The Test of a First Rate Philanthropist

On Monday I spoke at the Jewish Funders Network conference in Philadelphia on the challenges of integrating the knowledge of the head and the knowledge of the heart. My core point was that it is not as simple as saying we need both, because there are in fact tensions between the two types of knowledge. When we try to avoid the difficult task of reconciling the sometimes opposing types of knowledge by simple saying we need both, we fall into what Michael Edwards evocatively called the “soggy middle ground”.

We know that logical thinking reduces empathy and so drawing on the knowledge of the head reduces our urge to give. At the same time, we know that emotional thinking urges us to take the actions that will most satisfy our need to help rather than meet the needs of those we seek to help. Both types of knowledge are needed. But combining them is a tricky proposition.

In crafting my presentation, I came across this quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“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.”

It occurs to me that applying this quote to philanthropy might yield,

“The test of a first-rate philanthropist is the ability to use their head and their heart at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”


  1. This is an intriguing twist on a great quote. Is it too pushy to say that spending the time up front to get to know the needs of your community (through a community foundation or other resource) can allow you to follow your heart in meaningful ways? If you do your homework ahead of time (and keep checking in to make sure the organizations you love are doing their jobs effectively), you can afford to respond with heartfelt gifts that meet specific needs in the moment.

    • Yes, I think that the most emotionally satisfying gift is one that you believe actually made a difference. That means you’ll need to convince your mind that you actually made a difference in order for your heart to fully rejoice.