Balancing the Humanistic and Technocratic in Philanthropy

This is a guest post by Paul Connolly who is Chief Client Services Officer at TCC Group, a national management consulting firm that provides strategy, evaluation, and capacity-building services to funders, nonprofits, and corporate citizenship programs.

By Paul Connolly

A technocratic approach to philanthropy has become more common over the past 15 years and brought many benefits. It typically involves experts applying business and social-science principles to help funders devise focused goals and strategies, measure results rigorously, and work closely with grantees to improve performance. This disciplined course has enabled many funders—including the Edna McConnell Clark, Hewlett, Robin Hood, Broad, and Wallace foundations—to amplify their impact.

Yet despite the best intentions, technocracy can sometimes become too much of a good thing, especially when grantmakers neglect to articulate their underlying beliefs, act as if they are smarter than they are, treat nonprofits as mere vendors, and care only whether, rather than why, a program works.

Since its much-touted creation several years ago, for example, the philanthropic arm of Google has been rather arrogant and unsuccessful, mostly creating solutions that were looking for problems. Likewise, the Northwest Area Foundation recently admitted that it had been too prescriptive and fallen short when it devoted more than $200-million to reduce poverty in an eight-state region over a decade. Such bad news can taint the entire technocratic methodology, but its many positive attributes should not be discarded altogether.

The field is divided about which course is best. Certain technocrats accuse some foundations of following a “spray and pray” approach that is based on “magical thinking” and leads to the squandering of money. Conversely, others complain about a “philanthro-industrial complex” and patronizingly dismiss “due diligence,” “theory of change,” and “social return on investment” as the empty jargon of soulless business experts and performance evaluation as an “obsessive measurement disorder.”

By focusing on two extreme points on the spectrum, this narrow-minded debate implies that they are mutually exclusive when they need not be. Funders fall along a continuum: At one end are humanists—who tend to have altruistic beliefs, adopt a responsive and intuitive grantmaking style, avoid intervening with grantees much, and use qualitative evaluation primarily for learning — and technocrats are at the other. Most are somewhere in the middle and shift over time. Neither approach has cornered the market on making philanthropy more innovative or effective. In fact, the dynamic ying yang-style tension between them is rich territory that has not been fully mined.

Philanthropy must heed a growing body of research across the neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics fields that confirm the importance of synthesizing logic and instinct, head and heart, linearity and serendipity. Grantmakers can enhance their work by combining objectivity with passion, control with agility, proactivity with responsiveness, top-down with bottom-up, and numbers with stories. The Skillman Foundation, for instance, is guided not only by a clear theory of change but by a powerful code of ethics and values, too. It supports proven approaches to enhancing schools in six Detroit neighborhoods, but also reserves some money for strategic opportunities that arise. Additional funders that demonstrate this ambidexterity include the Cleveland, Heron, Irvine, Mary Reynolds Babcock, NoVo, Packard, and Rockefeller Brothers foundations.

How can other philanthropies put this hybrid model into practice? Leaders must instill it in the foundation’s organizational culture and champion moderation and balance. Over the past decade, the California Wellness Foundation deliberately shifted from a highly structured, top-down approach involving large retrospective evaluations to a more flexible course entailing unrestricted general operating support to frontline preventive health providers and ongoing learning. The pendulum has recently swung the other way at the Ford Foundation, from a decentralized mode that emphasized the craft of grantmaking to streamlined program strategies and operations and new systems to measure return on investment.

Foundation executives can achieve the right balance by hiring staff members who possess sound judgment and a blend of hard and soft skills. The best philanthropic leaders are not only analytical, objective, and expert, but also self-aware, respectful, and intuitive—and can adjust the mix when needed. They understand, for example, that even if a seasoned nonprofit leader has not explicitly depicted a program logic model, he or she may have an excellent implicit strategy based on deep experience and wisdom. Funders cannot afford to leave their humanity outside the workplace. They must lead with an open heart, exercise humility, pay attention to their gut, and attend to relationships with authenticity and compassion. They also should compensate for their own inclinations — humanists should seek those who are skilled at strategy and performance measurement, and technocrats must be cautious about attracting people who are book-smart but lack emotional intelligence.

To stretch themselves, more humanistic funders can ponder such questions as:

  • “How can we incorporate more dispassionate analysis into our work without losing too much of the joy and caring?”
  • “Are there times when we delegate too much to a grantee so that our own knowledge is not tapped sufficiently and the nonprofit is not accountable enough for its performance?”

    More technocratic philanthropies can consider questions like:

  • “When would it be beneficial to be less directive and more flexible, opportunistic, and patient with grantees?”
  • “Are there more opportunities to improvise and make intuitive leaps of faith?”

    To advance as a field, more oxymoronic thinking and action is required – including rigorous values, poignant data, strategic intuition, deliberate improvisation, soulful strategy, rational exuberance, and immeasurable outcomes.

    If you’d like to learn more about this topic, sign up for an October 6 Foundation Review hosted webinar titled Grantmaking from the Head and Heart, with Paul Connolly, Paul Brest of the Hewlett Foundation, Carol Gross of the Skillman Foundation and Gayle Williams of the Babcock Foundation.