The Pulse: Heart vs. Mind in Philanthropy—Not Either, but Both

By Andy Carroll, Exponent Philanthropy

I regularly explore trends influencing philanthropy by spotlighting articles, reports, and essays in the media. I cast a wide net, venturing beyond philanthropy and traditional topics to consider a variety of ideas, innovations, debates, and critiques. Read previous posts in the series   

The recent decision by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to end its 8-year, $12 million effort to encourage donors to focus giving on high-performing charities has sparked renewed debate in philanthropy about whether foundations and donors should give using heart or mind to best achieve impact.

The “give using mind” movement, focused on performance measurement, has influenced discussion and practice, and inspired a loyal following. Yet it hasn’t caught on to the degree envisioned. Many thought leaders are seeing performance measurement as only one piece of a richer, more balanced mindset that draws on other human capacities crucial to impact.

Let’s explore what those who call for more balance in philanthropy have to say.

Pushing Back

One critique of an “evidence only” focus is that it narrows foundations’ ambition and vision, limiting what they address to outcomes that can be easily measured, or that can be attained quickly. Foundations end up avoiding the tougher, deeper issues that challenge our society, or address them in piecemeal fashion. As William Dietel, former president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, has put it, “Some of the greatest achievements in American philanthropy took decades. If donors had demanded immediate results, we wouldn’t have made many advances.”

Other critics embrace performance measurement, but assert that this single-minded focus ignores other crucial ways of discerning where to target money, time, and talent. Among these are passion, intuition, and moral perspective.

Passion. In essays and speeches over the years, philanthropists have invoked the power of passion. The heart is a way to discern what is most important and deserving of attention. Finding your passion, they say, provides focus, fires commitment, and unleashes unlimited reserves of energy and creativity. According to philanthropist Karen Ansara, passion inspires action, driving donors “to get things done.”

A recurring theme is that passion impels donors to get personally involved with nonprofits whose work they care about, and that direct involvement yields valuable insights about impact. Highly engaged donors, in fact, may have an edge in their power to listen and notice needs of nonprofits that grantmakers who maintain a distance cannot discern. In a widely read essay in the New York Times this past June, Paul Sullivan explores this intimate kind of philanthropy, affirming the impact is something you can see, touch, and feel.

One of the most moving meditations on the value of passion is a speech by novelist Jonathan Franzen. Franzen details the perils of detachment, and chronicles his own passage from aloofness to deep involvement, calling upon us to not hold back, to fall in love with utter abandon. This, he realizes, is what frees us to make sense of the world and go places.

Intuition. In recent blog articles, Rick Leonhardt of the FHL Foundation in New Mexico asserts that the techniques of performance measurement undermine funders’ ability to understand complex problems, and therefore inhibit their ability to develop accurate and effective strategies.

Intuition, says Leonhardt, is necessary to make sense of the complex problems many funders seek to address: “… to arrive at simple cause and effect chains, one must reduce complex systems to isolated parts no longer able to interact one with another…intuition is needed to understand and address social problems that are embedded in complex systems.”

A moral sense. Also buried and avoided by a sole focus on performance measurement is what thought leader Gara LaMarche calls “first principles,” the values and moral sense that “move people to enthusiasm and action.” The performance measurement movement has failed to stir philanthropists to action because it doesn’t offer “a coherent and compelling world view.”

“We have become more about the fix,” says LaMarche, “ the intervention – to use a horribly dominant word in the field that calls to mind invading armies – than about the reasons for doing or caring about it. In marching under the flag of what works, and in particular what can be proven or demonstrated through the rigours of evidence, we risk straying too far from what is right. I think it is time to strike a better balance.”

Related posts

Getting Involved Beyond Grants

Your Point of View Gives You an Edge

My Definition of Philanthropic Excellence

Andy-CarrollSenior Program Director Andy Carroll writes resources, designs workshops, and facilitates seminars for funders. Andy also dedicates a significant portion of his time to managing our Leadership Initiative that defines, validates, nurtures, and celebrates the many ways philanthropists lead. Andy has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, and he enjoys talking with funders about their questions, interests, passions, and plans for making a difference.

2 thoughts on “The Pulse: Heart vs. Mind in Philanthropy—Not Either, but Both

  1. The point should be that each of these concepts: measurement, pushing back (or time), passion, intuition and moral sense should be part of the foundation’s process. To focus on one concept would be incomplete. Let me explain:
    I make the presumption that foundations exist to be a catalyst for change. If this is true there must be a reason for change. That reason is a moral sense or a judgment that something should be different. So how long does change take? Well, replacing equipment is a pretty immediate change. For example if you buy a washer/dryer for a shelter the measurement is clean clothes. However, if the change involves people and organizations, it is going to take time. People don’t achieve their GED over night and community gardens don’t burst forth with food in January. These projects require time. Passion is wonderful but it needs the guidance offered by measurement, intuition and moral sense. Throwing money at a problem just because we feel passionate is not a solution. We have to “throw the money” in the right direction and with the right organization. Providing funds for an organization that is not responsible, or doesn’t have good measurements, is not responsible. The measurements don’t have to be big fancy statistical analysis. Keep it simple. If you’re helping a food pantry ask how many people/families did you feed. If you’re capacity building with a board, look at board member retention and board member involvement. Measurement (quantitative and qualitative) is part of how every foundation fulfills its responsibility to the donor/founder and the people they serve.

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