I don’t like pain. As Daffy Duck once said, “I’m not like other people. I can’t stand pain. It hurts me.”
But pain is often necessary—especially the pain that accompanies critical feedback on our performance. Critical feedback might feel painful in the moment, but it’s how we can improve in the future.
That’s precisely what philanthropy often lacks, because no one likes to bite the hand that feeds them. It’s also precisely what the sector needs—without it, grantmakers are doomed to repeat their mistakes, pursue terrible idea after terrible idea, and mistreat grantees, all free from repercussion. As a former grantmaker myself, I speak from experience.
The insulated world of philanthropy reminds me of a genetic condition called “congenital insensitivity to pain,” in which people cannot feel pain. At first, one might think that it would be pleasant to have this disease. A life without pain—how nice, eh?
In fact, that disease is disastrous for the unfortunate few who have it. Pain is an absolutely necessary part of life. When you brush your hand against a hot stove, or bite your tongue, or cut your finger while chopping vegetables, or sprain your ankle, pain is an immediate feedback loop telling you, “Stop doing that, and try to fix whatever is causing the pain.”
Without pain, you might bite part of your tongue off, or keep running on a sprained ankle until it was permanently injured, or burn your hand beyond repair, or slice off your whole finger. In fact, people with this rare disease usually die before age 25. That’s how bad it is to live a life without pain.
Social pain (so to speak) is important for the exact same reason. Whenever a friend, family member, or professional colleague tells us, “you mistreated me,” or “you hurt my feelings,” or “you are making a terrible decision,” that feedback might feel awkward and painful in the moment.
But it is every bit as necessary as physical pain. It tells us, “Stop behaving that way, and try to do better in the future.”
Indeed, even if the feedback is outright wrong, it still tells us about other people’s perceptions and feelings. Other people’s feelings matter, even if we are technically “right” in a particular case. And without that feedback loop, we wouldn’t know how we are affecting other people. Indeed, we might turn into self-centered sociopaths who are unable to recognize how anyone else feels.
The pain-free life of the grantmaker
With all of that in mind, think about philanthropy. A running joke in philanthropy is that as soon as you work for a funder, everyone loves you—all of your jokes are funny, all of your insights are profound, everyone will take your calls and meet you for lunch, and you get the red carpet treatment everywhere you go.
I definitely found that to be true. Even as a staffer at a philanthropy (let alone an actual philanthropist), I was always easily able to get a meeting with anyone I wanted, including the White House, state governors, university presidents, etc. And I literally can’t think of a time when anyone outside philanthropy ever told me that my strategy was ill-informed or that my grantmaking didn’t properly consider the needs of nonprofits.
Why? Working for a funder means that you have money to hand out. Everyone wants money, so they all flatter you and butter you up, because they hope to get a grant someday or to steer a grant to their friends.
But that isn’t a normal or healthy condition! It means a near-complete lack of feedback as to how we are acting in philanthropy.
In most other markets, there is a natural feedback loop between what you do and how other people think. If you are trying to sell widgets, and people don’t want to buy your widgets, you get feedback from the sales numbers. And if you are poor at customer relations, you will find endless online feedback from customers who describe in detail how you mistreated them.
In philanthropy, by contrast, if you have terrible ideas or if you mistreat grantees, hardly anyone will dare to speak up. Indeed, I know of a case where a major grantee felt that a funder had mistreated them by trying to withdraw a grant ahead of schedule for no apparent reason. But even so, this grantee refused to speak up publicly, and even asked me for confidentiality. Why? Because they had a colleague applying for a grant from the same funder, and they didn’t want to jeopardize their colleague’s chances.
That’s an understandable instinct, but in the grand scheme of things, it is disastrous that so many people are afraid to give honest feedback to philanthropists.
Imagine that you are interested in buying a GE refrigerator, and want to know other people’s experiences, but every single person who had a bad GE refrigerator was terrified to leave an online review because they thought that GE would somehow retaliate against them or their friends. You’d see a bunch of positive reviews and would have no idea of any failures.
That’s what potential grantees now face when dealing with foundations. As far as you can tell from public information, every foundation is a wonderful organization with lots of free money to hand out. How foundations actually treat grantees? Who knows.
And only rarely does anyone dare to criticize a foundation’s strategy or priorities for giving. After all, you might be eligible for the current grantmaking priorities, and even if not, you don’t want to make enemies at the foundation if their priorities might change tomorrow.
To be sure, some people or organizations do criticize foundations or particular philanthropic strategies, particularly when they have no hope or desire of ever getting a grant in the first place.
Teachers’ unions, for example, have opposed the Gates Foundation’s work in education, and occasional critics like Anand Giradharadas have critiqued philanthropy more broadly. But it’s easy for foundations to ignore those rare opponents, and to dismiss them as overly ideological.
What’s hard is getting feedback from well-meaning people who aren’t just trying to tear down philanthropy, but who have honest opinions and experiences to add.
The need for feedback
I wish there were a nice, tidy solution that involved restructuring philanthropy so that there was a direct incentive for grantees to give feedback and for philanthropists to pay attention to it.
The anonymous grantee surveys conducted by the Center for Effective Philanthropy might be a way to overcome this lack of feedback. Even there, I still worry that feedback might not be truly anonymous, unless stripped of so much detail that it isn’t all that useful. But it’s worth a shot.
More broadly, I would advise philanthropists and foundations:
Bend over backwards to seek out feedback as to your grantmaking, your ideas, your strategies, etc. Make sure you don’t penalize honest opinions—in fact, make at least a few grants to support people who publicly critiqued you or your strategy.
It’s up to you: Bask in the glory of being a benefactor who is always flattered and praised, or actually try to figure out your blind spots and improve. Without bending over backwards to seek feedback, you’ll end up as the metaphorical equivalent of the person who has to have a gangrenous leg amputated because they never felt pain and sought treatment.
Stuart Buck is a philanthropic consultant, and a former vice president at Arnold Ventures.