The Necessity of Debate in Philanthropy

One of the reasons the field of philanthropy tends to avoid disagreement and debate is that it seems uncouth to criticize someone who is taking a voluntary action in an attempt to help the greater good. But I’ve always felt that debate is one of the most critical elements needed to forge a high impact social sector and avoid the mushy middle ground of good intentions that don’t actually make a difference.

Recently, watching a sitcom of all things, I heard a character utter a line that perfectly captures my view of the role of debate and disagreement in philanthropy.

"Those who do not agree with us are not the enemy, they are the goal."

Philanthropy is all about creating change in the world. If we think about those with whom we disagree as our “goal” instead of our “enemy”, then philanthropic debate becomes a mechanism for inducing change in the world, not something to be avoided.

The emergence of robust, online philanthropic discussions has been an important platform for stirring debate. This process of idea generation, remixing, refining and development may be leading to philanthropy’s own period of rapid innovation. But in order to get there, we need more people to engage in these debates.

If you believe in a future of high impact philanthropy then you need to embrace and encourage debate in our field while always remembering that those who do not agree with you are not the enemy, they are the goal.


  1. Brigid says:

    Re: “avoid the mushy middle ground of good intentions that don’t actually make a difference”

    Add to this: avoiding the horrible realm of good intentions that inadvertently do real harm.

  2. Janet Levinger says:

    I agree that discussion is vital and that those who disagree are NOT our enemies. But I don’t agree that are the goal either – those who disagree with us (if they do so in a civil way) should be a catalyst for deeper thinking and further shaping of our ideas.

    • Good point Janet. I agree that the long term point of debate is to improve our own thinking as well as others. I certainly feel that I learn a ton from writing tactical philanthropy, it isn’t just about me trying to change other people’s minds.

  3. Thank you for this post, Sean. It strikes me that for a long time and across many topics, there was insufficient evidence to form the basis of meaningful debate. Arguments primarily based on ideology, and personal opinions about how the world *should* work, could feel very threatening as a result. No wonder folks shied away.

    Over the past decade-plus, however, a richer basis of evidence has come into play — but it seems that perhaps old norms die hard? Even the language presents barriers to engagement, and in my experience, many well-intentioned new philanthropists may lurk for a while but still don’t always know how to enter the dialogue. Couldn’t agree more that real dialogue about what it takes to get results on the issues we care about (in plain English, not philanthrobabble) can only help philanthropists and other decision-makers clarify their values and priorities, and make better decisions over time. As always, thank you for being a useful force pulling this thread forward…

    • That’s very interesting Susan. Debating people’s beliefs truly can be in bad form. Debating what actually works is not. That’s an interesting point and also highlights my intention behind the philanthropy compass. If we can map out people’s beliefs, than we can stop debating belief-focused issues and focus on what works taking certain goals/beliefs as assumptions rather than debatable elements.

  4. Sean, you once again capture the innate flabbiness of too many profesisonal do-gooders. “…avoid the mushy middle ground of good intentions”, indeed!
    It is high past time for a robust discussion. I thought Paul Brest’s critical analysis of the NCRP’s “Criteria” was gong to be the watershed moment. Nothing like telling folks their babies are ugly to keep the conversation lively!
    Your TV quote reminds me of Pogo’s famous observation,”We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

  5. Sean.

    I’d wholly agree that debate is healthy, but within some basic parameters that ensure respect and move the greater issue forward.

    .. and I would also agree that for those who do not agree with us are not the enemy, and that our goal (if we are to assume that we are truly on the right side of the argument) should be to work hard for their buy in… but at times, while not the enemy, they are certainly a barrier than needs to overcome or worked around for the greater good.

    Which is at times an important lesson it itself. You don’t always need to achieve a goal to fulfill a mission. Work hard. build. Execute… and then educated.


  6. Yes, I agree on your “within some basic parameters” point. That’s why I like the quote, if you with people you’re debating with as your goal instead of enemy, then it only stands to reason to debate with respect and to listen to the other side of your argument.