Good Intentions vs. Good Results

One way to think about the big shift in philanthropy is a shift in focus from intentions to results. We are starting to care more about whether a donation make a difference rather than simply applauding the gift. We are starting to talk more about how donors can actually help rather than simply urging people to give.

One person who is very focused on this topic is Saundra Schimmelpfennig who runs the aptly named Good Intentions Are Not Enough consultancy and blog. Over the last few days Saundra has been leading a social media campaign against TOMS Shoes. TOMS is a media darling of the for-profit for good space. The company donates a pair of shoes to “a child in need” for every pair of shoes that customers buy. Any reading of the founder’s biography seems to make clear that he has completely good intentions. But does TOMS actually create good results for the children they seek to help?

Saundra thinks the answer is a clear no. As a sort of guerilla campaign against TOMS’ Day Without Shoes program, she lead a social media fueled Day Without Dignity campaign that resulted in the video below being produced:

The fact that good intentions don’t always create good results is one of the most upsetting ideas in philanthropy. When Felix Salmon of Reuters recently wrote that making donations to Japan wasn’t the best way to help, his column was deluged with outraged comments from readers even though Salmon’s post was about how best to respond to the Japanese disasters. But recognizing that good intentions and good results are not the same is a maturation event for philanthropy and for our culture.

I think though that it is critical that those of us who seek to encourage a focus on good results do so in a way that does not undermine people’s good intentions. There’s no quicker way to sap the empathy of donors than to tell them they’re fools for trying to help. But we also have a responsibility to not simply smile and say thank you.

The Good Results shift in philanthropy is not going to really take off until the effective philanthropy movement figures out how to appreciate people’s good intentions while simultaneously working to channel intentions that do not produce results into more productive efforts.


  1. Michele says:

    Sean, You are spot on in saying, “no quicker way to sap the empathy of donors than to tell them they are fools.” During the Japan disaster relief, I would cringe when my local radio would plead – “give, give all you can, give to Japan” because it is not that simple, and yet, people wanted to feel helpful.

    Still, like most of the work we do, we are complicit in the reasons this duality of thinking exists. Everything is unknown until tried, and the results of our good intentions aren’t shown until years later – when maybe, we realize they weren’t that good after all.

    I think donors actually do understand this or could understand if we gave them a chance. Aren’t they already skeptical? Don’t they often feel like fools because they trust us & then we let them down is some way? The admitting failure conversations bring us closer to this honesty – that we actually don’t have all the answers.

    At some level it’s about getting and keeping folks curious on how to address systemic issues, not simple one-off sexy campaigns. The tools are there to do this, to communicate better on how the world works, but I don’t know that the incentives in our own sector to reveal the “wizard” are actually there.

    I do believe in the ‘effective philanthropy’ movement, but even that terminology is too jargon, too professionalized to resonate in the mainstream. Until we can put language around what we really want to do,
    the status quo remains.

    It takes a lot of courage to have this conversation and I appreciate the folks who are trying to bring it to light.


    • Thanks Michele. I think that the effective philanthropy movement can figure this out. In the financial markets, we see groups like Vanguard mutual funds that have become very successful in trying to teach and help investors engage in effective, but unsexy, investing. Lots of investors still go after the hot new thing, but there is an important demographic that pride themselves on trying to go with Vanguard’s unsexy but effective approach. But the key is that those investors feel cool for not going after the hot new thing, so they aren’t just being rationale, Vanguard helped redefine the emotional relationship their investors have with investing.

  2. Saundra says:

    I may occasionally put things too harshly, but it’s often because I’m one of the few people out there making noise. I’ve seen some extremely questionable donor advice out there and myths and misconceptions are commonly reinforced by the people that donors turn to to make smart funding decisions. And it’s very difficult to break through these continually reinforced myths and misinformation.

    In general, I think there’s too much focus on making donors feel good. Donors aren’t stupid, but I think we often treat them like delicate children. I’ve had many readers contact me and thank me for either opening their eyes or confirming what they were beginning to believe from personal experience.

    In the end, my concern isn’t about the donors. It’s about the people we’re trying to help. I focus on donor education because I discovered in the field that almost all bad aid practices could be traced back to trying to attract and please donors. So giving donors very real information is critical to me, and yes it does often show that they made bad funding mistakes in the past. But they did this because it was the best decision they could make given the information they had access to.

