Avoiding a False Choice (Why We Need Both ‘Morality’ and Assessment)

I am speaking today on a panel at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. on “Reclaiming the Moral Life of Philanthropy.”  The panel includes Gara LaMarche, president of Atlantic Philanthropies, and is centered on a talk he gave at MIT in which he suggested he has:

“A disquiet about the way we in the foundation world, along with the organisations we support and the infrastructure many of us have helped to build, have mirrored trends in the political world to talk about what we do and why we are doing it in ways that have strayed too far from first principles. We have become more about the fix, 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.”

I am one of three responding to Gara’s comments – along with Indiana University’s Leslie Lenkowsky, Maya Wiley of the Center for Social Inclusion.  William Schambra will moderate.

Here is what I intend to say (my actual comments may vary a bit of course):

There is much about Gara LaMarche’s speech at MIT to be admired – and that I agree with.

For example, I agree with him that our political discourse, today, is often focused on poll-driven pragmatism at the expense of moral clarity and moral courage. Whether the issue is climate change or health care or immigration – all examples he cites – we hear too much about what is feasible, or politically possible, and not enough about what, simply, is right. (Although one could easily argue that, given what is going on in Washington right now, a little more focus on what is feasible with respect to the debt ceiling would be helpful! Still, I tend to agree with Gara’s general point here.)

Where I part company with him is when he asserts that this problem infects philanthropy. Or when he suggests that there is some disconnect in philanthropy between the moral case for what we do and the quest to understand what works. Or when he seems to imply that the fact that too many foundations are entrenched in “fixed and safe positions,” which I would agree with, is attributable to a focus on effectiveness – when, in fact, I believe the opposite is the case.

Gara says:

“In marching under the flag of what works, and in particular what can be proven or demonstrated through the rigors of evidence, we risk straying too far from what is right.”

I say: we stray from what is right when we do not assess.  This is, after all, about the people we seek to help – and if we don’t do the necessary work to confirm that we are, in fact, helping, we are falling short of our moral obligation.

  • As Mario Morino of Venture Philanthropy Partners argues in his important new book, Leap of Reason, “Every ounce of our effort on assessing social outcomes should be with one end in mind: helping nonprofits deliver greater benefits to those they serve.”
  • It is nothing less than a moral outrage when programs like DARE and Scared Straight receive massive funding only to realize, after years and millions of dollars, that they are having no effect, or, worse, the opposite of the intended effect. Mario’s book has a powerful example of such an instance here in Washington, D.C., at the Latin American Youth Center. That organization sought to change attitudes about domestic violence – but it found its efforts were having the opposite of the intended effect.  Fortunately, the Latin American Youth Center’s metrics allowed it to learn that early, and retool the program.
  • Or consider the durable programmatic infestation of abstinence-only education, propelled by only fervent belief in the face of clear evidence that it fails to protect young people from unintended pregnancy and exposure to disease.

We are all painfully aware that resources are limited. That means ineffective or counterproductive strategies deflect attention and waste time and money urgently needed to support and expand strategies that are effective.

Gara says,

“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.”

I say, whatever happened to doing what is right because it is right, rather than worrying about whether an idea has a “constituency?” In fact, isn’t this the very point you led off, with, Gara, in your talk at MIT?

I would say it is morally right to learn as much as possible about whether what you are doing is having the desired effect, whether it is politically popular or not.

And let’s take on the task of building the constituency for effectiveness. My experience at the Center for Effective Philanthropy convinces me that there is one.  And I think it is growing.  A survey we conducted this year of foundation CEOs showed that the overwhelming majority say assessment is among their highest priorities. And the constituency for effectiveness has deep roots: it is as old as philanthropy itself. Bill Schambra so often reminds us of this in discussing the “mania to measure” – although to him it is a lament – that goes back to the days of Rockefeller and Carnegie.

The constituency for effectiveness is made up of all those who are not content to assume that they are doing as well as they could be doing – those who are not content to take for granted that they are not unintentionally doing harm.  Those who want to learn and improve. Those who reject ignorance and seek knowledge.  Those, among foundations, who want to break out of the bubble of isolation and positive feedback that affiliation with large endowments inevitably creates, so they can learn how they’re really doing – and how they are really perceived. It is a growing constituency of those who believe effectiveness is a moral imperative.

So here is my central point: Assessment and morality are not in tension, never have been.  On the contrary. We are morally obliged to seek to know how we are doing, and how we can improve.  

And I would argue that the impulse to understand the efficacy of what we are doing stems exactly from our reasons for caring about it.

  • If we really care about improving the lives of former foster kids, than we must track, as the Stuart Foundation in California and its grantees do, the numbers of those with lifelong connections to caring adults and the numbers graduating from college.
  • If we really care about civil rights for gays and lesbians, as the Gill Foundation and its grantees do, than we must track in which states gays and lesbians enjoy the same legal protections – whether in marriage or the workplace – that heterosexuals do.
  • If we really care, as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and its grantees do, about tackling the obesity epidemic, than we must track the relevant data – including data on the aspects of the strategies employed that we believe to be crucial, just as that Foundation did in its successful work on tobacco use.
  • If we really care, as the Wilburforce Foundation and its grantees do, about preservation of habitats for wildlife, than we must be data-driven in our tracking of endangered species and seek to strengthen the organizations on the ground doing that hard work; in seeking to strengthen those organizations, the Wilburforce Foundation also seeks to find out whether its help is really deemed to be helpful by its grantees – in part by working with CEP to get candid and comparative data on that question.

These organizations assess because they bring passion to important issues.  Caring and knowledge of efficacy are not in tension, these are not qualities needing to be held in “balance,” as Gara argues.  They form, instead, a virtuous cycle.

Just as we should reject the caricatures and labels – and polarization – that cheapen our political discourse, so should we reject them in philanthropy.

Invocation of “morality” without regard to effectiveness is often mere ideology. 

We work in the nonprofit sector because of our desire to make communities stronger, lives better, air cleaner, whatever the goal is that you or your organization fight for.  That’s why we do the work.  For that reason, we want to know – most of us deeply, desperately want to know – whether our work is making a difference.

Of course, it’s hard to know, and some of the attempts to answer those questions are misguided or ill-designed. I would be the first to acknowledge that some assessment is done badly.  And I’d also concede that some make the foolish choice to let ease of measurement drive their selection of goals.

But let’s not let those errors in thinking and approach taint our view of the importance of assessment.

The fact is, the alternative to measurement and assessment is flying blind.  Doing nothing, or worse than nothing, when we mean to be doing good.

Failing to know what really helps people.

Failing to direct resources in ways that result in real improvement in peoples’ lives.

Failing to be our very best.

Assessment and morality are not in tension, never have been.  On the contrary. We are morally obliged to seek to know how we are doing, and how we can improve.  

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