Paul Brest Responds

To recap: Paul Brest and I got into a private discussion about the validity of foundations crafting a Theory of Change as part of their Strategic Philanthropy. Paul suggested that we have the conversation in public on our blogs to invite wider participation. Paul ran a guest post from me on his blog last week. Below you’ll find an excerpt from Paul’s response. You can visit his blog to see his full post as well as the full text of my guest post.

From Paul’s post:

Why Evidence is Essential in Defining the Missions of Non-Profits

With characteristic cogency, Sean Stannard-Stockton’s guest post raises a crucial question about strategic philanthropy’s requirement of an evidence-based theory of change. Sean says that this is an error because the social world is too dynamic and complex for philanthropists and the nonprofit organizations they support to base social interventions on evidence.

Let me begin with a point of vehement agreement–the value of building great organizations–and then turn to our major point of disagreement. I believe that a great nonprofit organization is ultimately only as good as its theory of change.

…I agree that social systems are incredibly complex, and that philanthropy based on social science is usually much less certain that philanthropy based on the natural sciences. That said, there is considerable knowledge about what works and what doesn’t work in particular contexts.

…But isn’t the jury still out on many other social interventions designed to improve people’s lives? Sure–just as the jury was out for decades on one of the most complex issues of natural science ever faced by humankind, the causes of global warming. In these deeply uncertain circumstances, philanthropy and nonprofit management can only make bets and observe the outcomes.

You can read his full response here.