    Which gets back to the role and responsibility of of all of us.

    • Jacob M says:

      I both agree and disagree with Saundra’s portray of donating shoes and clothes. I think she’s on the money that some items (such as clothes and shoes) may not be the most necessary goods and that it’s important for donors to do what they can to understand the needs of the populations they’re trying to help. And in the spirit of Bill Easterly, I appreciate her efforts to show how complex development efforts can be and how there are often unintended consequences.

      However, in that vein I believe she goes too far and paints an overly simplistic view that is too harsh on the Tom’s shoes of the world. So I’ll provide a bit of a counter-argument to prove a point. For example, while it may be true that donations do crowd-out potential shoe vendors, they also provide what is defacto a transfer wealth to other impoverished families. That is, an impoverished family that receives some donated clothes then doesn’t have to spend their money on essential clothes and can spend their limited resources on other essential goods and services. Maybe they value the $5 pair of shoes at $1. Even in that case, it’d still be a dollar transfer to a poor faily that might have otherwise not happend.

      Moreover, if reusing the clothes helps to reduce the production of new garments, there could be environmental benefits as well. Now whether the net effect of a transfer like this is positive or negative is an empirical question. It also is somewhat a values question – e.g., how much do you care about environmental issues vs. the local dignity around wearing used goods?

      The bottom-line is it’s a complex picture. Nonprofits on both sides (likely with different values) may distort facts or tell the narrative that furthers their cause. But unlike Saundra, I don’t have hope that most casual donors shopping at Tom’s shoes or cleaning out their wardrobes will care enough to investigate – and the data seems to support that view ( see ). My hope is that most nonprofits are out there to do good – even if they’re working through somewhat inefficent means like donating clothes or shoes – and that the more engaged people are in philanthropy and donating, the better the sector will be in the long run.

  3. Geri Stengel says:

    Wow! That’s one mind-bending video! Good intentions are not enough. Good information is also needed and that information, as the video points out, must include the voices of the recipients. Where social problems are at their worst, we — the do-gooders — are outsiders. What we see as a problem may not be the real problem. What we think is a solution may have unintended consequences. Real solutions and real dignity come from asking “How can we help?” not from saying “This is what you need.”

  4. Carrie Varoquiers says:

    Thanks for bringing this important topic up for discussion. I have also read quite a bit about untrained volunteers causing more harm than good. While I agree with most of what is being said, my main issue is that the only solution that is being proposed is that these donors give cash rather than time or goods. Isn’t there any other way to help others that aren’t located in your own back yard?

  5. Kate Lang says:

    Sean, do you have any suggestions on how to educate donors to help them recognize situations where good intentions may be causing harm, without discouraging them or making them feel like fools?

    I thought Saundra’s video was effective in this regard since it identified the issue and then provided suggestions for alternative actions. The only way I could see it being more effective was to provide some specific resources or charities that are better alternatives–but that could lead to over-simplification and defeat the purpose.

    I agree strong with Saundra’s comment that we have a tendency to treat donors like delicate children. I also agree with your comment about Vanguard’s role in giving unsophisticated investors tools to manage their money. Is the solution then to guide donors in a more gentle, less shocking manner? Will that be heard above all of the other noise?

    • I think that Saudra’s approach, which she herself terms “occasionally too harsh” is the right way to start the conversation. Shock value is a great way to cut through the noise. I think GiveWell did this well early in their work as well.

      I’m arguing that this isn’t enough. That the effective philanthropy movement needs to move quickly towards presenting effective giving advice in a way that is attractive to donors. I think this is the most important message at the heart of Dan Pallotta’s book Uncharitable.

      I think that this video (while specific to a certain group) does a good job of presenting effectiveness in a positive light.

      I think the Girl Effect video does a good job of presenting a concept designed to increase effectiveness.

      But I think that as a field we don’t have a good library of efforts designed to encourage donors to be effective. That’s why I wrote my post arguing that we need to start working in that direction.

      Remember the “one of these things is not like the other” segment on Sesame Street? I’m no marketing person, but I can image a great video that highlighted TOMS as “not like” the other three very effective approaches to call TOMS out and then focus most of the video on the effective approaches.

  6. Travis says:

    Your post inspired me to think much more critically about how I give. I wrote a blog post of my own as a direct result of yours. Thanks for your great insights!