Frances Kissling on the Ethics of Philantropical Impact

It is good to ask whether your effort of social change have actually had any impact, i.e., whether some particular action or strategy are effective or we are just waisting our resources. We also want to avoid scam-philanthropical organisations which, unfortunately, are common enough. 

It might also seem a good question to ask whether it is worth ‘investing’ in a social campaign or not.

Unfortunately, in the last fifty years, it has radically increased in importance because of (i) individual hight net worth donors who made their money on the stock market tend to think of philanthropy as similar to investing, just that instead of generating profit, they generate positive social change, (ii) individual hight net worth donors who made their money on the tech industry and (iii) people and institutions who aim to practice so-called effective altruism.

Now we have heaps and heaps of institutes that care about impact and effectivity doing mostly random control trials, which are not cheap and can be applied only to a small range of philanthropical enterprises; in particular, it can only be applied to efforts whose results can be quantified. They also focus too much on monitoring the organization’s themselves, not those they are supposed to help.

“the push for impact data (and the competition for funding) can lead organizations to focus their data collection efforts on demonstrating impact, often at the expense of the basics: creating an evidence system that supports program learning and improvement.”

Dean Karlan and Mary Kay Gugerty

Social transformative groups are loosing funding. The Global Fund to Women’s education program, for example, lost a large chunk of their funding because of efficiency concerns.

Frances Kissling and her collaborators are trying to develop a new, more ethical framework as an alternative to the ones used by these philanthropists and largely by European countries as well.

With this purpose, the Center for Health, Ethics and Social Policy interviewed a diverse group of organizations, donors and experts. They found that people are not happy. They all know of the problem of quantifiability and are unsatisfied with the lack of a solution. They heard various buzzwords – “partnership”, “share the power”, “decolonize development”, etc. –, but the picture they paint of the problem is confusing and even contradictory at times. Still, there are some preliminary conclusions to draw, for example:

Donors and organization ought to be real partners. Donors ought to not just jump in and monitor, but be involved through the whole process. 

But, I wonder, isn’t this whole strategy completely misguided. There is a reason why people say that “the perfect is enemy of the good” and it has direct application on this problem: trying to make the best philanthropic donation possible is preventing philanthropists from making good (enough) donations. In the beginning, Kissling claimed that it is a truism that it is good to ask whether some particular action or strategy are effective or we are just waisting our resources. But this is a far cry from trying to make the best donations only, i.e. in wasting resources trying to determine which organization has more impact or is more efficient in its use of resources to produce positive change, etc. Monitoring and accountability must serve at most to avoid scams but not to create wasteful bureaucracies, and not to make philanthropical organizations compete with each other for resources.  Small is beautiful, indeed.

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