Stanford Social Innovation Review : Informing and inspiring leaders of social change



Why the Art of Philanthropy Trumps the Science

A new kind of "reflective metrics" would help us measure the art of what philanthropy aspires to do.

There is a natural tension between art and science: Science is associated with certainty and effectiveness, and art with softness and disruption. In philanthropy we aspire to certainty (or as much of it we can get) and yet as counter-intuitive as it may seem, especially in the context of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, I would make the case that the art side of philanthropy, if not more important than the science side, is at least a pre-condition to achieving effectiveness and impact.

The problem is that the art of philanthropy has no agreed-upon definition—it is seldom named or acknowledged as art, even though we know it when we see it. We know there are many nuanced influences on effectiveness that are mysterious and elusive. We know that the work is fundamentally intuitive, holistic, subjective, and judgment-based, all of which are core definitions of art. Art is defined as skill that results from knowledge and practice, according to aesthetic principles—like values and passions, and concepts such as moral imagination, which Robert Wright beautifully defined as “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” We assume a great many of these things, and we feel a great deal. The love behind—and the emotional energy of—the philanthropic process and the work of social action is often palpable, but seldom do you see any reference, never mind a formal evaluation, that includes how these elements evolve, how they should be supported, and how they add value to the process. The opposite is true with the science of philanthropy, where there is a steady stream of how-to books and articles, and organizations and networks devoted to making philanthropy more effective.

The “scientific method” of philanthropy, originated one hundred years ago by the Commonwealth Fund, and Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations, has been renewed and reinvented over the past 20 years, by SSIR and many others, into what might be called “the effectiveness movement.” The strong focus on results, on impact, on metrics has been positive, but it has also been seen as counter to a mission-centered approach to philanthropy, as well as an inhibitor to risk-taking and creativity. There has been pushback from nonprofit organizations that perceive these increased donor demands as overly controlling, excessively process-oriented, and expensive. Nonprofits also see them as taking more energy from the room than they add—and sometimes they do, but that is not the big problem.

In reflecting on evaluation, my colleague at The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI) Leslie Pine wrote: “What is measurable is not always what is most important—and in some cases, what is measured (perhaps because it is measurable) can influence outcomes to the detriment of the program.” The big problem, as described by MIT researcher Donald Schon, is when “relevance becomes subject to rigor” and process becomes a servant to principles. That is very serious indeed.

If a donor loses sight of the passion, the context, the reason for being there in the first place, then the philanthropic act is empty and the risk of doing harm exponentially increases. This is when the art of philanthropy must trump the science. Art helps balance the excesses of “rigor”—it offers that needed context, fills in the void, and gives voice to the gift within the gift.

The plot thickens when we add in philanthropy’s unique DNA—a set of underlying principles and assumptions that are neither art nor science but are the very essence of what we call philanthropy.

To begin with, philanthropy is fundamentally an articulation of values and passions. We at TPI have witnessed how powerful it can be when those elements are joined with a strategic process, and how weak it can be if they are not. There are other assumptions too—words we use all the time in vision and mission statements include compassion, inspiration, respect, listening, even wisdom. Even more fundamental are the ethical and moral assumptions that are at the core of philanthropy—the integrity of purpose, and of process and practice. That these are seldom even referenced and almost never evaluated is in itself a moral failure.

Donald Schon advocated for a “reflective practitioner whose work is understood as artful doing” and where the work is “susceptible to a kind of rigor that is both like and unlike the rigor of scholarly work and controlled experimentation.” I like that concept very much. Art is measured and evaluated all the time based on agreed-upon criteria. Even when there are mysterious elements within the art—what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke called the “unsayable”—they are acknowledged and valued as such. What I would love to see is a new kind of ‘”reflective metrics” that would help us measure the art of what philanthropy aspires to do and help us understand more completely what is going on—indeed, help us be more effective!

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  • BY Claire Axelrad

    ON November 28, 2012 10:54 AM

    I love this article and have been thinking along these lines for years (just never put it into words as well as Peter Karoff). Yes, measurement is important.  Yet the “love”—the very definition of the word philanthropy—is, fundamentally, important as well.  Marrying the two is the real trick.  I’d also like to see some sort of reflective metrics fleshed out for all to use.  Thanks for this post!

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