Making an Impact: Local Knowledge and Passion vs Science.

If you had all the money in the world needed to solve the world’s problems, would you support a program founded upon local knowledge and passion, or an evidenced-based scientific approach?

Off the back of my last post about creating a Logic Model, I coincidentally read a couple of articles in the Non Profit Quarterly, about the pros and cons of “Strategic Philanthopy”. This opened up a  debate between Bill Schambra (director of the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal) and Paul Brest (former President of the Hewlett Foundation).

The links to the articles are below along with my one paragraph synopsis and take-aways. My insights are written based upon my practical experiences in developing a non profit organization, and clearly not as an academic!

My Synopsis:

Article 1: The problem with Strategic Philanthropy: (Bill Schambra)

Local knowledge, traditional wisdom, compassion and common sense should drive foundation and philanthropists’ funding decisions, over scientific rationality (logic models and theory of change, etc) when it comes to solving human problems. These attributes tackle problems quickly based upon understanding the needs and problems of the communities they serve. There are too many factors causing such problems, for any science to fundamentally get to, and prevent the problem at its root cause. The time spent on developing the science (models, systems, etc) to understand this is time that could have been better spent delivering the service. So, if the program is is delivering a good service to treat a particular problem “write the damn check”.

Article 2: Bill Schambra’s problem with Strategic Philanthropy: (Paul Brest)

Strategic philanthropy should include listening to the feedback and wisdom from the local community but it should be balanced with empirical evidence. Statistics can help us understand some of the underlying causes of problems, which while they may not fit neatly into one box, may enable more effective allocation of resources delivery of services. Theories are scientific by definition and may not be proven, per se, but basing decisions on the best evidence available is more effective to serve those in need, than ignoring evidence or not putting the effort into collecting such evidence.

My Take-away as a Non Profit Organization:

1) Balance: I’m not being non-commital but It is all about balance. Heart & passion combined with local knowledge can drive a program towards achieving positive outcomes. However, if you don’t have a way to evidence those outcomes, (some form of science) how do you know you are really achieving them.

2) Emergency relief as an exception? In emergency relief situations this may be different; given the need to react immediately and tackle an issue using local knowledge & common sense. Sometimes you just have to “Play what you see” as we say to the kids in our program.

3) We started with passion & local knowledge: My charity’s program – Play Rugby USA – was founded, driven and inspired upon heart and passion, based upon a belief that there was a local need and a vision that our services could change children’s lives for the better. We couldn’t prove it at the time, nor did we have any way of evaluating our outcomes.  We just knew it would work and had to sell partner organizations and funders on our vision and with our passion. We delivered through partnerships and expanded from 20 schools in 2006 to over 300 today.

4) We improve with both passion and science: Now, the program continues to be driven by the same passion but by having the appropriate systems and processes (science) in place, we are now able to more effectively improve our program and prove that we are making progress every day towards achieving our long-term vision to create “A Better World through Rugby”. While the non-profit environment is different from business, it is still competitive (and so am I) but we  understand the importance of team work and collaboration. We collaborate and partner with any organization that compliments our vision (and we do regularly) but the fact remains, if we want to fully fund our program and build capacity for the future, we also need to differentiate ourselves and be the best we can possibly be. Part of this means being outcome & evidenced-based, so we have benchmarks to build from. Having frameworks in place such as a Logic Model and Theory of Change help us to continuously improve our program and provide a better service (the reason we started in the first place was to deliver this service). The frameworks also, of course, help us secure much-needed funding.

5) Philanthropists & Foundations: Philanthropy is defined by Merriam Webster Dictionary as: “goodwill to fellow members of the human race; especially : active effort to promote human welfare.” It is therefore fundamentally about humanitarianism and a desire to improve people’s quality of life, through giving. So, on the surface it seems being more about “Playing what you see”. Luckily, there are some philanthopists and foundation that just “get it” and fund programs because they appreciate intrinsically, the value in the services being given. Our friends, at the LA84 Foundation are a great example of this. They understand the intrinsic value in youth sports. They like the fact we have a logic model but they don’t require it. They appreciate the fact we have kids playing a team sport, is better than those kids hanging out on the street. All charities need supporters like these.

But, the problem is – there isn’t enough foundations or philanthropists like this, or enough giving of money to solve all the world’s social problems. I say this with little data, but clearly not all the worlds problems are solved!

6) So, what would I do? Well if I had enough money to be a philanthropist, I would want to make the most impact I could. I’d support programs with passion, talent, leadership and understanding of their local community combined with a clear vision – first. However, I would want them to either have a proven ability to measure their impact or minimally a willingness & commitment to do so (science)- as we did in our charity. I would consider this part of them “Going-Forward”- striving to learn, improve and never give up (again, as we teach our kids). Otherwise, how would I know my money had been better invested here than elsewhere? This would be true even if I had enough money to solve all the world’s problems. I’d need to allocate that money effectively or it wouldn’t work. Without any science, based largely on playing what I see from exploring local communities, I’d likely get it wrong. Do I support the mother with AIDs, or a starving child? So for me, it’s a balance. However, forced to make a choice one way or the other:  I’d never fund a program that lacked local knowledge & passion, no matter how scientific their approach was. I can’t say it would be the same, the other way around!

How about you?