Early in 2008—before the economy started acting up—the New York Times published a special issue of its Sunday magazine—the Money Issue, though it might equally well have been called the “Good” Issue. Its cover package touted various strategies for transforming money into social good—and in some serendipitous cases, back into money! The pièce de résistance was an article by Jon Gertner—”For Good Measure”—surveying contemporary practices of philanthropic foundations.

Gertner’s prediction was that “philanthropy’s golden age is yet to come,” which seemed accurate at the time. Giving in the United States had reached record highs, jumping 32 percent between 2002 and 2006. Figures from 2007 put private giving, for the first time in history, over $300 billion. These figures include gifts from individuals, corporations, nonprofits, and foundations to arts and cultural organizations, religious organizations, ecological (and certainly a few anti-ecological) causes, labor causes, and higher education.

The numbers have been much cited as an index of qualitative shifts in philanthropy, which Gertner goes on to survey: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, for example, are funding AGRA, a program aimed at augmenting crop yields in Africa that “resembles an investment more than a charity. With its focus on better seed technology, free markets, and measurable financial goals, the project could easily be viewed as an experimental start-up business.” Gertner cites as another challenge to “the common assumption that creating financial value (as a corporation might) and creating social value (as a philanthropy might) are necessarily different pursuits.” The article’s focus is on social “metrics,” that is, “the increasingly sophisticated techniques” foundations have lately adopted to “measure their impact.”

But foundations like Ford and Rockefeller have always sought to measure their results, as in fact Gertner notes. The fundamental change is simple enough, and yet never stated: they now conceive their mandates in monetary terms. The author’s treatment is typical in its unreflective acceptance of the ideas that characterize recent changes in philanthropy; which make them significant, noteworthy, and troubling. Gertner explains that Rockefeller’s new president “talks of her foundation’s grants…as investments to create sustainable change—a ‘portfolio’ in her words, in which risk is balanced, dispersed, and hedged.” “AGRA would be among the riskiest of the foundation’s current programs, she told me. But she also points out that portfolio theory suggests that the higher the risk, the higher the return.” Over and over, the author omits the same crucial distinction as his interlocutors: between conducting grant programs more efficiently on any number of criteria and reconceptualizing the pursuits on the model of f...