Does Empathy Get in the Way of Evaluation in Philanthropy?

Tactical Philanthropy is currently covering the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Melinda Tuan of Melinda Tuan Consulting.

By Melinda Tuan

image Yesterday’s opening plenary speaker, Dev Patnaik of Jump Associates, spoke about the importance of empathy in our grantmaking work. He was a very engaging speaker and told a lot of great stories about companies that are good at empathy (e.g. Nike, Harley Davidson)—meaning they understand that “we are them and they are us” when it comes to thinking about their “customers.” He closed his talk by encouraging foundations to increase their empathy for the nonprofit organizations and communities we serve by 1) getting outside, 2) bringing the outside in, and 3) making it a habit. This is all good and important, even essential to do, but that’s not what I’m concerned about.

I’m concerned about a comment Patnaik made towards the end of his presentation that evaluation gets in the way of empathy (paraphrased). He encouraged us to use stories and pictures to talk about the impact of our work, instead of hard, quantitative measures. To me, it sounded like he was saying that evaluation is the enemy of empathy.
Okay, maybe this is a slight over reaction, and truth be told I am a big fan of evaluating our work (caveat: when done properly!) But I was further concerned by comments people made in the first breakout session I attended yesterday on “Breakthroughs in Social Impact Measurement”. One person apologized for talking about measurement given that we just heard about how we needed to have more empathy. Another person wondered how we can reconcile evaluation with empathy.

Evaluation is not the enemy of empathy.

In conversations with many nonprofit leaders I’ve heard again and again that they want to know whether what they’re doing works. They want to know how they can improve what they’re doing. They want to know how their work compares to that of their colleagues and the field as a whole. These are the same things that funders want to know. “We are them and they are us.”

I think the place where funders do need to have more empathy is to understand how very, very hard it is to do evaluation and that proper evaluations require a lot more resources and support than most funders provide. As Jeff Edmonson of Strive commented on their work to develop their measurement system, “This sounds like a straight road, when it’s really not…it’s very messy and incredibly difficult.” I suspect very few funders provide all the resources required for the evaluation consultants, hardware, software, technology training, technology maintenance and staff time to engage in evaluating the effectiveness of their work.

Do you know how much it really costs your grantees to do evaluations? Do you think evaluation is the enemy of empathy? Don’t you think the best evaluations are, to quote Suzanne Muchin from ROI Ventures from the session on Leveraging Grantmaker Knowledge and Networks , “a balance of head and heart”?


  1. This is such a tough issue. On the one hand I agree that balancing “head and heart” is key. But there actually is real evidence that evaluation IS the enemy of empathy. Simply activating the logical parts of our brain turns off our empathy.

    I wrote about this issue here.

    This doesn’t in the least mean that we should not do evaluations. But I think it is key that we recognize that their is a creative tension between empathy and evaluation.

  2. Empathy and evaluation sounds a little like apples and oranges to me. Is the question really about using qualitative or quantitative data for evaluation? You really should evaluate a program using both, but many tend to lean too heavily on quantitative evaluation (numbers, grafts, measurement etc). Qualitative data (stories, pictures, outcomes) are sometimes discounted when they shouldn’t be. Empathy is used in qualitative data collection to try and understand others from their own perspective.

  3. Melinda: Thank you so very much for this post. I agree with you entirely, had the same reaction, and am so tired of the false dichotomies. Of course empathy and measures are not in tension. At the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), the measures of grantee perceptions we have developed allow foundations to develop new understandings of the grantee experience — yes, empathy — as a result of rigorously collected quantitative and qualitative data. Our YouthTruth initiative helps funders (as well as school leaders) understand the experiences of high school students — increasing their empathy for students. And, in my view, nothing shows less empathy for intended beneficiaries of your work than a disregard for whether it is truly effective! That is why GEO’s work with the Social Innovation Fund is so exciting — because of its emphasis on really understanding and supporting what works. The most effective funders and nonprofits over the decades are the ones that have rejected the false choice between head and heart that so many posit — because it simply doesn’t make sense.

    Phil Buchanan

  4. Jeff Jackson says:

    Thanks for the postings. Agreed.

    Folks at the Global Fund for Children have recently revamped their grantmaking evaluation framework (including 21 best practices from peer-foundations) and in February convened about 25 “smallish” global grantmakers to share evaluation experiences. GEO helped facilitate this meeting. Findings should be out soon and given the comments during the convening, I think the findings will be informative for big and small foundations. Issues of art/science, evaluation/empathy, qualitative/quantitative should be addressed. I hope it’s OK to say contact Victoria Dunning at Global Fund for Children if interested in the findings (if not, shoot me Victoria).