Kirk: Welcome to Let’s Hear It.

Eric: Let’s Hear It is a podcast for and about the field of foundation and nonprofit communications, produced by its two co-hosts, Eric Brown and Kirk Brown. No relation.

Kirk: Well said, Eric. And I’m Kirk.

Eric: And I’m Eric. The podcast is sponsored by the College Futures Foundation. which envisions a California where post-secondary education advances equity and unlocks upward mobility now and for generations to come. To learn more, visit

Kirk: You can find Let’s Hear It on any podcast subscription platform.

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Kirk: And if you like the show, please, please, please rate us on Apple Podcasts so that more people can find us.

Eric: So let’s get onto the show.


Kirk: And we’re back. Welcome in. It’s another edition of Let’s Hear It. You’re here. We’re here. We see you. You hear us? That’s it.

Eric: I’m not here. I’m not at all here.

Kirk: You’re completely here. You’re so here. Uh, by the way, if you hear something mysterious in the background, there are four chickens in my office with me right now.

Eric: Wait, what? You have chickens in your office?

Kirk: Tiny little chicken. Yeah. Tiny, little tiny chickens. Actually. Chicks, chicks is actually the word for it.

Eric: You have chicks in your office?

Kirk: They’re brooding, and then they’re gonna be, they’re gonna be released to a beautifully newly constructed chicken coop in West Marin, uh, within the next two months.

So, so if you hear any peeps, it’s, it’s chicks, I swear to God, just nothing else.

Eric: You know anything on, Let’s Hear It. You never know. You never know what incredible moment of, of, of natural expression is going to occur.

Kirk: Well get ready because today on Let’s Hear It we have carroting and we have sticking coming ahead.

Eric: Good segue. We have carroting and sticking.

Kirk: Let’s Hear It! Let’s talk about it! What’s ahead?

Eric: What’s ahead is my conversation with David Callahan.

Kirk: Mm.

Eric: Who is the founder and publisher and whatever, Major Domo of Inside Philanthropy, which was a publication that when it first came out, I was both skeptical and deeply afraid because I was Head of Communications at the Hewlett Foundation.

Like, oh my God, this guy is going to, it’s possible that he may be a challenge. Right. And I, I think he has turned out to provide an amazingly good service to all of us. In a very interesting and special way, and I think that the conversation gives you a sense of the person behind this publication that either strikes fear in your heart or joy in your soul, depending on who you are and where you sit, or how you think.

Kirk: Yeah. And so generous to come on a podcast and answer questions, right? Talk about that.

Eric: You ask him a question, he answers it. How about that?

Kirk: It’s just like, you know, transparency. That’s cool. So yeah, another giant airfield, David Callahan. And, and, and, you know, for these folks that have created these institutions that have just become part of the bedrock, part of the foundation of this foundation work is just David, what, what a, what a contribution he is made with Inside Philanthropy all these years.

And of course, he’s one of these serial creators, right? ’cause he’s, he’s been part of different. Think tanks and different initiatives, and he does two or three things now. It seems like even, even with the, what he’s doing with Inside Philanthropy, but this was, this was amazing. I have to say, when we come back and we talk about it, I’m gonna close our conversation on a total downer. I have to confess. Okay.

Eric: So folks, so listen to the interview and then turn it off. Okay. David Callahan. And when we come back to what we affectionately call the blah blah, just don’t listen to it. ’cause Kirk is gonna bum you out. You know, you should be in sales, Kirk.

Kirk: Wait. Well this is, this is incredible. This is so generous. This is David Callahan on, on, Let’s Hear It.


Eric: Welcome to, Let’s Hear It. My guest today is David Callahan, the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, a publication that either strikes fear in your teeny tiny little heart or joy in your great big soul depending on where you sit.

Uh, David is also the co-founder and former senior executive of the progressive think tank Demos. He’s the founder of Blue Tent, a website that provides guidance to donors interested in advancing progressive causes, and he’s the author of, among many other things, the Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age.

David, thank you so very much for speaking to us today.

David: Great to be here.

Eric: So let’s just dive right in. I was sitting at my desk at the Hewlett Foundation in 2013 when I saw something come over the wire that someone had started this thing called Inside Philanthropy, which was gonna go dig deeper into philanthropy.

And it struck fear in my teeny tiny little heart. But the other part of my little heart said, oh, that’s never gonna work. What did you think was missing in the coverage of philanthropy when you started this august publication?

David: Well, I got into Inside Philanthropy after 20 years of working around the nonprofit sector, and I had been a co-founder of a of a think tank called Demos, and so I had a lot of frustration trying to figure out what the hell these foundations were thinking, and even more perplexed about major donors, like how do you even get to those people? We were hearing about all this tech money, for example, but had no kind of way to connect with it. It just seemed to me like there was a huge gap in the kind of information you could get from Candid, then the foundation center on what, you know, grants, foundations were, were, were putting out and the real information that, that veterans in the fields have about funders, what they’re really looking for, what the dynamics are within the foundation.

What kind of grantees make the cut. That’s the kind of information that I thought would be super helpful to have when I worked at Demos, looking for grants and sought to present an Inside Philanthropy. I mean, the name says it all, like everybody wants to be Inside Philanthropy, right? We wanna know what’s going on within these foundations and so that, that’s been the goal from day one.

