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What is going on here?

Below is the introduction to a talk that Peter Karoff presented recently at a breakfast hosted by The Boston Foundation and The Philanthropic Initiative.  Download the full text.


For many good and proper reasons there is within the field of philanthropy a strong focus on results, on impact, and what overall has been termed effectiveness. At the same time, there is concern that an over-reliance on data, metrics, and evaluation is somehow in opposition to a mission-centered approach to philanthropy. Terms like “hyper-rationalism” and “managerialism”[i] seem counter to creativity and may potentially inhibit risk-taking. We aspire to certainty, but there are many nuanced influences on effectiveness that are difficult to capture, and that are sometimes elusive.


The effectiveness movement is not new news.  It goes back to the early days of American philanthropy when Rockefeller Foundation, Carnegie Foundation, and Commonwealth Foundation, began to practice what was then called “the scientific method of philanthropy,’ defined as:


1) getting the facts right by research and/or surveys: 2) identifying the problem clearly and precisely: 3) studying a number of potential options for action: 4) identifying those whose help would be needed or whose opposition must be neutralized in order to achieve the objective: and only then: 5) developing a plan of action that included a clearly defined objective, benchmarks of progress, and methods of gathering data to evaluate accomplishments.


If that sounds familiar, and I’m sure it does, it is because these are the identical elements of  ‘strategic philanthropy’ and all of its ‘cousins’ that continue to build upon the concept – high impact philanthropy, venture philanthropy, social entrepreneurship, Philanthrocapitalism, and other made up words like ‘collective philanthropy’ that encompass these central ideas. As to why this got lost over the last 90 years, if it did, and had to be reborn again is not clear. Nonetheless, we are drawn to anything that can help us figure out “what is going on?”


It is science that is associated with certainty, and art that is associated with softness and disruption. It is a fundamental left brain – logical, analytical, and objective – and right brain – intuitive, holistic, subjective – differentiation.


The resulting tensions between what we often refer to as the ‘art’ and the ‘science’ of philanthropy have created a false dichotomy that pits two domains against each other when they are in reality complimentary. When this dichotomy is deconstructed from the perspective of the goals and practice of philanthropy, it becomes evident that the terms ‘art’ and ‘science’ have more in common than generally understood, and that making the differentiation clear, determining how each adds value, and measuring accordingly, can greatly enhance and expand our understanding of effectiveness.

Filed under: Strategic Philanthropy

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[...] about effectiveness. In April, Peter Karoff jumped in to debate with a post on this blog called, “What’s Going on Here?” Karoff argued for an approach that blends both art and science – one that depends on logic, [...]

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