Passion Needed For Data Driven Analysis in Philanthropy

The following post originally appeared on Tactical Philanthropy on June 24:

One of the most perplexing aspects of discussions about philanthropy that I hear and read is the tendency to portray passion and emotion and data and analysis as in tension. As if it’s zero-sum.

Add passion and emotion, reduce data and analysis by the same amount.

Add data and analysis, reduce passion and emotion commensurately.

But I don’t buy it – not for a minute. I think the interactions are much more complicated than that. Indeed, I think a real focus on doing philanthropy in a strategic, analytical, data-driven way only occurs once you hit a threshold level of passionate, emotional commitment to a cause.

Of course, I am aware of the well-documented tendency of human beings to be influenced by emotional stories over data. Michael Mauboussin, an expert on decision-making, reflected at the CEP conference last month on studies in which decisions about medical treatments are found to be more powerfully influenced by anecdotes than data.

We’ve all been there, as Mauboussin noted. He described the experience of checking out a car’s reliability data, verifying that it does very well, being all set to buy it, and then hearing from a friend, “Oh yeah, I had a buddy who had one of those: he had all these problems with it.”

“Now all of a sudden … your colleague’s buddy is casting doubt on your decision,” he said. “The stories swamp the statistics.”

But, as Mauboussin notes, this isn’t a good thing. So we should not simply accept it as human nature. We fight all kinds of baser human instincts because we think they will send us down the wrong path, and this should be among them.

The fact that emotional stories can cause people to disregard overwhelming data that would lead them to a better decision isn’t something to be celebrated or exploited for the purposes of making our points or making our presentations more compelling: it’s something to be resisted. We should use stories responsibly, when they reinforce and illustrate what the data shows.

Good decision-making is hard in life. But in philanthropy, data-driven decision-making is even tougher still, because the challenges we’re working to address are deep-seated, complex, and interdependent – and because the data is often harder to come by and more open to alternate interpretations than in other domains. The work is also more emotionally intense than it often is in business or in the lab, making the lure of decision-making that is unmoored from the data all the stronger.

But, while passion and emotion are often the problem because they can lead us astray, they’re also the solution. For it is only a passionate commitment to really getting it right – to seeing results – that can provide the will and discipline necessary to do the hard work of data-gathering, strategy formulating, assessing, and analyzing.

Indeed, why would anyone do philanthropy in a strategic, data-driven way – given how much harder it is than the alternative – were it not for their passionate, emotional commitment to making a difference?

As Ed Pauly of the Wallace Foundation wrote on the CEP Blog last month, “The reason for the tools of better philanthropy is to get results that matter. The tools are not about polishing up our processes. They are about getting the results we are most passionate about.”

Perhaps this is why we have seen, in our research on strategy at foundations, that foundation CEOs and program officers often aren’t born strategic, they become strategic. It is often their frustration at not seeing results that leads them to a different approach – one based on clear and specific goals, coherent strategies, sound implementation, and relevant indicators against which they can gauge progress.

When the conditions are right, passion and emotion combine with data and analysis in a way that is less like oil and water and more like gin and tonic – forming something better together than each ever could be alone.

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