I can’t get this idea that there is a “creative tension” between measuring and maximizing impact out of my head. As someone who advocates for philanthropy to focus on both measuring and maximizing impact, the ramifications of the idea that the two goals are at odds to some extent is significant.
Let’s get clear on the concept of “creative tension”. In some cases, two goals can be fully aligned. The pursuit of one fully advances the pursuit of the other. In other cases, two goals can be mutually exclusive. The pursuit of one goal directly detracts from the pursuit of the other. A “creative tension” exists when you fully acknowledge existing tensions between two positive goals and wrestle with the tension in a way that promotes new thinking, better actions and smarter solutions.
“During the Monitor Institute workshop on the future of philanthropy, one of the themes that resonated with me was the need for philanthropy to get comfortable with the creative tension between opposing goals. One of those creative tension pairs was Innovation vs. Effectiveness. The idea was that we need to reject the idea of one vs the other and instead relish the creative tension that exists between the two.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Yet at the same time, the concept of cognitive dissonance proposes that holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously generates an uncomfortable feeling and so people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, or by justifying or rationalizing them.”
I’m reminded of the excellent post that Peter Frumkin wrote for Philanthropy Central about what he called Category One and Category Two philanthropic process:
“Let’s define two categories of philanthropic processes. The first is technocratic, rationalistic, and ordered: It includes program positioning and issue research, alignment and coordination across initiatives, logic model drafting, white paper or concept paper development, proposal reviewing, adapting and applying new information technologies, program evaluation design and implementation, and all the other day-to-day professional work that goes into modern philanthropy…
Now consider what might be called the more humanistic, interpretive, and adaptive work in philanthropy, which really comes down to judging the capacity, character, resilience, intelligence, and resourcefulness of the people who seek philanthropic funds. This is the kind of ill-defined and untheorized work that comes down to judgment and gut assessment by the donor of the person sitting across the desk from them. Call this Category Two work.”
Peter went on to worry that while Category One processes were systematic, teachable and readily convertible into tools and frameworks, Category Two processes were largely unsystematic, difficult to teach and hard to convert into repeatable frameworks yet were just (if not more) important then Category One Processes.
Of course we know that Category One AND Category Two processes are important. We know innovation AND effectiveness is needed. We know measuring AND maximizing impact is critical.
Yet, the social sector is often far too quick to shout out that the answer is we need “Both/And, not Either/Or!” The mistake in this approach is that rather than grappling with the creative tension between different goals, we instead ignore the tension in our hurry to validate the importance of the different goals.
This aggressive dislike of of tension in our field is pervasive. Given all of the online and offline debates that I’ve tried to facilitate, I regularly receive feedback that I’m somehow creating a conflict where none exists. Those who dislike tension often argue that a “false dichotomy” is being put forward. They argue that since obviously both innovation and effectiveness (for example) are important, arguing about a tension between the two is a “false dichotomy” and then quickly proclaim that it is a situation of “both/and not either/or.”
I want a philanthropy that embraces tension, revels in the paradoxical nature of social change and refuses to settle for what Michael Edwards evocatively called the “soggy middle ground”.