Eric: Yeah, I always found that philanthropies were kind of like these fortresses. There were these large citadels, they were surrounded by a moat that was filled with boiling acid. There was a drawbridge, and if you had the key to the drawbridge, you could go on it and get across, and then it would close quickly and you’d be on the inside of the Citadel.

And I always wanted to, and actually the, the subtitle of our podcast is Draining the Moat and Lowering the Drawbridge, uh, ’cause because we really do wanna help people better understand about how to make change and how the foundations think about it, how nonprofits think about it. What was, how were you going to drain that moat?

What was the thing that you were going to do to breach the walls? I could go on with this metaphor until for a while, but I’ll stop.

David: Yes, I totally get it. The idea was a kind of two-prong attack to pull back the curtain on this opaque world of giving first, uh, news reporting and blogging where we would go out and talk to people in, in foundations and also just read the tea leaves, like put together like what grants they’re making and what they’re saying and their, and their communications material.

’cause a lot of foundations are not gonna. Talk to reporters at all, which has been our experience. So in those, in those cases, you gotta kinda read the tea leaves and try to divine what’s going on. And the second line of attack would be to create this big trove of background profiles of funders, which would try to explain as best we could, what these funders were looking for.

And my thought was that that kind of information. Would be quite different than the nine 90 data that you get from a, from a candid or an instrumental or one of these kind of data sources, because it could be interpretive like so. We now have five or 6,000 profiles of funders on the Inside Philanthropy website.

Which present our analysis of what these funders are all about and how to get money from them. And we’re always trying to make them better, uh, based upon things that we learn from our reporting and from the foundation’s own sort of blogging and comms materials and their grant making. And that information is really useful because at the end of the day, just having a list of grants or nine 90 data doesn’t get you very far.

You need to know what, you know, what these foundations are really all about.

Eric: Not only that, but the 990, you’ll read the 990. It’s like two years later. It’s like you’re on a desert island and someone delivers the New York Times from two years ago, and you’re trying to figure out anything about what’s going on now based on data that is.

Really, really old. That makes a whole lot of sense. You’re like the most carroty, sticky organization I can think of. Because on the one hand, I mean, I think you’re deeply critical of bad philanthropy and it shows. It’s not like you, you don’t pull any punches and the investigative side of what you do is clear.

And on the other side, I think you’re a real advocate. For many forms of philanthropy and ways of thinking about philanthropy, you’re not an uncritical advocate, but you really have a sense of what you think philanthropy can be. So let’s start with the carrot part. What do you think philanthropy can be?

David: Right. I, I like the metaphor, although we tend to think about as sort of the good, the bad, and the meh, and there’s a lot of meh in philanthropy. Just a lot of, not particularly interesting grant making or gift giving, which is, you know, not something you want to really complain too much about because it’s better than nothing.

Right. And then there’s really some bad philanthropy, like the bad guys in the, in the field. But, uh, in terms of the. The good philanthropy, I mean, ultimately we wanna see philanthropic dollars used to advance structural changes in society. And create a fair more equitable society, both the United States and globally.

And we’d love to see risk taking in, in philanthropy and, and there’s a bunch of practices in how dollars move out the door. We like, you know, which are nothing new or surprising. Like we’d like to see general operating support. We like to see multi, multi-year funding. We’d like to, to see funders who don’t have a lot of paperwork and guidelines.

Um. But in terms of the, the sort of. The desire to see, see philanthropy, harness to, to real change, structural change and social change in society. That’s what excites us most, which is not to say we don’t like when a funder gives, you know, a hundred million dollars to a university to build a brain research center, or we don’t like when Mackenzie Scott dumps a bunch of money on Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

Because that stuff is cool too, you know, and we cover that as well. So it’s not, it’s, it’s not that we’re trying to beat up on non-social change philanthropy, but in terms of what most floats our about and the stuff we hold up most, it is that, you know, real risk taking, structural change, giving.

Eric: So you said a lot of foundations don’t like to take your calls or, or you, you mentioned though, like they don’t like to talk so much, they don’t like talk to reporters, which I, I mean, I guess I understand because I’ve said this a million times, that foundations have, have like paper thin skins. They’re hemophiliacs. Like if you say something nasty about a foundation, they go into spin control. And I, I don’t fully understand it, just because they have no true enemies in nature other than sometimes maybe you or some of the investigative folks over at the Chronicle. But not really. I mean, what’s the worst thing that can happen?

Where do you see, and I’m getting into a question eventually here about communications, because an nominally, this is a show about communications. Where do you see foundations. Communicating about what they do, why it matters, having an influence on a field, or even frankly on your reporting.

David: Just to be clear, some funders are perfectly happy to take our calls and we talk every day.

Our reporters are talking to people in, in foundations and and, and major donors. By the way, the wealthy donors, they’re much more skittish about doing any publicity because I don’t think they see any upsides either. We say something nice and it seems like a puff piece and they’re just getting attention for themselves and you know, that’s not why they’re in philanthropy or you know, they would say, and so they don’t want that.

To, to come off as attention seeking or we say something mean and you know, that’s even worse, right? So, so a lot of those people just don’t see any upside to talking with us Foundations, with communications departments understand. That philanthropy is a game of follow the leader, right? Like no foundation has enough money to accomplish any of the goals that they seek in society, and so the way for them to make the most progress is to not only kick in their own money.

Behind a strategy or cause, but to try to get other people to kick in money too. And you need to publicize what you’re doing and say, Hey, look at the cool way that we are going, uh, about trying to solve this problem. And implicitly and other people should follow suit, right? Because we have, we, the, the Ford Foundation or the Hewlett Foundation have, have, have really thought about this and come up with a pathbreaking strategy here and.

