Among the bits of holiday cheer you may have missed in recent weeks was a campaign the major airlines to encourage its frequent flyers to donate some of their miles to one of dozens of charitable organizations across the country. United, for instance, established a special web site to channel miles to one of 38 such groups—from established organizations such as the Red Cross and American Cancer Society to lesser-known groups such as the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas, a job training organization for that citys hospitality industry. One can, of course, view this as not that much more than whats known as cause-related marketing, burnishing ones brand by associating it with worthy goals. And one should not overstate the impact. United reports that it facilitated the donation of some 20 million miles—which, at two cents per mile (and that might be a bit high) pencils out to just $200,000 in flights.
But any such cynicism makes a more important lesson to be learned here about a topic which is all the rage in non-profit fundraising circles: "scale". The case for scale—i.e., finding promising social service organizations which, with reliable additional financing can grow and even establish themselves in additional cities—is understandable. When so many social programs show so little success, it makes sense to try to extend the reach of programs that show good results. Spreading the word about works, through such new efforts as the Social Impact 100 listing, compiled by the New York-based Social Impact Exchange, makes good sense.
But advocates of scale go further—and have pushed for the federal government to play a role in helping organizations to scale. Some of the most prominent and successful funds and foundations known for identifying promising "social entrepreneurs"—including the Gates Foundation, The Ford Foundation, and New Profit Inc. have acted on that view. They are among a prestigious list of funders providing matching dollars for the federal Social Innovation Fund, a signature initiative of the Obama Administration which sets as its explicit goal "scaling what works". The Fund is channeling that combination of public and private money to nearly 200 organizations around the country.
It would be foolish, indeed, to assert that no good will come of its efforts, which are concentrated in three major areas: "economic opportunity", "healthy futures", and "youth development". But it would be foolish, as well, to be blind to the risks of enmeshing government with philanthropy. Such risks including politicization–in terms of which organizations and which types of organizations receive grants, and which policy areas are emphasized. Ive previously described this as the risk of the Solyndra-ization of philanthropy. It shouldnt be overstated—but its impact cant be overlooked.
But then theres the United Airlines charity miles program—and what it implied. Whether from pure benevolence or corporate self-interest, United has gone through the trouble of not only finding a way to support worthy organizations—but drawing attention to them and staking its own reputation on them.
Delta, American and other airlines have done so, as well, but Uniteds list is particularly lengthy and filled with less-than-obvious choices. Just being chosen will help the Iowa Homeless Youth Centers, the New Ballet Ensemble and School in Memphis, and Community Kitchens of Birmingham.
Put another way, there are forces in American society—in our businesses and communities—which will work to identify the most effective charitable organizations and find ways to support them. The sharp growth in recent years of donor-advised funds, through financial services organizations such as Fidelity and Vanguard, have made it easier, moreover, for those of relatively modest means to set aside tax-advantaged money for such purposes.
Since Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, weve become accustomed to the idea that government should be a key source of funds to ameliorate social problems. But the mixed results of a wide range of social programs should give us pause about doing even more of the same to "scale" whats already working—and attracting attention and support.
Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/howardhusock/2013/01/10/charity-miles-programs-and-their-lesson-for-government/