Morality in Philanthropy

In recent weeks, I have read a great deal on about morality in philanthropy. This conversation, in my mind, is long overdue. Our reliance on data creates an inherent pressure to chase the outcomes that most easily show progress. This creates a number of concerns, including one outlined by Gara LaMarche in his 2010 speech at the MIT Starr Forum:

“There is also a concern that over-reliance on data and measurable results makes donors less likely to take actions that are hard to measure, and thus, more risk adverse.”

In his book, Leap of Reason, Mario Morino encourages us to ask a simple question when exploring our goals in the nonprofit space: To what end? Producing “results” that “demonstrate impact” only matter if they effectively measure our progress toward goals of value. We constantly ask for metrics, but what are they measuring our progress toward? Public education offers a prime example. We regularly measure improvement in basic reading and math skills – is this truly the goal we hold for our children? We want only basic skills in reading and math?

Big Question: Are we aiming for better or great?

The pressure to measure progress forces organizations toward incrementalism. Better is relatively easy; great is hard. The need for immediate “results” dictates that systems not be destroyed and demolished. Practitioners are forced to act in a risk-averse manner – we can’t risk failing to produce immediate results.

For Reach, fighting this tendency means a stubborn commitment to real, long-term goals. While we will monitor predictive data to measure progress toward our larger goals, we know that our ultimate goal is to provide our students with the ability to become socially active, economically mobile citizens. We aim to achieve this goal by providing our kids with the ability to complete high school, thrive in post-secondary education or training, and succeed in the workplace. In the coming years, we will work tirelessly to identify the metrics that most effectively predict these overarching goals. We know they matter, and they will remain our North Star.

We must reclaim the why of our work. We must focus on the most important goals, not those that offer the most efficient return on philanthropic investment. This work is hard. If we continue down the path defined only by immediate “impact” and “measurable outcomes,” then we will continue to provide incremental improvement for narrowly defined groups of individuals. We can do better.

I will end, as Mr. LaMarche did, with a quote from Thoreau: “Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” Our work must be driven by what is right, ethical, and just. Those failed by our current social structures depend on it.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Posted in Ed Reform Notes |
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