Finding a Balance

Strategic Philanthropy
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Last week, I posted some comments about an article that Bill Dietel and I wrote for Nonprofit Quarterly about whether and to what extent the quantitative or “technocratic” elements of philanthropy had taken over the other, more amorphous elements of that practice, namely, the ethics, values, and ideologies of the donors.  We received a lot of response to the piece,

 which was Tweeted to more than half a million people and landed on several blogs, among them, Tactical Philanthropy, Chronicle of Philanthropy (blog round up), The Case FoundationPhilanTopic, GlobalGiving, and GiftHub

We also received a lot of response, personally, to the post (here’s hoping that someday that traffic will be directed to this blog!).  What did people think?  Generally, they agreed, unsurprisingly, since at first blush, since most people would concur that there should be a balance between “data and desire” when talking about donors’ needs and aspirations.  And there were a few folks who reasserted the importance of measurement in philanthropy – a practice of which, again, Bill and I are both strong and vocal supporters. 

Interestingly, though, there was relatively little discussion about the larger point:  That a fixation on data and measurement seems to have led to a bit of disregard for the more human elements of philanthropic decisionmaking and process.  Those are equally important – not just “soft stuff” that, because they're not easily codified, aren’t worthy of equal attention and regard.  As Dennis Whittle, CEO of GlobalGiving, writes in a thoughtful post, “As someone who studied economics and cost-benefit analysis in grad school, I probably…rely on data more that most.  But…I also realize that data isn’t what determines most decision—even at so-called expert aid agencies and foundations.” 

We agree.  As philanthropic advisors, we’re ardent proponents of data and demand it ourselves because we believe that rigor and evaluation are essential components of determining “what works.”  At the same time, we also know that it’s time to pay equal attention to the other side of the equation:  the personal relationships, family dynamics, values, and ethics of the donors.  Finding that balance -- and better models for practicing it -- is, to us, the next challenge for all of us who care about “effective philanthropy."