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50th Annual Meeting Speaker Highlight: Phil Buchanan


This profile is part of an occasional series highlighting speakers at SECF's 50th Annual Meeting! Register by July 1 and save $100!

SECF has long had a strong relationship with The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) and its president, Phil Buchanan. Buchanan was a plenary speaker at the 2015 Annual Meeting and facilitated conversations at SECF's CEO Forum, and CEP reports and articles make regular appearances in the weekly Connect newsletter.

That fruitful relationship will continue at this year's Annual Meeting, when Buchanan will speak to alumni of SECF's leadership development programs, including the Hull Fellows Program, at a special reception on the meeting's second day. He's also set to facilitate a session earlier that day on how learning from failure can be a best practice regularly undertaken to benefit a foundation.

Buchanan is in-demand these days, thanks largely to his new book, Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count. While it follows the release of several books -- David Callahan's The Givers, Anand Giridharadas's Winners Take All, and others -- that have been largely critical, Buchanan's book is rooted in a more optimistic view of the field.

"In the United States, giving has done more good than even many givers realize, and though many challenges remain, it has contributed to much of what makes this a great country," he writes in the introduction. "It has also contributed to global progress in improving the human condition; this is by any number of measures the best time in human history to be alive. That point feels especially important to underscore now, amid an increasing torrent of external criticism of philanthropy."

In a recent op-ed published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Buchanan called out the critics of philanthropy directly -- he described as "irresponsible" statements from Giridharadas that seized on recent controversies involving the Sackler family and Mark Zuckerburg to claim that nonprofits were "enablers for plutocrats to continue to harm society."

"In every community, there are nonprofits doing vital work that is supported by donors big and small," he writes. "The donors supporting these organizations are, of course, a diverse lot, but most are seeking to make a difference, not to benefit themselves. Yes, some like the feeling of being thanked or acknowledged for their contributions, but if this qualifies as ‘reputation-laundering,' I'm good with it."

Buchanan isn't seeking to silence criticism of the sector -- in fact, CEP hosted Giridharadas as a speaker at its recent conference. Rather, he is trying to provide balance at a time when the larger conversation around philanthropy has turned negative and, in his view, overly focused on the work of mega-donors and those with explicitly political agendas.

"I've got a ton of critical things to say, but I do worry that if philanthropy is portrayed in a consistently negative light, then I believe that that could have a negative effect on giving," he told the website Vox in a recent interview. "I think we run the risk of exaggerating the degree to which philanthropy is focused on, or even big philanthropy is focused on, direct policy advocacy. Much of what is done is actually through the support of grassroots organizations that are working on particular issues."

Buchanan is also a champion of policies that promote charitable giving. He told Vox that while those policies may effectively subsidize mega-donors or those with political goals, they can benefit society overall -- especially if more people are able to take advantage of them.

"I think public policy encouraging giving makes sense," he said. "I think one of the big problems right now is some people don't get any tax benefit from contributing [if they take the standard deduction]. It's hard to justify the deduction existing just for some. Basically, my view is we want to create incentives for people to give -- all people at every level."

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