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Our Approach to Philanthropy

Foundations and individuals in the United States donate about $315 billion per year to charitable causes. While this figure seems large, it is relatively small in the context of challenges as vast as climate change, global poverty, or the educational achievement gap. To maximize our investments, the Hewlett Foundation practices what is known in the philanthropic field as "outcome-focused grantmaking," in which we carefully articulate the intended aims of our grantmaking. For example, the Foundation's Environment Program seeks to ensure that global average temperatures increase less than 2° Celsius. By committing to a specific goal, we force ourselves to be rigorous in the decisions we make about what to fund.

That degree of specificity isn’t always possible, of course. Measurable outcomes are much more difficult to articulate with grants in our Performing Arts Program, for example. Still, the discipline required in being specific about what we hope to achieve helps us test our assumptions, align our efforts with the scale of a problem, and be as clear as possible about what success looks like.

Effective philanthropy goes beyond focusing on outcomes. We believe it also requires clear communication and respectful relationships with grantees and others in the field, a willingness to be humble in the face of new evidence, a preference for transparency, and patience to take the long view in our efforts to confront the complex challenges our work addresses.

Our approach does not meet with universal approval, of course, and we believe that taking the time to understand and engage with our critics can only strengthen our practice. Some, like former Hewlett Foundation staff members Kristi Kimball and Malka Kopell, in a Stanford Social Innovation Review article entitled "Letting Go," have argued that we should be more open to ideas and strategies developed outside our walls. Others, such as  Bill Schambra of the Hudson Institute, have called on us to adopt a more modest approach  in which we defer more to our grantees and "Just write the damned check." We welcome these differing points of view as useful tools that encourage us to question our assumptions and justify our strategies.