High Performing Philanthropy: To What End?

During the high performance vs. high impact debate, my position that funders should focus on high performing nonprofits rather than those with high evidence of historical impact was often criticized by people who pointed out that the only reason to be high performing was to create impact.

To which my answer was: “Of course!”

At the time, it seemed self-evident to me that the point of nonprofit work was to create impact, so the idea that a “high performing” nonprofit could choose to not focus on creating impact seemed silly to me. Like a “high performing” for-profit that didn’t try to create a profit. Doesn’t seem like that sort of mentality could have any place within a high performing organization.

But I later realized that enough nonprofit do not focus on impact, because they are focused simply on keeping their organization afloat, that I incorporated the idea of “having an absolute focus on outcomes” into my definition of a high performing nonprofit.

In the discussions about my post on the need for self-discipline and self-accountability for funders to overcome philanthropy’s “natural state of underperformance”, I’ve noticed a similar dynamic. When Christine Egger argued that funders should be focused on the needs of beneficiaries, not their own “self-discipline”, my reaction is: “Of course!”

Self-discipline and self-accountability are needed for funders to actually create impact on the lives of beneficiaries. Being a high performing nonprofit is a means to create impact. Being a disciplined funder that subjects yourself to self-accountability is a means to create impact.

In Leap of Reason, Mario Marino writes that the question that has served him best during his career is “To what end?” While urging nonprofits to focus on outcomes, he also writes about his worry that nonprofits might confuse the means with the ends and end up putting metrics over mission.

High performing organizations are a means to the ends we seek: Impact.

Self-discipline and self-accountability are means to the ends we seek: Impact.

Our focus, as Christine Egger rightly points out, should always be on our mission. Our mission should always be defined in terms of those we seek to help, not in terms of our own needs.

Philanthropy means “the love of humankind”. All the great philosophers say that the most important thing in life is to love others. But they also agree that actually doing this is hard. “Learning how to love” is the broad mission of all major religions and quite frankly is probably the best way to think about the process of becoming a great philanthropist. In order to practice “the love of humankind” you must “learn how to love.”

My point in writing about self-discipline, self-accountability and high performance is not to elevate those characteristics to ends unto themselves, but to highlight them as means to achieve the ends we seek: learning how to love.


  1. Sean, continued thanks for last week’s exchanges and for framing this post as a reminder/suggestion for what is at the heart of all of this inquiry, and especially for placing it all in the context of learning.

    It prompted a desire to re-read the recent posts and comments in this series as well as those from ‘way’ back. Holy cow, 41 comments to that performance/impact post in ’09. The conversation’s been building for quite some time.

    I’m trying really hard to contribute to the conversation without contributing to the means-end ‘word circles’ you describe above. That’s hard, because the moment we start talking about philanthropy as anything other than Simply Being, all kinds of vocabulary pop up and take on a life of their own.

    My comment Friday is as non-buzzwordy as I’ve been able to get about where one thread of the conversation might go:

    “What would nonprofit evaluation look like if its purpose were to assess whether beneficiaries were held at the center of a nonprofit’s activity and accountability, and whether its goodwill was being directed first and foremost to those they served? Wouldn’t this change the very questions we’re asking of nonprofits, as well as what we think about what we find?”

    Do you know anyone who’s as interested as I am at exploring those questions and where they might lead?

    • I think your question is being pursued by David Bonbright at Keystone Accountability.

      In the for-profit world, the book the Ultimate Question posits that the very best way to run a company is to more or less “put the customer in the center of a company’s activity and accountability”.

      • Thanks for the reply, Sean. I had a great conversation with David at last year’s Markets for Good event, and will keep you posted as I follow-up with him and hopefully find others.

        I’m feeling very sheepish about my comment above. Not about what I wrote but about what I didn’t write. I completely chickened out, acknowledging but not really responding to your key point about love, about what’s behind all of the euphemisms we layer on top of the word philanthropy.

        I toss that word around alot. I think about it alot. But I haven’t yet learned how to have a public conversation about love in philanthropic circles that doesn’t either 1) quickly end, 2) switch from the original line of inquiry to “but what is love really?”, or 3) result in brief awkward (or appreciative) silence followed by a change of subject.

        So I’m assigning myself another task, in addition to exploring the questions I posed above: print the last two paragraphs in your post here, tape them above my desk as a reminder of what’s important, and get better at participating in public conversations about love in philanthropic circles.

        Fetzer Institute comes to mind as a resource, and yesterday while bringing Peter Deitz up to speed on these posts he introduced me to Adam Kahane’s book and presentations on Power and Love, which looks incredibly helpful.

        I’m listening for more, and will keep you posted on that inquiry, too. Thank you, and it feels silly to say but I really am sorry for not being better at this sooner.