The more we publicize it, the more other people are likely to get behind it. So there is a lot of, um, interaction with the bigger foundations, with, with comms teams.

Eric: It’s very interesting. I’ve always found that this is kind of a double, double-edged sword. So Gates, for example, led a whole bunch of education initiatives and kind of cornered the market.

Certain education thing. So any other foundation that came in kind of got lost in the the wake of it. And it’s hard to to lead and get other people to follow in philanthropy because people have a tendency to kind of name their thing and own it. And then people are like, why would I go in there and no one’s gonna notice what I did?

How are you seeing foundations that actually. Collaborate in ways that have incentives for more than one for leadership and followership in ways that make sense.

David: Well, I mean, for starters, there’s a. There’s a ton of funder collaboratives out there, and those have grown over time. And you know, the rise of these sort of pooled funds or funding intermediaries.

You know, I’m thinking of something like Blue Meridian Partners, which focuses in the poverty and economic mobility space, or low-impact and the global development. In health space or, I mean, there’s a, there’s a, a number of these intermediary funds, as you know, and, uh, that is an area where, where funders come together and, and make things happen.

But there’s also just a lot of cases of funders who kind of get on the same track together to, to deal with some area. So I, I think of like Huli, Hewlett’s work on challenging economic neoliberalism. Like Hewlett was really the, came up with this and then has managed to get a number of other funders sort of following along or being involved or collaborating like a Midar network, most notably, or think of funding the new labor movement with organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Restaurant Opportunity United Centers.

Like, you know, the Ford Foundation was a very early. Funder in that space, and a lot of other funders have kind of followed suit and, and we’ve seen expansion in the number of funders in that, uh, giving to those kinds of organizations. And so I, it’s hard to sort of pinpoint the role of communications because of course there’s a million conferences and affinity groups and other ways that funders sell to each, sell their ideas to each other.

But it can’t hurt to have an article in Inside Philanthropy, particularly if you wanna get your cause or idea or strategy out to the kinds of funders and donors who are not in affinity groups or in your immediate kind of orbit of the usual suspects, you know, like major individual donors. Those people read Inside Philanthropy.

And, you know, it’s a great, a great way to sort of publicize what you’re doing to, to that kind of audience.

Eric: When I was at Hewlett, our friends at the Packard Foundation, very much a sibling, almost by definition, a sibling organization, and we spoke to each other all the time. Sometimes we co-funded things and we hung out.

I imagine that your sibling, or maybe not sibling, but the other game in town is the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

David: Yeah.

Eric: What kind of relationship do you have with them, if any?

David: I mean, I read The Chronicle Philanthropy every day, and I assume they read Inside Philanthropy every day and we have, uh, free subscription exchanges with each other.

And, you know, I admire their work and I think they like us and uh, you know, it’s a really big beat. So I, I don’t think either of us have the sense of, oh, we’re compete. That’s the scarcity mentality of oh, they got, they got the big story, the big scoop on the Ford Foundation before we could get to it.

’cause there’s just so much to cover and, and even together. Both of our news organizations don’t have enough capacity to to, to cover it all, and we take different approaches. I mean. I think of the Chronicle of Philanthropy as more, it’s a much more traditional news outlet in terms of its approach, real straight.

If they something’s opinion, they mark it as opinion. Whereas Inside Philanthropy is a little more like the Politico or Vox of, of this, of this space where. Opinion and the reporting tend to mingle in with each other. And, and, you know, there’s, uh, certainly a progressive through line if you, if you’re paying attention and you know, that’s not for everybody.

And it reflects what my goals have been going into this and what the way a lot of our writers feel about how we should cover the subject matter.

Eric: We’re gonna take a very quick break. We’ll be back with David Callahan, founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, right after this.


Eric: You are listening to Let’s Hear It, a podcast about foundation and nonprofit communications hosted by Eric Brown and Kirk Brown. If you’re enjoying this episode, you may just be a rule breaker. Tune in to Break Fake Rules, a new limited series podcast with Glen Galaich, CEO of the Stupski Foundation. Hear from leaders in philanthropy, nonprofits, government, media, and more to learn about challenges they’ve overcome by breaking fake rules and which rules we should commit to breaking together. We are also sponsored by the Conrad Prebys Foundation. Check out their amazingly good podcast, and we’re not just saying that, Stop and Talk, hosted by Prebys Foundation CEO, Grant Oliphant. You can find them at And now back to the show.


Eric: And we are back with David Callahan, the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy and the one of the finest tea leaf readers I’ve ever encountered.

Okay. I’m gonna drop two these two little things on you and then we can have a little conversation about future. You wrote a thriller about the State of the Union in which terrorists were gonna fly a plane into the capitol four years before 9/11. Yeah. Then, then in 2017 you wrote a book in which you write, “private donors who are accountable to no one may often wield more influence than elected public officials.”

And so this week, as we speak, Donald Trump invited Elon Musk to basically to bankroll his presidential campaign. And apparently that was motivated a little bit by the fact that Tesla wasn’t invited to a White House electric vehicle event by Joe Biden. Oh, and by the way, when are the Mets gonna win the World Series?

’cause I, I need to know this. No. How bad is this going to get? Now you, you have kind of seen the future a couple of times. Pretty well. This relationship between very rich donors, politics and policy, looks like it is reaching a fever pitch. Do you agree with that? And what, what do you think is gonna happen?

