Embracing Creative Tension in Philanthropy

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.

After the Monitor Institute meeting this spring where I first hear the phrase, I posted about the concept:

“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”.


  1. Sean, Good post, but I continue to see this as a false choice. Passionate commitment and dispassionate analysis go hand in hand. Why would you do the latter without the former? For more on this, including a great comment from David Hunter, see http://tinyurl.com/28ty2de

    • Phil, what exactly do you see as a false choice? I didn’t mention passionate commitment and dispassionate analysis. However, >a href=”https://www.tacticalphilanthropy.com/sean-stannard-stockton-philanthropy-columns/making-charitable-appeals-to-donors-hearts-and-heads”>studies show that dispassionate analysis does in fact reduce passionate empathy, so there is a clear creative tension in place there as well.

      • Sean, I think Frumkin’s piece, which you quote approvingly, paints a picture of a choice between the “technocratic” and the “rationalistic” (his words) or between passionate commitment and dispassionate analysis (my words). At the most impressive philanthropic institutions I have seen, leaders reject the notion that to embrace rigor is to check your heart at the door. It’s because of your passion that you do the hard work and analysis required to maximize impact. Phil

  2. Paul Brest says:

    Sean is right that our field tends to bury conflicts, but in this case the role of his and Peter Frumkin’s two categories is truly “both/and”—assuming (as I think Sean will agree) that the ultimate goal is to achieve social outcomes (rather than, say, the philanthropist’s self-expression).
    The two categories that Peter Frumkin describe actually map on to what psychologists and behavioral economists call System 1 and System 2 processing. (Frumkin uses reverse terminology, calling System 1 Category 2, and System 2, Category 1).
    System 1 is intuitive, unconscious, and quick; System 2 is analytic and deliberative. If only because humans simply lack the cognitive power to do a lot of System 2 analysis, System 1 plays an essential role in our decision making. When informed by reflective experience, System 1 can embody the expertise that allows for good judgments by physicians and program officers alike. But System 1 is highly prone to judgmental biases and errors (including stereotyping) that only System 2 analysis can correct. Much of the contemporary work in cognitive and social psychology focuses on these correctives.
    In considering developing or assessing a strategy or making a particular grant, a savvy funder moves back and forth between intuition and analysis, constantly checking the results of one process with another.

  3. I agree absolutely that the 3rd sector needs to embrace creative tension. However, I don’t understand how validating the “both/and” leads to ignoring the tension of differing goals. It seems to me that when we embrace the need for “both/and” (heart vs analysis, science vs art – however you wish to call it) we automatically place ourselves in the tension.

    As someone who entered the world of philanthropy from theology, the tension is very familiar. In Christian theology we call it the tension between the “already and the not yet” when referring to what God has done vs what the church is (should be) doing.

    As an annual giving officer who is far more passionate than analytical I begrudgingly ask for hard analysis of my appeal results so I can make better judgments regarding design of future appeals. It is a must…otherwise I am guided simply by my own passions….which, I must admit, have gotten me into trouble more than once! Yet, without my passion I would be at loss regarding where to even begin crafting an appeal.

    While it is not usually easy, living in the tension is a healthy place to live. You know, I hate the smell of manure and I don’t like to take the time to apply it but, I know when I do apply it my crop is always more robust. The question is, “Am I (insert 3rd sector leader or donor name here) willing to do the stuff I don’t like in order to be better?”