News & Culture >> Browse Articles >> Campaigns and Causes


Obama's Missed Opportunity to Change Charitable Giving

Obama's Missed Opportunity to Change Charitable Giving

President Obama accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009. (Photo by Olivier Morin)

Tim Ogden | Stanford Social Innovation Review

March 24, 2010

Last week the White House announced the charities that President Obama selected to receive the funds from his Nobel Peace Prize award. The President selected a variety of charities, mostly educational, as well as giving $250,000 to the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund. The choices generally elicited praise, but I think the Obama White House missed a huge opportunity–you might even say Obama wasted the most valuable capital he had when making the announcement.

You see, while the White House announced what charities were receiving the funds and in which amounts—it told us absolutely nothing about what criteria were used to select the charities and what information was used to inform those choices. In other areas of policy (including health care, education and the Social Innovation Fund) the Obama administration has been pushing hard for evidence-based decision-making. Despite a great deal of criticism from many parties, the administration has stood its ground on its demands for evidence before it allocates funds.

What better way would there have been to demonstrate the courage of their convictions than to use the same standards for the Nobel Prize gifts? Obama could have radically changed the debate on how to allocate charitable funds—whether from individual donors or large foundations—by detailing a set of criteria for choosing charities. He could have raised the bar even higher by tying the amount allocated to each charity to the evidence base from which it was working.

Doing so would easily have changed how tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars are given in the United States. It would have set a precedent for large foundations to publicly detail their reasoning for the grants they make. It would have galvanized the growing movement for the better allocation of philanthropic capital.

As it was, the mainstream media was left examining the overhead costs of the charities selected—the worst way to evaluate charities. But absent a clear statement from the White House about how the charities were chosen, what else was there to consider?

Obama’s closed-mouthed approach to the charitable gifts means that in just a few months, practically no one will remember who received the funds. They will simply disappear into the ocean of annual giving by Americans—giving that could have been much more effective if it had a role model for wise giving based on evidence.

About the Author:

Tim Ogden is Editor-in-Chief of Philanthropy Action, a web journal for donors and Executive Partner at Sona Partners, a thought leadership communications firm. He has collaborated on, edited or ghostwritten more than a dozen books published by Tier One publishers and co-authored or ghostwritten several articles for Harvard Business Review. His work has appeared in Miller-McCune magazine, Alliance magazine and on Harvard Business Review online and Business Week online. He is frequently quoted in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Chronicle of Philanthropy, and Financial Times.

Courtesy of ©2010 Yellowbrix, Inc.