change things for the good or for the ill.

Most medical interventions reflect benign intentions, however, although there have been some gruesome exceptions to this, such as medicine employed in exploitative experimentation, torture, or the harvesting of body parts. But malevolent practices aside, benign intentions can wreak havoc, especially when carried out with poor judgment, carelessness, rashness, ignorance, and arrogance. Hippocrates’ injunction to “do no harm” long has served as a universal code of medicine because it offers physicians a needed cautionary warning, urging them to adopt a humble stance regarding the powers that they wield.

Unfortunately, philanthropic giving has no such universally recognized injunction to be careful or humble. Because philanthropy is a matter of giving money away, on its surface a wholly laudatory activity, there seems to be little reason to worry about possibilities of harm. How could a dose of money possibly hurt someone? Yet philanthropy too is an intervention, changing lives in ways that can be as unintended as they are powerful. Much like medicine, it generally is a well-intended intervention—although here too there can be exceptions, such as when people give money away for purposes of control, power, status, and personal glory. Whatever the intentions, however, these interventions can leave recipients in worse shape than before the money was granted. Andrew Carnegie, the legendary steel magnate who pioneered organized philanthropy in the United States, estimated that 95 percent of philanthropic dollars were “unwisely spent; so spent, indeed, as to produce the very evils which [the gift] proposes to mitigate or cure.”[2]

[1]The Good Work Project consists of research teams at Stanford University (under my direction), Harvard University (under the direction of Howard Gardner), and the Claremont Graduate University (under the direction of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi). The philanthropy study has been supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Atlantic Philanthropies. For more information about the project, see

[2]A. Carnegie, “Wealth,” North American Review 148 (1889): 653–64.