Avoiding the Perils of Surface Persuasiveness

All too often, I find myself feeling frustrated after reading short online articles and op-eds, where authors’ arguments are too simplistically summarized to withstand even modest critical analysis. Yet, as a communications professional working in an era of information overload and correspondingly minimized attention spans, I recognize the appeal—even necessity—of distilling complicated opinions about immense, complex problems down to a pithy assertion.

I don’t imagine anyone thinks it is possible to fully explore the myriad intricacies of a broad-ranging topic through a series of 140-character tweets or even a 750 word op-ed. But dismissing legitimate points of contention out of hand just because they are poorly argued or overly abridged only perpetuates the problem. We should remain open to the idea that a provocative sound bite can still go a long way toward generating meaningful conversation.

So it is gratifying to me to see thoughtful people take this approach when responding to inciting articles—especially when the topic of contention is one I care about. Such was the case with a trio of recent articles decrying all that is wrong with philanthropy, each of which has sparked genuine and wide-ranging discussion.

Peter Buffett’s now infamous op-ed on the “charitable-industrial complex” has induced a tidal wave of responses, written with varying levels of consideration. Many have—rightly, in my opinion—not dismissed the argument outright despite its somewhat disjointed presentation and lack of practical alternatives. (And to be perfectly fair, it would have been incredibly difficult to offer such credible alternatives when working with a limited word count—especially when he had to first describe the problem in a compelling way.) Instead, the more considered reactions acknowledged the underlying truth to Buffett’s perspective and debated its merit. To his credit, Buffett has remained engaged in the discussion, publicly responding to some of the criticisms of his piece in blog posts and on public message boards, further clarifying his view and himself acknowledging the limits imposed on him by the op-ed format.

More recently, Peter Singer wrote a similarly provocative piece in the New York Times Sunday Review opinion section called “Good Charity, Bad Charity.” Again, a catchy title and simplistic argument were employed to raise a fundamental question about the efficacy of individual philanthropic pursuits. His morally superior posturing was always going to incite a full-throated defense from those who work in or write about the sector, though many of the responses have chosen to raise the level of debate. The Times has run a series of thoughtful letters in reaction to Singer’s charge, including one from the president and chief executive of Rockefeller Philanthropy Partners, an organization Singer singled out for failing to advocate for donors to support “more urgent” societal needs at the expense of others with more nebulous value. The original article has also resulted in longer-form responses that more thoroughly deconstruct the flimsiness of Singer’s thesis.

Bill Schambra is back to causing a stir with his case against strategic philanthropy, spoken at a staff meeting of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation before being reprinted in Nonprofit Quarterly. Again, he has inspired no small amount of reflective response, including from the current and former presidents of Hewlett. While they approach the argument about evidence-based philanthropy from different ends of the spectrum, it is laudable that Schambra and Brest are publicly exploring the proper balance of two fundamentally opposing viewpoints for achieving a shared ultimate goal.

In each of these examples, it is important to remind ourselves that simplified arguments do not always reflect willful ignorance or a lack of consideration. Shorter writing formats will often seem reductionist, whether it is the author’s intention or not. Sometimes, it may just be the best avenue for inducing authentic debate.

Despite plenty of opportunities for readers to respond to these oversimplified missives in kind, I’m encouraged to see folks continue to seek out opportunities to engage in the genuine exchange of ideas that doesn’t ignore the big thorny issues just because they’ve been raised in a way we don’t like.

It is imperative that those working in philanthropy not get tripped up by surface persuasiveness. We need to clarify positions and thoughtfully respond to attacks, doing so while remaining candid and transparent about our work in a way that reaffirms and strengthens convictions. We need to allow these at times frustrating debates to encourage honest reflection about our performance and adjust our practice to best achieve effectiveness.


Stephen Sullivan is Senior Coordinator of Communications and Programming at the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

communications, leadership, role of philanthropy
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