The head and heart of philanthropy

I sing in a community choir and one of the songs in our repertoire is ‘Bread and Roses’.

“Hearts starve as well as bodies

Give us bread, but give us roses”

This comes from a protest poem by James Oppenheim and has been set to music many times including by John Denver. Although singing is an escape from work, this particular song always gets me thinking about philanthropy.

Philanthropy is often framed as oppositional: either ruled by the heart or by the head. At one extreme, donors are characterised as easily moved by emotive stories and thoughtlessly giving money to whatever causes they care about. At the other end philanthropists are described as dispassionate and objective, keen on impact and effectiveness and looking to scale up social change using business approaches and technology.

But of course, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. What’s the point of effectiveness without understanding and compassion? And money given just with the heart can be a missed opportunity to fund something else with greater impact. Paul Connelly puts this across really well in his article ‘The Best of the Humanistic and Technocratic: Why Philanthropy Requires a Balance’ – the answer is to recognise the strength in both approaches.

As a Philanthropy Advisor, my role is often about stepping in to correct any imbalance. This could mean adding the head: such as researching alternatives or conducting thorough assessments. Or it could involve ensuring the human element is part of any potential solution, for example, challenging the desire for easy measurables when people’s lives are complex and chaotic.

A recent trip to the Foundling Museum in London reminded me that the head and heart have often gone together in philanthropy. Established in 1739 by philanthropist Thomas Coram, the Foundling Hospital was both the UK’s first children’s charity and first public art gallery. Coram was motivated by the plight of abandoned children but it took 17 years of campaigning and negotiating to get his hospital built. And from the start he was supported by artists – including Hogarth and Handel – who donated works and gave concerts to raise funds. Music and art was part of the children’s education and paintings lined the walls. Coram saw they needed bread – and roses too.