In philanthropy, frameworks can become cages. When we find a promising approach, it’s all too easy to get trapped by it.
My own career is a cautionary tale. After college I worked as a grassroots organizer. The more I learned about organizing the more I saw its power to drive change. I was hooked. But I also found myself shocked that many of my colleagues had convinced themselves that organizing wasn’t just one good way to make change, it was the only way to make change.
Hoping to build a complementary skill set I went to business school — only to find that many of the change agents there were certain that the only way to do good in the world was through markets.
Years later, working at the Hewlett Foundation, I was privileged to meet design thinkers, behavioral economists, and complex systems theorists. Each brought great insight to our work — but many seemed convinced, even unconsciously, that their approach was the only right way.
This tendency appears in both old and new communities. Consider Effective Altruism. In the early 2010s, the Effective Altruism movement brought welcome rigor to the analysis of nonprofit performance. It enriched our collective work. But some advocates overreached, asking that all impact be quantified and subject to the rigors of linear evaluation. Math stopped being a tool and became a trap.
The problem is obvious: the world is too complex for any single framework. We who are working for a better world — whether as users or providers of capital — need multiple tools to engage with that complexity. Whether we call these tools “lenses” or “perspectives” or “strategies,” we need a lot of them. Instead of cages, our frameworks can be building blocks.
Consider how science — that most rigorous of human domains — brings a range of lenses to understand the world. Chemists, zoologists, psychologists, and quantum physicists all bring frameworks appropriate at a certain scale and from a certain perspective. Of course, the range of human understanding extends far beyond science: a poet uses images and metaphor to describe the human brain just as a neuroscientist uses an MRI. Each offers a view of that which is true.
In social change, we must do the same. We can use race analysis and class analysis to understand inequality. We can tell stories and use numbers. We can ask more of individuals and ask more of systems. We can acknowledge the power of bottom-up strategies and of personal leadership.
Philanthropy has fallen into an intellectual trap of its own making. We could have seen this profusion of ways of understanding as a gift. Instead, we have allowed it to be a stumbling block. Now the question is this: can we lift up our heads and see this extraordinary abundance for what it is?
I admit this is easier said than done. There are advantages to sticking with one framework. Consistency and clarity are hallmarks of good thinking. But they don’t have to be absolutes. We can hold on loosely. (That was an accidental quotation of a classic rock song. This one is on purpose: If you cling too tightly/you’re going to lose control.)
Many-tooled need not mean unmoored. Just because we allow ourselves to use multiple strategic frameworks does not mean we are ungrounded and simply flitting from idea to idea. It is important to find anchors in our work. But that stability should be moral, not intellectual. Let’s find our roots in love, truth, and justice.
The best social change agents have already figured out how to bring multiple perspectives to their work. World Central Kitchen, an extraordinary food nonprofit founded by chef José Andrés, draws from design thinking, storytelling, and mathematical modeling. The innovative climate change nonprofit Rewiring America brings together behavioral economics, markets, and community organizing. They and many others show It is possible to bring strategic pluralism to the work of doing good.
Yes, if all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. But what’s most important is this: if all you have is a hammer, you can’t build a house. In philanthropy, we’re trying to do big things in a complex world. Let’s allow ourselves the privilege of tapping into the extraordinary range of insights and ways of thinking that humanity has built over the centuries. And let’s be ready to create new ones along the way.
Jacob Harold is the cofounder of Candid, former CEO of GuideStar, and author of “The Toolbox: Strategies for Crafting Social Impact.” Follow him on LinkedIn.
Hear more from Jacob at a plenary session, “Crafting Social Change: Philanthropy’s Toolbox,” at the CEP conference later this fall in Boston. This session will be available on CEP’s YouTube channel after the conference.
Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.