A few months ago, The New York Times published an article called “The New Humanism” that made an assertion that philanthropy should heed.
Recent failures in public policies that guide banking, education, and international development, it said, were caused largely by the simplistic perspectives of experts who overvalue rationality and underestimate the unconscious, emotion, and the quality of interpersonal relationships.
The article cited a growing body of research across many fields—including neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics—confirming the importance of synthesizing logic and instinct, head and heart, linearity and serendipity.
As a technocratic approach has become more common in philanthropy over the past 15 years, it has brought many benefits, to be sure: It typically involves experts applying business and social-science principles to help foundations define their goals clearly, devise focused strategies, measure results rigorously, and work closely with grantees to improve performance.
This disciplined course has enabled many grant makers—such as the Edna McConnell Clark, Hewlett, Robin Hood, Broad, and Wallace foundations, as well as Venture Philanthropy Partners, to name a few—to amplify their impact.
Yet despite the best intentions, technocracy can sometimes become too much of a good thing.
Certain “values-averse” donors neglect to articulate the underlying beliefs that steer their work. Others act as if they possess more intelligence than they do and treat nonprofits as mere vendors through which the foundation’s work is essentially outsourced. And some care only whether, rather than why, a program works.
Those attitudes and actions lead to problems.
A case in point: Since its much-touted creation several years ago, the philanthropic arm of Google—one of the most engineering-driven and measurement-obsessed companies—has acted arrogantly and with little success, creating solutions that were looking for problems.
Likewise, the Northwest Area Foundation recently admitted that it had been much too detached and prescriptive when it devoted more than $200-million to reduce poverty in an eight-state region over a decade, failing to capitalize on community expertise and using evaluation mostly as a judgmental report card.
This sort of bad news can end up tainting the entire technocratic approach, but its many positive attributes should not be discarded altogether.
The technocratic emphasis has also led to a rift. One does not have to listen hard to hear how heatedly divided the nonprofit world has become about which form of philanthropy is best. Certain technocrats go so far as to accuse some foundations of following a “spray and pray” approach that is based on “magical thinking” and leads to a scandalous waste of money.
Conversely, others complain about a “philanthro-industrial complex” and patronizingly dismiss “due diligence,” “theory of change,” and “social return on investment” as the empty jargon of soulless business experts. They charge that performance measurement is just a “fetish” or an “obsessive measurement disorder” that suffocates nonprofits.
By focusing on two extreme points on the spectrum, this narrow-minded debate implies that these possibilities are mutually exclusive when they need not be. Grant makers fall along a continuum: At one end are humanists—who tend to have altruistic beliefs, adopt a responsive and intuitive grant-making style, avoid intervening with grantees much, and use qualitative evaluation primarily for learning—and technocrats are at the other. Most are somewhere in the middle and shift over time.
Neither the humanistic nor the technocratic approach has cornered the market on making philanthropy more innovative or effective. In fact, the dynamic tension between the two is rich territory that has not been fully mined.
Grant makers can enhance their work by aligning keen passions with feasible strategies, blending control and flexibility, and mixing numbers and stories in evaluations.
The Skillman Foundation, for example, is guided not only by clear ideas about what makes change happen but by a powerful code of ethics and values, too. Its grant making focuses on supporting proven approaches to enhancing schools in six Detroit neighborhoods, but it also reserves some money to take advantage of strategic opportunities that may arise.
Other grant makers that demonstrate this ambidexterity include the Cleveland, Heron, Irvine, Mary Reynolds Babcock, NoVo, Packard, and Rockefeller Brothers foundations.
How can other philanthropies put into practice this hybrid model?
Doing so must start at the top and become instilled in the foundation’s organizational culture.
Leaders need to champion moderation and balance.
Over the past decade, the leaders of the California Wellness Foundation deliberately guided the organization from a technocratic to a more humanistic approach. It originally pursued highly structured, multimillion-dollar, five- to 10-year grant-making efforts in which the foundation would ask nonprofits to submit proposals and then conduct a major evaluation to see whether the grant program worked. Yet it discovered that its complex, top-down approach did not adequately support health solutions developed by people who work day in and day out to solve problems in communities.
In 2001 the board decided to let go of some control and began providing unrestricted operating support to frontline providers of preventive health services so they could move forward with ideas they thought would best help them fulfill their missions. A 2009 assessment found that the new approach was effective.
The pendulum has swung the other way at the Ford Foundation during the past few years under the leadership of its president, Luis Ubiñas.
Previously, it was decentralized, emphasized the craft of grant making, and did not comprehensively evaluate its programs. Ford streamlined its operations, tightened the types of causes it supported, and established measurement systems to ensure it was getting a return on its investments.
After two years, Mr. Ubiñas said that he had begun to see promising initial results and that the foundation is more nimble and better at assessing its contribution.
Foundation executives can achieve the right balance by hiring staff members who possess sound judgment and a blend of hard and soft skills.
The best grant-making leaders are not only analytical, objective, and expert, but also self-aware, collaborative, respectful, and intuitive—and are able to adjust the mix based on a given circumstance.
They understand, for instance, that even if a seasoned nonprofit leader has not explicitly diagrammed a plan for producing results, he or she may have an excellent implicit strategy based on deep experience and wisdom.
While much of grant makers’ work is technocratic in nature, they cannot afford to leave their emotions—and humanity—outside the workplace. They must lead with an open heart, exercise humility, pay attention to their gut, and attend to relationships with authenticity and compassion.
Grant makers also should compensate for their own inclinations. Humanists should seek those who are skilled at strategy and performance measurement, and technocrats must be cautious about attracting people who are book-smart but lack emotional intelligence.
To stretch themselves, more humanistic grant makers can ponder such questions as:
- How can we incorporate more dispassionate analysis into our work without losing too much of the joy and caring?
- Are there times when we delegate too much to a grantee so that our own knowledge is not tapped sufficiently and the nonprofit is not accountable enough for its performance?”
More technocratic philanthropies can consider questions like:
- “When would it be beneficial to be less directive and more supple, opportunistic, and patient with grantees?”
- “Are there more opportunities to improvise and make intuitive leaps of faith?”
To advance as a field, philanthropy must combine objectivity with passion, leadership with responsiveness, top-down with bottom-up, and discipline with agility.
The way forward must include such paradoxes as rigorous values, poignant data, strategic intuition, irrational insight, deliberate improvisation, soulful strategy, rational exuberance, and immeasurable outcomes.