Everything Important is Controversial

This post appeared today on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog. You can find it here.

Everything Important is Controversial

Think of the three most important issues about which you have a strong opinion. Now consider for a moment whether those issues are controversial or whether they are issues on which everyone agrees.

The simple fact is that important issues are always controversial. Whenever a group of people gathers for some common purpose, there will always be disagreement about the best course of action. Why then do we so rarely hear grantmakers or nonprofits arguing publicly about the best ways to achieve impact

Professionally I am a wealth manager who serves philanthropic families. With one foot on Wall Street and one foot in the Third Sector, I am regularly struck by the differences between the two cultures. The big mistake that many finance professionals make is to assume that all for-profit business practices can and should be adopted by nonprofits. While nonprofits and philanthropy can learn some lessons from the for-profit space, the sectors are very different with different goals. However, there is one very important aspect of Wall Street cultural that I believe the Third Sector should embrace without reservation: the culture of debate.

All day long, on every business day, the financial news network CNBC features a parade of guests who offer their thoughts on how investors should invest their money. These guests never agree. “Buy Cisco, their global markets are booming!” says one. “Sell Cisco, their revenue from financial service companies is slowing!” says another. They cannot both be right. But millions of viewers around the country get to hear both sides of an issue and walk away with an understanding of why they might like to buy Cisco and why they might not.

Recently I published a podcast I recorded with Heather McLeod Grant and Leslie Crutchfield, the authors of the new book Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits. I think their book is wonderful and I praised it in a recent Financial Times column I wrote about evaluating nonprofits. After the podcast was released, I received an email from one of my readers who was critical of some of the book’s conclusions. Unfortunately, the reader did not want his comments included in this article. But as much as I like Forces for Good, it is a simple fact that on as important an issue as identifying high-impact nonprofits, it should be natural for people to disagree. One of the nonprofits McLeod Grant and Crutchfield identify is Habitat for Humanity, pointing out that it has built 275,000 homes in 90 countries to house one million low-income individuals. However, a quick search of the internet pulls up a Business Week article claiming Habitat does not do enough to protect their clients from predatory lenders, Bloomberg News highlighting accusations that Habitat focuses on upscale projects at the expense of basic homes, and Stephanie Strom of the New York Times profiling Habitat’s seemingly slow pace of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.

McLeod Grant and Crutchfield think Habitat for Humanity is one of the best nonprofits in America. A number of mainstream press reports suggest problems at Habitat. That’s OK. Debate is healthy. When the guests on CNBC disagree, no one walks off in a huff thinking they have been personally attacked. Wall Street is built around a marketplace model that demands that for anything to happen there must be both a buyer and a seller. The disagreement about whether to buy or sell a stock is a necessary requirement for markets to function. Without disagreement, trade comes to a standstill

In November, I hosted an event on my blog that drew 36 guest-written opinions about philanthropy and over 200 reader comments. My favorite entry (and the one that inspired this essay) was titled “Why Philanthropy Should Embrace Controversy”. The post came from an anonymous staff member of a foundation who wrote, “These are tough issues and tough problems; we don’t agree on them and pretending we do is naive. Similarly, while it’s fine to acknowledge that philanthropy is generous and positive, on the whole, we also should acknowledge that it should involve informed decision making and a willingness to engage with the idea that one’s decision could be wrong.”

There does seem to be a small bubbling of interest in philanthropy in the benefits of critical evaluation. The year The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the James Irvine Foundation released self-critical reports that examined lessons they have learned through previous less than successful programs. This week’s Chronicle of Philanthropy has a profile of startup grantmaker GiveWell, an organization that revolves around public criticism of both themselves and other charities. Unsurprisingly the founders hail from Wall Street. Reflecting on his experience there, co-founder Holden Karnofsky says in the article, “What was really reinforced there was how much there was to be gained by surrounding yourself with what I call ‘no men,’ who are very smart, very critical, and will just constantly criticize you and tell you what you’re doing wrong.

It is OK to be wrong. If the decisions you are making are ones where you cannot engage with the idea that you might be wrong, then you are making decisions that are simply not very important. So here’s my challenge to you: What is it about your organization or a recent decision you made that might be wrong? I’ll go first. My professional training and experience is mainly from the investment management business. I believe that most donors do not understand the financial strategies of philanthropy and that someone like myself and my firm can dramatically increase the impact of the philanthropists we work with. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Wall Street types like me don’t know squat about philanthropy and just see working with philanthropists as a way to gather assets and generate fees.

Maybe I’m correct, maybe I’m not. Let’s embrace the controversy.


  1. Controversy and debate are critical to initiating change. And, to paraphrase James Carse, what does not change does not continue.