David: Well, it’s been going on for a long time. Of course. I mean, the conservative funders started putting money into a whole network of legal organizations and think tanks. Back in the, in the 1980s and the Federalist Society, most famously has played a really big role in shaping the judiciary. Heritage Foundation has played a huge role in shaping conservative policy, and of course, on the liberal side, particularly in the last 20 years, it’s been a huge upsurge in building the kind of set of policy and electoral organizations heavily funded by tax deductible C $3.

That’s played a big role in influencing election outcomes and also influencing public policy. We could go down an endless rabbit hole of giving examples of how this is, how this has played out. Um, to me the large story here is you have, in terms of looking to the future, is you have more and more money, philanthropic money showing up on the scene in coming decades.

I mean. The philanthropic giving we’ve seen so far is really nothing compared to what’s coming because what the hell are these people gonna do with all their money? Like the two Google guys have $200 billion between them and they’re not gonna dump that money on their heirs. And Elon Musk has $250 billion and uh, there’s just a tremendous amount of money.

That is headed for philanthropy that hasn’t gotten to the sector yet, and so more and more billionaires showing up with bigger and bigger grant dollars at the same time that we’re gonna see the screws really turn on government fiscally at all levels. When the entitlement spending obligations of the federal government really kick in and Medicare and social security come under a lot more strain and, and the pension obligations at the state and local level, government is gonna have less discretionary income and less discretionary revenue to do stuff.

And at the same time that the billionaires are stepping up with more and more money. To do the things that they think would be cool. Right? So that’s the kind of grand picture that I, that I lay out in my book. The givers of these two trends, government down private philanthropy up that are gonna be increasingly salient in the future.

Eric: And so you could do the math and say that maybe 10 or 20 people could make the decisions about all these kinds of things that, that replace entitlements. Rather than an elected an an nominally democratically elected populace? Uh, correct. I mean, ’cause we’re talking about the richest of the rich in the United States holding a trillions of, do you know, a good trillion dollars if, if not more, of wealth?

David: Yeah. I mean, the conventional wisdom has always been that, oh, philanthropy’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what government spends. And that what. Philanthropic leaders have historically done is try to influence how those big gov government dollars are directed, and that game is, is will always be played.

And, and, you know, makes a lot of sense in terms of, of, of leveraging resources. But it’s also true that philanthropic dollars, just in the sheer amount of them are growing and that, that that stream of money is becoming more significant vis-a-vis government. So, just as an example, the federal budget for non-defense discretionary spending is about $850 billion a year.

This is everything. That is not entitlements. It’s not defense, it’s not interest on the debt. It’s everything else. It’s nasa, it’s the National Science Foundation Institutes of Health. It’s, you know, the national parks. It’s all the, uh, education spending. It’s pelo grants. It’s, that’s what non-defense discretionary spending is.

$850 billion. Of it a year about right now. Whereas charitable giving last year hit about $500 billion. Right? So, you know, as, and, and that number sort of keeps going up. So, so discretionary spending is being squeezed, charitable giving sort of steadily increases and is becoming more significant compared to public dollars.

So I think we need to kind of revise how we, how we think of these things. And in some cases. Some municipalities, you know, philanthropy has really stepped forward to completely bail out government, right? Or to replace like in Kalamazoo, Michigan, you know, or, or bail help foundations help bail out Detroit or you know, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

George Kaiser built this massive public park. I mean, there’s a lot of examples of philanthropic dollars kind of replacing the things that government normally would spend money on. As government has less capacity to do that.

Eric: I’ve always found that to be a phenomenally sharp double-edged sword because the more philanthropy takes credit for these public benefits, the more you’re arguing that the public benefits.

Are not public or that, that, that they shouldn’t be public. You’re, you’re almost making a case for lower taxes because all the foundations will bail you out, which seems to be totally BA wards to me. I mean, governments should fund the things that governments should fund, and foundations take the risks. I mean, we’ve heard this argument a million times. We de-risk large government spending so that they can be more efficient with it. But that’s where the money should go and the more you take credit for the things that government should be doing, the more you’re arguing that government shouldn’t do it. And yeah, I’ve always found that to be really dangerous. So given that, maybe you agree, maybe you don’t, but where do you see foundations best making a difference in the context of, uh, basically a progressive tax structure and a government of the people.

David: Well, I mean, I’m, my views probably wouldn’t differ much from the conventional wisdom, which is that you want, uh, philanthropy to utilize its competitive advantage, right?

Like philanthropy can take risks and try things out in a way that government can’t, right? I mean, the. You know, government has, has, is not very good at experimentation because either politicians and and elected policy makers are too afraid to experiment. Or once something gets going, it’s impossible to close down because it gets a constituency.

So like you may try an experiment and it’s not really an effective program, but it has a constituency and lives on anyway. Right, right. And so, you know. Philanthropy can, can take those risks and do those experiments. Another great place for philanthropy is of course advancing things that government is never gonna care about ’cause there’s no constituency for it.

So a great example is in the health space, is Lyme disease research, right? So Lyme disease is a huge problem. It affects, you know, a large number of Americans, but it doesn’t kill people like, like cancer does, right? Or, or heart disease. So the NIH spends very little money on Lyme disease research and now.

The Cohen Foundation, same guy who owns –

Eric: My Steve Cohen?

David: Same guy who owns the Mets.

