During the high performance vs. high impact debate, my position that funders should focus on high performing nonprofits rather than those with high evidence of historical impact was often criticized by people who pointed out that the only reason to be high performing was to create impact.
To which my answer was: “Of course!”
At the time, it seemed self-evident to me that the point of nonprofit work was to create impact, so the idea that a “high performing” nonprofit could choose to not focus on creating impact seemed silly to me. Like a “high performing” for-profit that didn’t try to create a profit. Doesn’t seem like that sort of mentality could have any place within a high performing organization.
But I later realized that enough nonprofit do not focus on impact, because they are focused simply on keeping their organization afloat, that I incorporated the idea of “having an absolute focus on outcomes” into my definition of a high performing nonprofit.
In the discussions about my post on the need for self-discipline and self-accountability for funders to overcome philanthropy’s “natural state of underperformance”, I’ve noticed a similar dynamic. When Christine Egger argued that funders should be focused on the needs of beneficiaries, not their own “self-discipline”, my reaction is: “Of course!”
Self-discipline and self-accountability are needed for funders to actually create impact on the lives of beneficiaries. Being a high performing nonprofit is a means to create impact. Being a disciplined funder that subjects yourself to self-accountability is a means to create impact.
In Leap of Reason, Mario Marino writes that the question that has served him best during his career is “To what end?” While urging nonprofits to focus on outcomes, he also writes about his worry that nonprofits might confuse the means with the ends and end up putting metrics over mission.
High performing organizations are a means to the ends we seek: Impact.
Self-discipline and self-accountability are means to the ends we seek: Impact.
Our focus, as Christine Egger rightly points out, should always be on our mission. Our mission should always be defined in terms of those we seek to help, not in terms of our own needs.
Philanthropy means “the love of humankind”. All the great philosophers say that the most important thing in life is to love others. But they also agree that actually doing this is hard. “Learning how to love” is the broad mission of all major religions and quite frankly is probably the best way to think about the process of becoming a great philanthropist. In order to practice “the love of humankind” you must “learn how to love.”
My point in writing about self-discipline, self-accountability and high performance is not to elevate those characteristics to ends unto themselves, but to highlight them as means to achieve the ends we seek: learning how to love.