What’s The Evidence For Evidence-Based Theories of Change?

I have a guest post up today on Paul Brest’s blog Strategic Philanthropy in which I challenge a core assumption from his book Money Well Spent. Here’s an excerpt. Head on over to his blog to check out the full post. His response will be up tomorrow:

In Paul’s book Money Well Spent and on this blog he has advanced a theory of strategic philanthropy that includes eight points:

1. A problem-solving orientation;
2. Clear goals;
3. A logical strategy for how one’s efforts can help achieve those goals, based on
4. A sound analysis of the problem and an evidence-based theory of change;
5. Good information about individuals and entities that can address the problem (i.e. thorough due diligence);
6. Sufficient resources, whether individual or aggregated, applied to achieving the goal, over a sufficient period of time;
7. Commitment to measuring progress and results and to making changes accordingly; and
8. An “expected-return attitude” that takes appropriate account of risk.

Recently I’ve been discussing this framework with Paul and after a few back and forth emails he suggested that we continue the discussion on our respective blogs. Unlike most of the writing I do, where I advance a specific opinion, this series of posts will be a live discussion in which I have not made up my mind but am skeptical of part of Paul’s framework. This is me going through the process of forming an opinion in public. I hope you’ll join in the fray.

…I agree with almost all of Paul’s eight points, although I would suggest that they are a framework for good philanthropy and not unique to a “strategic philanthropist.” The one point that I think defines the current practice of Strategic Philanthropy is the second half of point #4, “[Having] an evidence-based theory of change.” I believe that this point, the defining element of the way strategic philanthropy is practiced, is deeply flawed.

…The “theory of change” concept draws on the practices of scientific discovery. Social systems, however, are relatively resistant to scientific analysis. As philanthropy attempts to affect dynamic, human-influenced systems, I wonder if we might need to give up the search for the perfect theory of change and instead embrace what might be called Capital Market Philanthropy by focusing our philanthropic efforts on building great organizations.

Click here to read my full argument.


  1. Thank you, Sean. A lot. What “evidence-based” does not take into account is that the work of “changing the world” (however one defines “world” – it could be a square block) is relatively new in the history of civilization. If we do not experiment and try new things – if we focus only on what has proven to work in the past – what opportunities we are missing!

    Our potential lies in our creativity – our ability to synthesize and springboard not only from what has worked, but sometimes from what has NOT worked!

    While in some areas of life, evidence-based is a sound way to go (I would prefer a doctor prescribe a drug that has some evidence behind it!), when it comes to how we evolve as societies, our potential is in what we can envision, and how we work together to create a path towards that vision.

    Thanks for so strongly standing behind that point.


  2. What’s the Evidence For Evidence-Based Theories of Social Change? http://is.gd/eZOH Great post at Tactical Philanthropy blog