Eric: Uncle Stevie. What’s up?

David: Steve and Alex Cohen are like the biggest, you know, almost give as much money for Lyme disease research as the NIH. Right? So, you know, that’s an example of philanthropy, stepping forward to do something that government won’t do because there’s not a big enough constituency for it.

Then of course there’s philanthropy’s role in defending our democracy and strengthening our democracy and all the investments in, in civil society and advocacy and organizing. And obviously I think that role has become ever more important, especially right now. And, and that stuff is, is controversial because it’s, it’s a lot of it is effectively money and politics by another name.

Eric: Uh, what’s the best story you guys ever published?

David: There’s been too many stories to choose, but I would just single out the story we did not long ago on Howard Buffet and his funding in the in Ukraine. So Howard Buffet is, uh, the oldest child of Warren Buffet and every year. Howard Buffett, along with his siblings who also run foundations, his Howard Buffett’s Foundation gets a couple hundred million dollars in Berkshire Hathaway stock.

Then Howard and his very small staff turn around and, and spend it on their work, which is mainly globally focused, and they also build up some reserve have, you know, over time. And so when the Ukraine war began, that foundation just swung into action and has now put over $500 million into, uh, work in Ukraine, which is.

You know, more than all other philanthropy put together, like no other foundations basically are in this area, uh, of any note. And, and Howard has gone and, and been to Ukraine many times. We named Howard Buffett. You know, we do these philanthropy awards every year and one of our categories is Philanthropy Action, hero of the Year.

And we, uh, Howard Buffet has, I think, won that category twice because he’s somebody who shows up and goes to see for himself and then has the flexibility to put up huge amounts of money to deal with urgent things in a very rapid, rapid way that that makes most foundations look like. You know, these slow moving dinosaurs.

Eric: That’s really cool. By the way, there was a photograph, a wildlife photograph taken by Howard Buffett of an eagle that hung in my office for many years. I don’t know how it got there, but it was the Howard Buffet. That was my, that’s my my question with Howard Buffett for my, my last question, and thank you so much for coming on, being so generous with your time.

If someone offered you a job running a very big foundation, would you take it?

David: I mean, those are great jobs, right? I guess it would depend upon, um, whether I was bored of Inside Philanthropy, which I’m not, and also whether it was a healthy and well-functioning foundation as support, as opposed to. Come, come run our big foundation governed by our crazy family, which I certainly would not want to do.

Eric: Actually. That was my next, the last question. The last question is, looking back at these 10, 11 years, would you be surprised to see what Inside Philanthropy has become? Is, is it what you thought you were going to achieve or is it different in any way?

David: It’s pretty much what I thought it would be. It took a while for it to get as good as it is now because it took a while to build up the revenue to pay for the reporting that we do.

Reporting is very expensive and we didn’t have much revenue at the very beginning, so a lot of our. Writing was more blogging and reading the tea leaves. You know, I used to joke that, you know, we should be called outside philanthropy. We were trying to figure out what, what everybody el what, what was going on inside and often didn’t have great access.

Now we have great access, and so we’ve lived up to the name of Inside Philanthropy, and it’s just higher quality. You know what the other thing I used to say is Inside Philanthropy had to be bad. Before it could be great, you know, because it’s, it’s. At the, at the beginning it just was really hard to be very good with, with the limited resources we had.

And, and sometimes it wasn’t so good and, you know, I under, I’m, I’m ready to acknowledge that. And that was sort of part of the strategy, right? Just like get something up and start getting subscribers and build the resources and, and you know, the thing would eventually have capacity to do the kind of work we do now.

Eric: Well, it’s great work. I. At the beginning, I have to say I was skeptical and then I was frightened, and then I didn’t work for a foundation, and so it didn’t matter to me anymore. But you’re, you’re doing amazing work. I, I really do think helping. Everybody, especially the folks in communications, be better at their job, better communicate what you’re doing, why it’s good, why it matters, what good thing is gonna happen as a result.

I think you’re holding folks’ feet to the fire you’re carrying and sticking, I think in really good ways. And I’m not just saying that. And, uh, I just really appreciate you, your time, your work, and uh, I hope we get a chance to have a conversation again, one of these days.

David: Great. Thanks for having me on, Eric.

Eric: David Callahan of Inside Philanthropy. Thank you again.


Kirk: And we’re back. So, so Eric, tell me, how did you get to David and what, what, what was your instinct to, to get him here? Now

Eric: there are two answers to this question. I will give you the conventional one first. Okay. Which is that we are interested in philanthropy and communications and nonprofits.

And he sits at a very important area of those things. And if you think about just like, oh, who’s writing about communications, or who’s writing about philanthropy? It’s Chronicle Philanthropy and Inside Philanthropy are the two kind of. Pillars, if you think about it.

Although as he says, they’re more of the, what, what did he say? Like the, the vox.

Kirk: The Vox, exactly. They’re more mingling. The opinion reporting MA little more.

Eric: Yeah. So that’s the, that’s the standard version. The, the under the other version is that a Away, A long time ago, one of my dearest friends.

Best man at my wedding said, Hey, my neighbor is somebody who’s doing something about philanthropy and you should talk to him. And he was this neighbor in Santa Monica. I think they both frequented the same coffee shop. This guy David Callahan. And so it’s stuck in the back of my head for the longest time.

And finally I got screwed together, the courage to send him a note and uh, and he was of course, phenomenally forthcoming. Of course, I’d be delighted. When, when would you like to talk? So that’s the, that’s the, those are the two answers to your excellent. David, uh, Callahan question.

