Problems vs. Paradoxes in Philanthropy

I’m always amazed at how differently my remarks can be interpreted. The follow two comments were left regarding my post from yesterday about measuring impact at a wedding:


Comparing a ‘moment’ at a wedding to changing peoples lives is an apples to oranges comparison. This argument does not hold water.

For a ‘low hanging fruit’ example, look at measuring the impact of an organization whose mission it is to combat chronic homelessness. Either a person is chronically homeless, or not. We may quibble over the definition of chronic homelessness. It may be expensive to track the homeless to know whether there has been a relapse. But it is most certainly not a ‘fantasy.’

Looking at a harder case, say an organization whose mission it is to increase democracy, one may argue that measuring the impact here is truly impossible.

If that organization has a clearly articulated mission, supported by a theory of change, and well developed strategies and program logic flow to inform their tactics, then they will necessarily be measuring impact. Whether this be the number of youth registered to vote in a given timeframe, or the number of contributors to a given blog.

The challenge here is NOT that it is a fantasy. The challenge is that it is time intensive and thus expensive.

We, as nonprofit professionals, should not write off impact and attribute it to some kind of wizardry that is as allusive as a magical moment at a wedding.

Rather, we should seek to innovate around how to reduce the cost of outcome/impact measurement and improve our methods. We should also be discussing how we balance the cost of impact measurement with the challenge of allocating capital in our organizations with imperfect information.

These are the real issues. This should be the real discussion.

And then…

Christine Egger:
Sean, what a beautiful post. This touches directly on the important stuff, for me: the ephemeral, completely qualitative, terribly important work of paying attention to what it means to have generated something good. Where you use the word impact, I usually use the word meaning — what meaning, what value, has been created because a certain process (activity, engagement) took place?

One of your statements in particular made me smile: “In a perfect world we would measure the impact, compare it to the cost of achieving said impact, and we’d be able to perfectly allocate resources to the highest impact projects.”

I smiled because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about words like perfect, and how they tempt us to arrange our options-for-action along a straight line, from less perfect to more perfect. I’m honestly not sure that straight line exists anywhere, except for just a split second if that, and only in our imagination. In other words, the fantasy isn’t that perfect picture you painted, but the concept of perfection itself.

Physicist David Bohm, among others, spent a lot of time thinking about the difference between problems — which set things up in a straight line (problem-solution, cause-effect) — and paradoxes — which are problematic situations created by very nonlinear situations. Those are situations where you couldn’t line things up one after another if you wanted to, because their very definitions looped around among each other.

Engaging with paradoxes — understanding them, working within them to improve a situation — is very different from problem-solving. I like to think we’re gradually recognizing that much of what philanthropists grapple with are paradoxes, not problems. Your post is an example of that, ending with a call to recognize rather than to find a solution.

And the metaphor of a wedding planner is really helpful, too. The most that we can do in wanting to create philanthropic experiences is to create a set of conditions that encourage and support philanthropy. That’s still plenty of work, but it’s very different from creating a set of *causes* that *result* in philanthropy.

We should seek to create the conditions that turn a gesture of giving (money, time, attention, knowledge) into a gesture of compassion (rather than a gesture of pity, or patronizing charity) but we can’t program it. I’m not sure we’d want to even if we could.

If it were any other way – if you really could generate that spark by planning to the nth degree — the spark wouldn’t mean what it does. That moment at the wedding wouldn’t have been magical, I suspect, if it really *could* have been it would have been programmed.

Perhaps we should be actively generating tools that help us recognize this impact we seek, and leave the measuring for those things that do line up in straight rows…

I am often seduced by David’s way of thinking. It would be so neat and tidy if philanthropy was like a science. But it’s not. It is a blend of social sciences and finance. And no matter what finance people like to believe, finance is part art and part science. While in science, most experts agree (for instance that gravity pulls you towards the ground, it doesn’t push you towards the sky), in finance experts disagree all the time (we’re in a recession! No, things are OK and the market is going higher!)

Philanthropy, like finance and the social sciences is difficult and messy and beautiful and powerful. It cannot be programmed or “proven” like some mathmatical theorem, but it can be approached strategically with strong measurement and evidence based decision making.


  1. Sean, thanks for highlighting this exchange in a second post. I agree that philanthropy is both art and science (and would suggest that science is both, also, but that’s a topic for another blog…).

    I also agree with your concluding statement, that it can be approached “strategically with strong measurement and evidence based decision making.”

    That phrase “evidence based” is the key: what evidence are we actively looking for and including in our analysis, our decision-making? If it’s only the stuff that can be measured, or only the stuff that can’t, we’re missing half the picture. The qualitative and the quantitative are both equally real, I’d argue, and it’s important to have conversations about both. Thanks for creating a rare opportunity to do that here.

  2. Christine,

    Well said. Stories (and other qualitative information) are even more compelling when they support quantitative assessment. In order to track the needle on the dashboard of impact, you need to create the dashboard. The stories are all of the great sights along the way.