Good Intentions vs. Good Results Part II

Saundra commented on my post about her anti-TOMS Shoes video from Friday:

“I may occasionally put things too harshly, but it’s often because I’m one of the few people out there making noise. I’ve seen some extremely questionable donor advice out there and myths and misconceptions are commonly reinforced by the people that donors turn to to make smart funding decisions. And it’s very difficult to break through these continually reinforced myths and misinformation.

In general, I think there’s too much focus on making donors feel good. Donors aren’t stupid, but I think we often treat them like delicate children. I’ve had many readers contact me and thank me for either opening their eyes or confirming what they were beginning to believe from personal experience.

In the end, my concern isn’t about the donors. It’s about the people we’re trying to help. I focus on donor education because I discovered in the field that almost all bad aid practices could be traced back to trying to attract and please donors. So giving donors very real information is critical to me, and yes it does often show that they made bad funding mistakes in the past. But they did this because it was the best decision they could make given the information they had access to.”

Saundra is one of the people pushing the shift from Intentions to Results. I enjoy her blog and think she’s a great source on effective development practices. My point was not to argue that people like Saundra should not ring the alarm about situations where good intentions are not in fact creating good results. Instead, I just think that this line of argument isn’t enough.

When I wrote:

“The Good Results shift in philanthropy is not going to really take off until the effective philanthropy movement figures out how to appreciate people’s good intentions while simultaneously working to channel intentions that do not produce results into more productive efforts.”

I was trying to suggest that we can’t just point to what is wrong with philanthropy that focuses on intentions only. We must also find ways to make effective philanthropy just as satisfying as intentions focused giving.

Saundra says that she isn’t concerned about the donors, that she’s focused on the people we’re trying to help. But donors are the ones giving the money. Her argument might feel good to someone who is focused on results, but it is the equivalent to a business person saying they don’t care about customers because they’re only focused on their shareholders. Donors are philanthropy. There is no philanthropy without donors. So we must focus on donors and find ways to channel good intentions into good results.

As a field we need people like Saundra to alert donors that their good intentions are not enough. But a quick google search of TOMS Shoes will show you that they have engaged a huge number of people who, even if misguided, are passionately trying to do something they think will help. We need to find ways to rechannel that passion, not extinguish it.

I agree with Saundra that the social sector often treats donors like delicate children. It is important that we tell donors when their requests or efforts are misguided. But we need to find ways to lead donors to more effective approaches to philanthropy rather than just stopping them in their tracks.

Good intentions may not be enough. But good results can’t happen without the good intentions of donors.


  1. Brigid says:

    I am very glad to see this discussion between Sean and Saundra. Two thoughts:

    Sean, you’ve pointed out the parallels between philanthropy and the medical field from a few generations ago. One philosophy from medicine that would be an excellent adaptation for the philanthropy field is “First do no harm.” If every donor had this as their mantra, do encourage and spread and achieve as much good as possible but First Do No Harm, that would mitigate so much of what Saundra is bringing to light.

    Other point: there are two types of errors in philanthropy. One is what Saundra points out: when things go wrong because of philanthropy (i.e. donors did more harm than good). This is a data set that’s growing, and rightfully so. What I haven’t ever seen is data on the other type of error: when things go wrong because there was NO philanthropy. (Here’s a post on this through the lens of statistical errors) Probably I haven’t seen it because it would be impossible to measure. But knowing there’s two ways for error can lead to a more reasoned, hopefully high-impact middle path.

  2. I think the word you’re looking for is “tact,” as in the ability to transmit an unpleasant message in an inoffensive way. We need to tactfully educate donors about programs that work, why they work, and how much more satisfying maximizing effectiveness is.