Kirk: Can we explore a little bit how difficult it really is that he launched this enterprise and it’s been going on for so many, so long. Now, this notion, and, and you talked about it, I love how you talk about it. These philanthropies are fortresses. There’s a drawbridge, there’s a moat. They’re just, they’re just totally retrenched and, and yet here’s David. Say, you know what?

We’re gonna, we’re gonna poke into this. We’re gonna appear into this institution, and we’re actually gonna open doors and. I loved how he talked about, you know, actually when they got started, they were reading blogs. They, they were just reading stuff, you know, they couldn’t even get people to call him.

But just talk a little bit about how difficult, and, and you were, you were savvy enough to see this thing unveiled and be like, oh my gosh, really exciting. Not gonna work. I’m terrified all, all at once. Right. But how difficult is it to actually, oh, get the door open because at this point. That door is open for Inside Philanthropy.

Eric: This is interesting and I didn’t ask the question that you know when the thing’s over you, oh, I should have asked the question. It feels to me like. The audience is this, well, you know, it’s the carroty sticky thing, but it’s also the audience is people who wanna learn more about foundations so that they can raise money from them.

Because philanthropy, as we have, as as he was able to help us better understand philanthropy is a lot bigger and more powerful than anyone had imagined. For good or real? Yes.

Kirk: Right.

Eric: Uh, particularly if philanthropy is seen as some kind of replacement for. Government. Yeah. Which is also nominally elected and democratic on, on a good day.

And philanthropy is not. And so all you can do is to hope that philanthropy will be benevolent and not malevolent. Mm-hmm. And we have seen both sides of that coin over time. So for the folks who are trying to raise money from philanthropy, I would think that the insights that they have been able to derive because they have managed to get the model, the financial model of work is, are, are interesting and good, and if I’m a development person out anywhere and anybody’s looking to get money from foundation, I’m gonna want as much insight into those places as possible. So I think there’s a decent number of fundraisers out there who will pay for this.

On the other side of the coin, there are foundations who a, wanna know what other, what their colleagues and counterparts and others are doing. And then of course they wanna see. How they’re showing up. Mm-Hmm. So are they saying nice things about us or not so nice things about us? And so I think there’s a, um, audience for that.

So he is managed to make a business out of this thing that was in the beginning, you know, he said, well, we were bad before we could be good. And that all makes sense. And it’s, you know, now it’s a thing. It’s got its own momentum. It’s got its own light and heat and they’re doing interesting work. And they also have a point of view.

And that’s the other part of it, which is David is kind of unapologetically progressive and he believes in government and, and the. Virtues of a kind of a collective. And he is an advocate for, and he is an, and his institution are advocates for progressive policies. And he, you know, he, he’s quite clear about that.

And if you don’t agree with him, then he’s gonna have something to say.

Kirk: Well, and this is such an interesting reflection about the evolution of Phil Philanthropy as a concept, even, even in America, like in the broad arc of our history. Because today that notion that you can look at giving. It can be good giving, bad giving or meh giving and, and that it isn’t that interesting because, you know, we, we don’t typically think of those distinctions and yet.

When you’re in our field, like I would say the, and you talked about in your interview, the premise of our podcast is that all of this work should be oriented towards social change and this notion of a fair, more equitable, more just society. That’s the purpose for what we are doing. And yet when you look at the broad arc of all philanthropic giving, both today, but also over the course of time, that distinction.

And what that distinction means isn’t really well established. And, and it’s funny, like I, I think about that sometimes. I’m like, you know, don’t we just wanna call giving great? And yet really when you push on it, I would say, you know, actually there, those distinctions kinda make sense to me. There’s some good giving, I certainly know what bad giving looks like.

Sure. But it’s the, but it’s the mess stuff, right? It’s the like, uh, who care. Like that is a really interesting critique. And I think there’s actually way more in that math than we’re actually giving it credit for.

Eric: Maybe so. But if you could actually harness philanthropy, as he said, it almost equals all of the non-military discretionary spending of the entire federal government in any given year.

Yeah. Now that’s a huge institution and it is an institution that is under scrutinized, under and misunderstood, or under understood, or is not understood at all, or it doesn’t even register. Right. And this kind of argues for much more. Coverage and much more kind of healthy communications around this, whatever it is.

The fourth or fifth or sixth? The ninth, the state, a huge aspect of our economy. Okay, now add to that, that some folks are now amassing spectacular amounts of wealth that they really could make a. Big difference on all sorts of things. And the question is will be it, will it be a good difference, a bad difference, or a meh difference? I’d settle for meh because, well, it, the, the problem of bad difference is astonishingly bad.

Kirk: Well, and you’re walking me right up to my depressingly beehive. But we’re not gonna go there. We’re not gonna go there, we’re not gonna go yet. Okay. Wait, wait. So you keep listening.

Eric: I will tell you when to turn off the podcast.

Kirk: Because I do wanna, we had this great reflection from David about how different philanthropists at different relative, I would say level sophistication around communications. Think of their work and talking about their work. And David talked about the individual wealthy donor.

There’s almost no upside for that donor to actually expose their giving, though we see many, many examples.

Eric: No apparent upside.

Kirk: No apparent upside. That’s right. That’s right. That’s the thing.

Eric: There’s plenty of upside if you do it well, you can absolutely use your money with, you can get phenomenal leverage.

