Passion Needed For Data Driven Analysis in Philanthropy

This is a guest post by Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

By Phil Buchanan

Phil_BuchananOne of the most perplexing aspects of discussions about philanthropy that I hear and read is the tendency to portray passion and emotion and data and analysis as in tension. As if it’s zero-sum.

Add passion and emotion, reduce data and analysis by the same amount.

Add data and analysis, reduce passion and emotion commensurately.

But I don’t buy it – not for a minute. I think the interactions are much more complicated than that. Indeed, I think a real focus on doing philanthropy in a strategic, analytical, data-driven way only occurs once you hit a threshold level of passionate, emotional commitment to a cause.

Of course, I am aware of the well-documented tendency of human beings to be influenced by emotional stories over data. Michael Mauboussin, an expert on decision-making, reflected at the CEP conference last month on studies in which decisions about medical treatments are found to be more powerfully influenced by anecdotes than data.

We’ve all been there, as Mauboussin noted. He described the experience of checking out a car’s reliability data, verifying that it does very well, being all set to buy it, and then hearing from a friend, “Oh yeah, I had a buddy who had one of those: he had all these problems with it.”

“Now all of a sudden … your colleague’s buddy is casting doubt on your decision,” he said. “The stories swamp the statistics.”

But, as Mauboussin notes, this isn’t a good thing. So we should not simply accept it as human nature. We fight all kinds of baser human instincts because we think they will send us down the wrong path, and this should be among them.

The fact that emotional stories can cause people to disregard overwhelming data that would lead them to a better decision isn’t something to be celebrated or exploited for the purposes of making our points or making our presentations more compelling: it’s something to be resisted. We should use stories responsibly, when they reinforce and illustrate what the data shows.

Good decision-making is hard in life. But in philanthropy, data-driven decision-making is even tougher still, because the challenges we’re working to address are deep-seated, complex, and interdependent – and because the data is often harder to come by and more open to alternate interpretations than in other domains. The work is also more emotionally intense than it often is in business or in the lab, making the lure of decision-making that is unmoored from the data all the stronger.

But, while passion and emotion are often the problem because they can lead us astray, they’re also the solution. For it is only a passionate commitment to really getting it right – to seeing results – that can provide the will and discipline necessary to do the hard work of data-gathering, strategy formulating, assessing, and analyzing.

Indeed, why would anyone do philanthropy in a strategic, data-driven way – given how much harder it is than the alternative – were it not for their passionate, emotional commitment to making a difference?

As Ed Pauly of the Wallace Foundation wrote on the CEP Blog last month, “The reason for the tools of better philanthropy is to get results that matter.  The tools are not about polishing up our processes. They are about getting the results we are most passionate about.”

Perhaps this is why we have seen, in our research on strategy at foundations, that foundation CEOs and program officers often aren’t born strategic, they become strategic. It is often their frustration at not seeing results that leads them to a different approach – one based on clear and specific goals, coherent strategies, sound implementation, and relevant indicators against which they can gauge progress.

When the conditions are right, passion and emotion combine with data and analysis in a way that is less like oil and water and more like gin and tonic – forming something better together than each ever could be alone.


  1. Paul Brest says:

    Great post. Cuts through the rhetoric and gets it just right.

  2. Great post. I’m the CEO of WINGS for kids and we pride ourselves on our performance management system as well as our drive to achieve outcomes. However, 7 years ago, I believe we were letting our passion take over. We attempted to grow our program because we had some great emotional stories to tell. We expanded to several more sites. It only took one year in these sites to realize we were not making the differences we thought we were; great stories but no results. I’m proud to say we pulled back, re-evaluated and created a well-defined theory of change. We now have evidence to show we are achieving success. Honestly, it was hard to pull back because we had so much momentum behind our growth but now I can go to bed at night knowing we are making true impact.

  3. Phil, I agree with your post completely. However, I’m also aware of the studies that suggest that activating logical thought processes suppresses our empathy. I’m not suggesting that runs counter to your post, but I do think it is a catch-22 that we need to be aware of and try to resist. It seems too easy for someone to get involved with giving due to passion, then turn to data and analysis for the reasons you cite, but then slowly lose their passion as they fall into a data driven world that due to our neural system inevitably saps their passion.

  4. I appreciate the great comments. Sean — I have to believe, and I think you agree, that the risks are far greater in ignoring data and analysis than not, especially when we’re talking about people allocating significant philanthropic resources.

    • Actually no. I don’t want too much gin or too much tonic, either way it ruins the drink. Think of it this way, historically philanthropy has been all tonic and no gin (tastes sweet, but has no effect). The key is to add the correct amount of gin so you make the perfect drink. But I’m pointing out that the activity of adding gin tends to make people forget about the tonic and one day they find themselves thinking of gin and nothing else. They’re dataholics that forgot why they starting drinking gin and tonics in the first place.

      So the risks are balanced. All tonic (or passion) means it feels good for a minute, but doesn’t really have an effect. All gin (or data) means it has an effect, but we’re engaged in the activity for all the wrong reasons and may very well end up quitting drinking altogether.

