Broad vs. Deep

22 02 2010

As I begin the Next Decade Project for The Denver Foundation, one of the questions I’m wrestling with is: “broad versus deep.” Philanthropy that is broad affects a large number of people, but in a smaller way. Philanthropy that is deep affects a small number of people in a larger way. There’s no right or wrong approach. We need both broad and deep philanthropy in our community and beyond.

Through our Community Grants Program, The Denver Foundation has consciously decided to take a broad approach. We give lots of relatively small grants to organizations that define their own needs (usually general operating support) rather than a few large grants. The main reason we take this approach is that it is an important niche that most other funders are not filling – and, as a community foundation, we’re called to address a broad range of issues.

Through our work trying to reduce hunger, The Denver Foundation takes a deep approach. We’re bringing our donors together to give grants to help meet emergency food needs and, at the same time, we’re working to address the systemic issues that keep people from getting the food they need.

Most foundations and individual donors prefer a deep approach. They specialize in a few specific areas where they want to make a measurable and significant difference. Individuals and families often have one or a few passions that they want to pursue – advancing early childhood education, curing a particular disease, or supporting a certain art form.

As I talk with leaders from various sectors over the next several months, I’ll be thinking about how The Denver Foundation should strike the “broad vs. deep” balance.

This particularly relates to another part of the Next Decade Project — I’m considering how I want to spend my own time addressing one or more community issues in the coming years. If I am to do this, I would want to select an issue that is important to the community, The Denver Foundation, and me personally.

Future blog posts will address a variety of possible issues in which both The Denver Foundation and I might get involved. I would welcome advice and suggestions from readers. This post touches upon one such issue: reforming K-12 public education.

A few years ago, The Denver Foundation conducted a Listening Campaign. We interviewed hundreds of community leaders, and public education was the top concern among leaders from all three sectors – public, private, and nonprofit.

A broad approach to reforming public education would be to work at the school district level or the state level. This approach would involve active advocacy with school boards and possibly the State Board of Education. It would involve implementing new laws and new policies aimed at improving student achievement.

A deep approach to public education reform might involve selecting a handful of charter schools and supporting them in a big way. Charter schools as a whole have shown mixed results. But several charter schools in Denver have been extraordinarily successful in improving student achievement.

A deep approach to public education would almost guarantee that a few hundred students would get a much better education. A broad approach to public education reform would affect tens of thousands of students, but the likelihood of success would be much smaller.

Which is better: a high likelihood of affecting a small number of students or a smaller likelihood of affecting a larger number of students?

One wise clergyman to whom I posed this question said, “That depends on whether you are fulfilled by winning or by trying to win.” For me personally, I think I am more fulfilled by winning. I would hate to work on a project for many years only to have it fail. I think I would prefer to work on a more focused project that has a much higher likelihood of success. Is this the right decision? What do you think?




2 responses

3 03 2010
Should The Denver Foundation continue to fund arts and culture? « The Next Decade Project

[…] to two or three main areas.  The theory is that in order to make a real difference, we should give a few large grants rather than a lot of a small grants. If The Denver Foundation were to select only a couple of priorities, one could argue that arts and […]

28 10 2010

I also like your decision- higher likelihood of success.
It is right one.

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