Kirk: Well, and this is, this is the foundations with the communications departments he talks about, right? Where those folks understand and this, this is a phrase that is just kind of echoing for me. Philanthropy is a, is a game of follow the leader.

Eric: Yes. You know, I said when he said that I was, I was listening to it just a, a little while ago, I was like, what an interesting point.

But it has, it’s a double-edged sword there too. So go say whatever it was. You were gonna say Kirk? ’cause I’m sure it’s very smart.

Kirk: No, no. This is, this is what I, where I wanna hear from you because that notion of it’s follow a leader. I could hear that in the best of possible terms, but I could hear it in the worst of possible terms.

And I have to tell you, I feel like I’ve experienced both sides of that. And, and can I, can I tell you, I just, I won’t name any names. Good, but I just had the best meeting I’ve had in my career with the foundation program Officer. Woo. This week, and I was thinking about this. I was like, why was that so great?

And this person, again, no names will be named, but this person was strategic. They were incisive. They challenged our thinking and contributed to our thinking, and we all left more energized as a result of the conversation where there were no, where there were no promises made, about dollars coming. But, but it felt like a conversation between peers, even though there was obviously a power imbalance between what was going on, but, but this person was looking at the stuff we were talking about from that standpoint of like, you know, actually maybe there’s something in here that, you know, could be a whole is greater than some of the parts.

But, but so that, that notion of follow leader, like, like when, when, when you, when you have the strategy that’s about to unfold, I swear to God this is like pitching. The a hundred billion dollar movie, you know what I mean? This is, this is like pitching the script that finally makes it through all the editorial review because it’s, it’s really exciting.

But there’s a flip side of that too, which is like, well, you know, if you’re not, if you’re not kind of, you know, who else follows the leader, the lemmings as they head off over the clip. You know what I mean? Like, so I know. So now I wanna say, what do you think about all that? Because it, because it feels like it’s the best and the worst of, of this field right there.

Eric: Well. Well, that was just me kind of trying to buy some time. I have a lot of thoughts about this.

Kirk: You don’t have to name names, we don’t have to name names. We can talk generally, you know.

Eric: So intuitive for a mid-Westerner. Here’s, here’s my thing, feeling about this. A lot of philanthropies want everyone to follow them.

Yeah, they’ve set it up in such a way that it makes it kind of hard to follow them. But the other side of that is that if you’ve got a leader out there who could use an additional of investment, you almost have built in leverage the big L word. And here’s a really good example. I I, there’s a foundation that I have become.

Acquainted with. And what they did was when other foundations wanted to make a grant into a university, this foundation would pay the exorbitant overhead that the university would charge. Wow. So that the initial grant could go through. So Foundation A says, I wanna put a million dollars into X thing at this university, and like the study of something that they cared about.

And then university Y would come back and say, oh yeah, our overhead rate is 60% or something like that. So the Foundation Z would then come in and like, you know what, I’ll pay the overhead because I know that if I pay the overhead, you will make the grant. And my overhead is 60% yours. Your investment is a hundred percent.

So therefore I got 1.4 times return on my money. So, and, and as long as you don’t care that you’re not the lead on this, you can do a lot by coming in behind somebody else who has a slightly bigger investment, but your additional funding makes that work possible. That’s follow the leader in a really interesting and productive way.

So, uh, so that’s it. Like this grant wouldn’t have been made if I didn’t come in and support it. I think that’s really, really cool. In other instances where foundations will say, are you like, I’m doing this, it’s my strategy, come with me or not. A lot of people will say not.

Kirk: Well, that’s such a good point, Eric, but, so here’s what I’d like to, I would like to make a request. Can I make a request? You may. I want David to come back. For us just to spend an entire interview on the second part of your conversation because um, that was when I would say Almost-Conspiracy Eric showed up on our air Conspiracy Kirk was desperate to get into that conversation because you started talking about,

Eric: I hope you weren’t driving. ’cause when Conspiracy Kirk is driving, the people of the nice people of Marin County need to look, need to look out. ’cause this is, they might get run into.

Kirk: There’s so much here. You start talking about private donors and their impact on politicians.

You mentioned Donald Trump and Elon Musk specifically. You didn’t even mention some other stuff you could be talking about with this current presidential, you know, like what’s going on with Trump media and how that looks like to be one of the biggest graft and corruption schemes of all time. Let alone the news that’s come out that Donald Trump apparently promised a bunch of oil executives, that they gave him the billion dollars he would overturn all clean energy, clean clean car, clean, clean vehicle regulation.

But this whole notion of. The impact of these philanthropic dollars relative to our public purpose. And this is when you talked about the $850 billion in discretionary federal spending versus the entire pool. Now charitable giving being over $500 billion and how those two numbers are getting closer and closer to each other and, and you started raising some really interesting questions around that.

Like, well, philanthropy can do it. Does that mean government doesn’t? How do you get the balance right between, you know, who does this or who does that? Then this incredible story about, you know, what Howard Buffett is doing in Ukraine, which is, which is again another situation where it’s like, God, you know, the philanthropy, what we call that good barma giving, you know, but I would argue that driving dollars into one of the most catastrophic collapses of peace and justice in our time is, is very good, you know, a good use of philanthropic dollars.

But here’s, here’s my, my troubling thought about all this and why I’d like to have David come back.

Eric: Okay, everybody turn off. Cut off the, turn off the show. You can go back to, uh, you know, fresh air or something,

Kirk: Isn’t our theory of change that you can leverage these dollars for good?