      • Jacob M says:

        Funny enough I was talking about this very subject last night in regards to Donors Choose. I’ve often found myself conflicted about this organization. On the one hand they’ve channeled over $80M to public schools, but a quick glance at their website will highlight that a bunch of their money would probably be considered “wasted” by most standards for education resources. Teachers routinely ask for ipads, nooks, and the latest gadgets – not always textbooks and calculators.

        My dataholic friend was really appalled that Donors Choose would allow ipads and the like to be posted and funded. But I reminded my friend that philanthropy (and even micro philanthropy) is not always a zero-sum game. The donors on Donors Choose who decided to fund the ipad may have never funded the textbook.
        And even if the ipad doesn’t produce statistically significant improvements to the classes test scores, it doesn’t mean that it’s a bad thing to have in the classroom. It may motivate the teacher to stay in the profession after receiving a moral boost from the donation. These effects may be hard to see, but they’re important to the sector. Even if they don’t produce the impact that most of the education reform community cares about, perhaps it produces impact that is important to the donor. Is that such a bad thing?

        As Phil points out in his post, you have to have the stomach for the gin. It’s a lot of work and it might reveal that you haven’t been having the impact you’ve sought. And quite frankly I think most donors need time and education in order to prepare correctly. The worst case scenario for me is that a donor does not put in enough effort and makes decisions off of bad data or hasty analysis. In fact, I’d argue that the current state of poor quality data in the sector encourages donors to do this. Perhaps large foundations with the resources to invest in solid due-diligence and measurement can risk it, but the average person doing Donors Choose, Kiva, or just writing a check should probably not worry too much. Otherwise, they’ll get swayed by misleading data on overhead rates, cost per participant, or whatever marketing nonprofits can scramble to put together on their websites. And to me, making decisions on misleading data is just as toxic – if not more- than any anecdote.

        So I’ll end with Alexander Pope:
        “A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”

        • Erica Mills says:

          As a gin & tonic drinker, I loved this analogy! Inspired. Thank you, Sean, for giving me yet another way to think about a g&t.

          The data/story debate becomes clearer in my mind when I think of it as being a progressiong rather than an either/or, i.e. people are moved by stories so start with those and then transition into data to substantiate the story and prove your impact. Here’s a short video I did on the heads and hearts debate:

          I’m not sure where this quote comes from, but it seems apt: “Without logic no one will believe you. Without magic no one will care.”

          Thanks for a great post!

  5. David Lynn says:

    Great post, Phil. I think a key is turning data into communicable information. Very few people want to stare at a page of stats. But connecting data points to a story – “Joe was an at-risk kid with a horrible life, etc etc,. There’s 2,300 other kids like Joe in your city. We’ve helped 150 of them.” – makes the whole thing more powerful and valid. And that can only happen with some solid data.

    It’s hard to tell a story with data, but those are powerful stories that can increase the passion.

  6. Diane Helfrey says:

    Yes, excellent post! Love this to illustrate the connection (when done well of course): “Indeed, why would anyone do philanthropy in a strategic, data-driven way – given how much harder it is than the alternative – were it not for their passionate, emotional commitment to making a difference?”
    I expect this will be useful for SVP partners and our Social Innovation Fast Pitch alumni and 2011 participants!

  7. Thanks for all the excellent comments. As I read them, I wonder whether the gin and tonic analogy was actually a poor one. I’ll keep thinking to try to come up with a better one (and would welcome help).

    What I am arguing, as Diane points out, is that it takes passion and emotion to even be willing to do the hard work of data-driven, strategic philanthropy. So I am not sure it’s really about “balance.”
    I think the most effective philanthropic funders are both deeply passionate about, and emotionally connected to, the issues and relentlessly focused and data-driven in their approaches.

    I think Jacob is right to point out the distinction between individuals and major institutional donors. The latter is really more the world that my organization, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), inhabits. We’re generally working with major foundations that are funding in an effort to have a significant, discernable positive impact. In that world, I have rarely, if ever, heard the lament: “I wish we had worked less hard to really understand what was going on and how we could make a difference.” Nor have I heard this one: “If we had only been guided more by our hearts and by the one-off anecdotes we heard, we would have made better decisions.”

    In other words, Sean, I just haven’t seen the phenomenon you worry about – in which people become so focused on the data that they become removed from the emotional connection to why it matters – very much.

    Finally, I think we need to be broad in our definition of the word “data.” I would regard rigorously collected and analyzed feedback from those on the ground, including grantees and intended beneficiaries, as vital data for any high-performing foundation. If you are hearing that in a candid way – and part of what CEP does is to try to help funders do that – you’ll stay grounded in why it all matters.

  8. Maya says:

    Definitely sharing. Thanks, Sean and Phil.

    Sean, I haven’t been to your site in a while as I read the posts by e-mail. Wow, it looks great. Congratulations.

    ~ Maya

    The New Jew: Blogging Jewish Philanthropy

  9. Great article and comments! It definitely takes passion and faith to start with fundraising, but how can you be good at it if you don’t plan carefully and have a strategy in place?