Rigor & Moral Clarity in Philanthropy

MoralsIn a speech last fall, outgoing president of the Atlantic Philanthropies Gara LaMarche spoke about “reclaiming the moral life of philanthropy”. In his speech, he discusses the need for a re-invigoration of moral discourse, especially within the effective philanthropy movement.

After discussing the rise of evidence-based philanthropy and noting his own foundation’s support of the effectiveness movement, LaMarche said:


“At times it seems to me as if this movement has strayed too far from why anyone should be concerned about effectiveness at all, from passion about the deep and tenacious societal inequities that move anyone to philanthropy in the first place…

The effectiveness movement is now finding, I believe, that there is no real constituency for effectiveness as such… because it is values that move people to enthusiasm and action, not more sterile concepts of metrics and results.

…I have come to believe we need to re-invigorate our moral discourse.”

I only just read the speech today and was struck by LaMarche’s point ringing so true to me in the wake of my recent post about the practice of effective philanthropy being at its core a process of “learning how to love”.

The effectiveness movement is driven mostly, I think, by people who care deeply about creating a better world, who have deep moral beliefs, but who reject the idea that morality is unconnected to facts. While many people may hold beliefs about, for example, the best way to educate the citizens of a nation, the effectiveness movement contends that those beliefs should be connected to evidence about what actually works and stands ready to change their beliefs should new evidence emerge.

This readiness to switch their beliefs about means, does not imply a weak set of beliefs about ends. LaMarche argues that the badge of moral clarity must not be ceded to those who hold tight to their beliefs about means – whom LaMarche criticizes for a holding a “don’t-confuse-me-with-the-facts” attitude (while LaMarche speaks about this issue with a heavy political hand, I think the point is true regardless of your political leanings).

In Mario Morino’s book Leap of Reason, a core example of the effective philanthropy movement’s point of view, he warns that metrics must never trump mission and urges the reader to always ask the question “To what end?”.

It is through Mario’s question that I think rigor and moral clarity can be reconciled in philanthropy. The effective philanthropy movement should be animated by strong moral clarity about ends, about creating a just and meaningful world. But the movement is right to reject the idea that there should be a moral basis to means, that the question of how we create the world we want should be based on pre-conceived beliefs about how we wish the world worked rather than on an evidence-based understanding of how the world actually does work.


  1. Great post, Sean. Makes me think about how much I’ve been trying to do both equally well:

    Holding beliefs that are connected to evidence about what actually works and standing ready to change them should new evidence emerge


    basing my questions of how we create the world we want on equally ready-to-change beliefs about how we wish the world worked.

    Seems to require challenging blends of pragmatism and idealism, openness and compass-holding. And high tolerance for creative tension, which some days I shoulder better than others.

    Maybe I’m wasting time and effort, holding both, but I can’t seem to let the second one go. (It seems that my definition of faith resides there, with all of the power and potential that word implies, because I’ve had a couple of experiences where the evidence wouldn’t have, well, been evident without the “wishing for” first.)

    Are there terms under which you would soften the either-or of the language in the post above, or did I mis-interpret what you wrote? (not sure I interpreted the last comment correctly)

    • correction: that should read “last comma”

    • The last sentence was meant to say that we should reject operating based on how we wished the world worked. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t wish to change the world. You are right to note the creative tension. My point is just to suggest that moral clarity about where you want to go is good. Unwavering beliefs about how to get there can be problematic.

      • Gabi says:

        Ever since I read this post I have been wondering (ok, more like talking to myself) about the “moral basis to means”. I understand why you and Morino are encouraging folks not to get too rigid about a single approach or a single means, as we risk missing what’s actually happening in actual people and actual organization’s lives. But I do think that the means to an end can be a moral question without having to trump mission or having to muddle moral clarity.

        I say this from first hand experience. At IssueLab we often think of the problem we are trying to solve as not just being a technical issue but also a moral one. How can archiving or indexing or building information systems be moral issues? Well, when the current means to cataloguing, indexing, and making information broadly available is so insidiously un-democratic that’s a moral issue. And when marginalized organizations or communities have less access to both the information resources and the resources for sharing information, that’s a moral issue. The moral element is really the justice element in “information justice”. So you might say that the means in this case, building a more “efficient” information infrastructure (grrr that word!), isn’t just an exercise in efficiency, it’s reallt part of addressing an underlying moral issue.

        I also have to think about the history of feminist organizing and the very purposeful attention that organizers have given to the means as a moral issue. Consensus-based decision making, collaborative processes, and attention to the micro-dynamics of organizational power all come out of a commitment to the morality of means.

        So, yeh, sometimes we get stuck on stupid about particular approaches, methodologies, or control fantasies, “if they just did it my way!!” 🙂 but for some folks the effort of trying to make things work better (not just more efficiently) comes out of that very same place of love you described a few days ago. Love for the person who at the end of the day relies on that nonprofit and love for the nonprofit worker who wants to do more with a little.

        • Thanks Gabi. I agree with the thrust of what you’re talking about. Sometimes means are part of the ends! I didn’t mean to imply that somehow philanthropists should have a ruthless focus on ends and not care at all how we get there. But too often philanthropic goals are described in terms of means instead of ends.

          Mario talks about the question, “to what end”? I’ve sometimes simply asked my clients “why?” when they state a goal of theirs. For instance, while many people say they support education, they really see education as a means to “solve poverty”, “drive economic growth”, “raise engaged citizens”.

          How we do things can have important moral implications. But if we maintain moral clarity about our ends and stay flexible about means, I think that we can “-reinvigorate the moral discourse” while remaining committed to effective philanthropy.

      • Gotcha. Two thumbs up. Thx 😉

  2. Geri Stengel says:

    A good mantra, “to what end?” Metrics and every other activity should, indeed, help us improve delivery of service and help us achieve our mission. Good thought. Thank you.

  3. I think that the last paragraph is very important. I think of those things myself to find the best answer.