The better and more thoughtful you are about how to leverage these dollars, and then the more you can get those dollars leveraged scale, you can create tremendous amounts of good. And if that’s truly what our theory of change is, this is my bummer observation. How much money is there in the world? The money aligned with the good values or the money aligned with the bad values.

And why do we think this assemblage of good dollars, however we wanna characterize ’em and how poorly they’re organized and how they flip, hit and hit and ya for different purposes. Why do we think we can get that good funding organized in a way that is actually going to prevail in the face of these enormous amounts of money we’re seeing organized on what I would characterize as the bad side of the ledger.

And that was my, that’s the conversation I’d love to hear David and others talk about because that, that, that, I’d never seen it that clearly since you and David were talking about that. That’s your bummer. That’s my bummer. That’s my bummer.

Eric: All right. Well, first of all, Kirk, it’s gonna be okay. I want you to take deep breaths and just remind yourself it’s gonna be okay. Here’s, well, you’re right. Here’s the problem. Well, the problem is that the money doesn’t have to be commensurate because doing bad is much cheaper than doing good. They have more money and it’s easier to go further with it.

I don’t know. Is that what you’re saying? If they have more money or not, who knows how, how much money anybody has. It’s, it’s true.

But doing bad is easier than doing good. We’ve talked about this a million times. Building is harder than breaking. Yeah, breaking is easier than building. So that’s, that’s one of the things we’re up against.

But the other part is that. You know, you just have to have some, some level of faith in human nature and in the, in the rightness of things that good ideas that bring people together at some point will swamp the bad ideas and we’ll, we’ll force them out. That’s why we haven’t had World Wars yet. It’s like, it’s why the worst catastrophes haven’t happened, even though we’ve had lots of opportunities.

So maybe there is some kind of cosmic mystic thing that keeps us from going too far off the rails that we can’t get back. But I mean, you can say that. Although you could say that to people who are currently suffering in communities and situations that have gone off the rails, and so maybe that just puts a lie of the thing I just said.

But I think that for our purposes, the alternative is too bad to consider, so you have to continue to move forward with the idea. I. That the purpose of philanthropy is to, to, to de-risk big government decisions, but it is also to find things that government, for one reason or another, can’t or won’t find, find good ideas, develop good people, come up with various kinds of solutions, and that’s, you know, that’s.

What philanthropy can do when it does its thing best, and it has done it many, many times, and we just have to continue to do it, do more of it, do it better, because the alternative is to, it’s just too challenging to contemplate, right? Therefore, let’s just keep doing what we’re doing and, and do it better and faster and bigger and funnier and louder.

Kirk: Well, and this is where the super smart people need to show up and say, you know, actually the world is materially better in so many ways today than it has been in prior periods. And, and it’s always been this dynamic of the good ideas and seemingly being overwhelmed by the negative ideas. And, but you know, any one of the folks we’ve had in this podcast who are contributing to this positive change in their different ways, they’re making the world a better place.

And so in a sense, maybe, maybe the answer to my own question is we’re on the side of the broad arc of history. And it’s that broad arc of history bending towards justice that makes us think that we, we can use these dollars and use them more effectively and that we’re gonna prevail in the end. But it’s gonna be, it’s gonna take time.

Eric: You have talked yourself out of the abyss, correct? Right here. For everyone to hear. And I, I will also say to bring things back to David, his thing that he helped create from nothing with a, with a financial model that I think everybody’s like, okay, that’s crazy and that’s never gonna work, is a going concern and it is providing us all with.

Both the kind of locomotion and the feet to the fire and the encouragement for the good that our field desperately needs, it needs more of it. Yeah. So the, the inside, the folks like David and, and. Publications like Insight Philanthropy are what are going to make us better. And, and so for that, I say thank you very much, even though, like I said, I was skeptical and afraid at the same time, and now I am neither of those things.

And I think that’s a, that’s a huge service to our field and to the effects of all of that money.

Kirk: Enormous gratitude to an institution like Inside Philanthropy. And let’s remember, however sharp, however smart, however, whatever good there was in the idea to begin with. The reason that David’s here talking to us about it now is because of the persistence that he put into that for years and years and years.

And David, what a gift to us all. So Eric, thank you. You’re very welcome. Another good one. You, you brought me the, the abyss. You brought me into the, you took the out. Yeah, because we built carrot and we, we, we stuck, we did carrot sticks on this conversation. Uh, but that was awesome, says David, thanks for joining us.

Thanks, uh, to all of you for joining us and Mr. Brown once again. Thank you.

Eric: You’re very welcome, Kirk. I do it all for you.

Kirk: We’ll see you next time on Let’s Hear It.


Kirk: Okay, everybody. That’s it for this episode. Please let us know if you have any thoughts about what you heard today or people we should have on this show, and that definitely includes yourself. And we’d like to thank…

Eric: Our indefatigable producer, Harper Brown.

Kirk: John Allee, the tuneful and inspiring composer of our theme music.

Eric: Our sponsor, the Lumina Foundation.

Kirk: And please check out Lumina’s terrific podcast, Today’s Students, Tomorrow’s Talent, and you can find that at

Eric: We certainly thank today’s guest, and of course, all of you.

Kirk: And most importantly, thank you, Mr. Brown.

Eric: Oh, no, no, no, no. Thank you, Mr. Brown.

Kirk: Okay, everybody, till next time.