Does Philanthropy Value Intuition?

The response to my post about intuition was rather dramatic. Reader Kimberley MacKenzie’s response was, “So reassuring for us who live mostly on the right!”; which seemed to be characteristic of many people’s feelings.

What’s interesting to me though is that I have yet to have anyone argue that I’m wrong. No one seems to think that intuition and other Right Brain ways of thinking are any less valuable than logic and Left Brain activities.

Even Hewlett Foundation president Paul Brest, who debated Bill Somerville’s intuition led approach to philanthropy during the Tactical Philanthropy Forum agreed with my post when he wrote:

I agree with Sean and Ian. The article is essentially about how one develops and uses expertise.

The sergeant depicted in the article, whose affective responses led him to sense the presence of an I.E.D. before he could articulate how he knew, is typical of an expert in any field — a firefighter, physician, or program officer–whose intuitions develop through a mixture of theory, practice, and reflection on practice. It is conscious, cognitive after-the-fact reflection about the situation and what went right or wrong that hones the intuitions for the next on-the-spot judgment.

For those who want to read more about the process, Gary Klein has written much about it.

So if the author of a book on Strategic Philanthropy and a proponent of logic model based philanthropy thinks intuition is on par with logic, and no one seems to have raised any objection to this equality of thought processes, why did so many people read my post and feel that I was sticking up for something that isn’t normally valued?

If everyone agrees that emotional, intuitive, Right Brain approaches are just as important as logical, analytical, Left Brain approaches, why don’t the “Right Brain people” amongst our ranks feel that their way of thinking is not as valued as Left Brainers?


  1. Good question. I think that by presenting them on equal footing, you’re obscuring somewhat the fact that left-brain thinking has not traditionally had all that much of a role in philanthropy. I think that the au courant focus on “outcomes-based grantmaking,” logic models, data resources, and the like is largely a response to this historical perception of philanthropy as being largely free of analytical thought. As a result, the data advocates are the ones who get all the attention now, because they are the ones pushing for change. It’s just more unusual to hear somebody “sticking up” for intuition as you have, especially for someone who is as interested as you in the potential for new forms and uses of data. Ultimately, though, it’s hard to argue with the notion that intuition and analysis should be in balance, especially since nature gives us a pretty giant clue with the way that our brains are actually structured.

  2. Excellent point Ian. Obviously, my post reflected a way in which I’m in an echo chamber of people who advocate for Left Brain Approaches. Of course you are right that historically, Left Brain Approaches had no place in philanthropy.

    I guess what it means is that the Left Brainers have stormed into philanthropy and rejected the Right Brain approach (it is often easier to reject the old when you have something new to say than it is to incorporate the new into the older framework. But that isn’t usually the best way).

    Since many of the most visible people in philanthropy today are Left Brain-types, the Right Brainers might feel a degree of relief to have a Left Brainer like myself argue that Right Brain approaches are just as important.

    Separation, than integration. I think it is time for the Left Brainers and Right Brainers to integrate their approaches.

  3. I think Brest’s comment, “It is conscious, cognitive after-the-fact reflection about the situation and what went right or wrong that hones the intuitions for the next on-the-spot judgment,” is right on the money.

    Gladwell’s Blink is all about how intuition can work as well or better than detailed analysis, but often that “intuition” is a skill developed through years of learning or practice.

    In terms of its applicability to philanthropic decision-making, intuition should be treated with caution. Gladwell provides the counter-example to effective intuition-based decisions: Warren Harding. To all appearances, he was the perfect candidate: presidential in appearance, demeanor, and voice. In office, though, he proved to be entirely inept.


  4. Thanks for the comment Neuromarketing. I just checked out your blog, fascinating stuff.

    I’m not a very good person to argue this point, because I myself am an analytical Left Brainer. But on the other hand I’m a good person to make the argument for the same reason.

    I agree that intuition should be treated with caution. See this list of common cognitive biases and you’ll note that our intuitive responses often fail us. At the same time, committed Left Brainers make many, if not more, of these mistakes as Right Brainers.

    At the end of the day, much of the new work in philanthropy has been a move away from the traditional intuitive/emotional setting where acts of social good have traditional sat. I’m just saying that rejecting the Right Brain is the wrong approach. We must apply a synthesis of approaches and not dismiss the Right Brain based on the idea that these approaches are not rigorous enough.

  5. Suzanne says:

    If you look at many of the job posting for foundation jobs or if you listen to most foundation CEOs speak, everything is couched in terms of research & data. Fdns want to hire program officers who either have research backgrounds or know how to manage research. CEOs like to talk about how their foundations are data & outcome driven. I have never seen a job posting that says “we want someone who is intuitive” nor have I ever heard a CEO brag about staff moving a big agenda based on right brain thinking. It is not valued. So, regardless of everyone thinking your post was dead on, I think the evidence speaks for itself.