TACTICAL PHILANTHROPY An Overly Ambitious Goal May Have Hobbled
a Minn. Fund’s Efforts to Fight Poverty
plan that had been developed—
despite two years of meetings
By the same token, since it
was responsible for distributing
the money, the foundation had
difficulty avoiding the perception that it wanted to impose its
own ideas of what should be done
rather than being genuinely interested in working as a partner
and respecting local views.
Not least important, the foundation faced challenges in monitoring the project. That was
partly due to the ambitiousness
Continued from Page 27
The real problem
may be how
understood their role
in American life.
of its goals, which made evaluation problematic.
But the effort’s boldness and
optimism also created a “
culture” in which neither foundation staff members nor grantees
were eager to “admit that things
were not working as intended,”
lest the project itself be called
To make matters worse, as
the antipoverty program began, the foundation’s board had
decided to focus its attention
mostly on setting broad policies
for the organization and left the
details of program decisions
and grants to professional staff
This governance plan, though
widely used in the nonprofit
world, meant, the report notes,
that the board was not “effec-
tively informed” that its most
important commitment was in
trouble, and despite the personal
connections trustees had to the
communities involved, they were
unable to provide much help.
The foundation now
says it is listening
to people in
the region it serves.
problem may be with how foundations have understood their
role in American life.
By seeing themselves as
champions of big and bold goals,
investors of wealth and expertise, and professionals in social
change, they may have created
circumstances that make many
of their efforts more difficult
and less likely to succeed.
Leslie Lenkowsky is professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies at Indiana University and a regular contributor
to these pages. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
Subscribers have full access to
Philanthropy.com at NO extra cost.
Enjoy full access to Philanthropy.com including daily
news updates, an archive of back issues, and other
premium subscriber-only content. Web access comes
with your subscription at no extra cost.
Go to Philanthropy.com to create a
Chronicle account. It’s FREE. 1
Log in at Philanthropy.com/activate 2
Fill in the information using the account number
and ZIP code information from your mailing label. 3
NEED HELP? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NEED A SUBSCRIPTION? Visit Philanthropy.com/subscribe
Connecting the nonprofit world with ne ws, jobs, and ideas
Grant Makers Seek Results,
but Nothing Is Guaranteed
By Sean Stannard-Stockton
HUMAN BEINGS hate uncer- tainty. But in
reality, the world is a
place, and predicting
the outcomes of our actions is extremely difficult.
As a result, anybody who
tries to craft a grant-making
approach or design a nonprofit
program needs to recognize the
limits of our knowledge.
Whenever a grant is made or
a program offered, a foundation
or nonprofit is essentially predicting that a set of actions will
lead to desired results. It might
make that bet based on intuition or the findings of rigorous
testing, but the underlying idea
is that the future is knowable.
However, humans are lousy
at making predictions.
In his book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It?
How Can We Know?, Philip E.
Tetlock, a business professor at
the University of California at
Berkeley, makes the case that
not only are people bad at making predictions but they also
dislike uncertainty so much
that they often underperform by
pure chance because they invent
fictitious cause-and-effect theo-ries that serve them poorly.
In the book, Mr. Tetlock dis-
cusses a Yale University study
“that pitted the predictive abili-
ties of a classroom of Yale un-
dergraduates against those of a
single Norwegian rat.”
The rat and the undergrad-
uates had to predict on which
side of a maze food would ap-
The food was consistently located on the left 60 percent of
the time and on the right 40
percent of the time.
However, Mr. Tetlock ex-
plains, the rat made better
predictions than the Yale stu-
“The rat went for the more
frequently rewarded side (get-
ting it right roughly 60 percent
of the time), whereas the hu-
mans looked hard for patterns
and wound up choosing the left
or the right side in roughly the
proportion they were rewarded
(getting it right roughly 52 per-
cent of the time).”
The problem is that when
faced with uncertainty, rather
than making sensible bets on
the best course of action, hu-
mans strive to conquer the un-
certainty and devise a complex
system intended to guarantee
While we can laugh at the
hapless nature of humans, we
must also recognize that our
brains get in the way of making
And that is a problem in an
era when nonprofits
are urged to deploy
“proven, effective” programs and grant makers to demand “proof”
that such programs
To be sure, we can
learn more about what
works and what does not. We
can strive to better understand
what sorts of programs appear
to work better than others. We
can search for the characteristics demonstrated by high-per-forming organizations. But we
must frame this effort in the
language of probability, not as
cause and effect “laws of nature” that simply need to be discovered.
Mr. Tetlock himself makes
clear that our limited predictive
ability should not paralyze us.
“It would be a massive mistake
to ‘give up,’ to approach good
judgment solely from first-per-
son pronoun perspectives that
treat our own intuitions about
what constitutes good judg-
ments, about how well we stack
up against those intuitions, as
the beginning and end points of
If we expect to figure out
where money, talent, and other
resources should go, we need a
blend of approaches to gathering
knowledge. We need analytical
studies, third-party evaluations,
and statistical data—but we
also need ideas drawn from ben-
eficiaries, from an assessment of
the character of nonprofit man-
agement teams, and from the
intuition of experienced people
in the nonprofit world.
In judging the validity of a
decision-making process, Mr.
Tetlock suggests we focus on
Grant makers would do well
to ask those questions before al-
locating money, and nonprofits
should make those their guide-
posts in crafting decisions.
We are on the cusp of what
could be an era of high performance by nonprofit groups.
But no matter how much
progress we make, our success
hinges on accepting the limits
of our knowledge and a resistance to the seductive idea that
if we just try hard enough we
can identify “proven” approaches that guarantee success.
Sean Stannard-Stockton is
chief executive of Tactical Philanthropy Advisors, in Burlingame, Calif., and author of the
Tactical Philanthropy blog. He
is a regular columnist for The
Chronicle of Philanthropy.