3 min read

It’s time to question philanthropy’s single-minded drive toward measurement and metrics, and start talking about building trust.

No social arrangement can operate well or for long without trust.

The amount of time and work it takes to cultivate trust is inversely related to how quickly it can be lost. Then too, while familiarity may breed contempt, it also breeds trust. We typically don’t default to trusting those we don’t know, especially when we find it so difficult to trust well those we do.

So it shouldn’t surprise us when the Center for Effective Philanthropy reports that one of the central problems in modern philanthropy is a “pervasive lack of trust” between foundations and grant recipients. This lack of trust is largely the result of a knowledge deficit, revealed in grantees’ complaint that those offering the grants need to learn to defer to those who live in, know, and understand a region.

They might well have added “love,” a word which we should not forget is at the root of “philanthropy.” People who get into the nonprofit sector typically do so because they are trying to promote, defend, enrich, or maintain something they love, and these loves form the backbone of any worthwhile enterprise.

Funders, on the other hand, may or may not have the same love, and the natural power and dependency imbalance of giver-recipient relationships may quickly skew operations. The funders would have a tendency to either dictate practices that run contrary to the demands of love, or insist on “measurables and metrics” that take love out of the equation.

The authors of the report note that “in the drive toward measurement and metrics, talking about relationship building as a measure of impact may seem suspect.” As I argued in a prior piece at Philanthropy Daily, The Problem With Measurable Impact, metrics are often used to run a shortcut around relationships, but do so poorly. 

Any relationship involving commitment, trust, concern, and passion – love, in short – will involve great complexity.

Marriage, for example, doesn’t work because of the simplicity of the relationship or the parties involved; rather, it works because the complexity of the persons, and their endlessly fluctuating interactions become a bottomless source of interest and delight as well as frustration. Intimacy begets the ability to understand the “best practices” toward a particular person under specific circumstances. Contingency enriches rather than diminishes that complexity. Parents will tell you that as children gain self-reliance the relationship becomes more complex, not less so, and increased complexity restricts the number of viable strategies and responses available, especially if we wish to respect the other’s legitimate autonomy.

It’s called the human condition.

To rescale such relationships is to alter them, but rescaling doesn’t diminish complexity. It is, in many ways, the desire to bypass complexity that is the chronic pathology of modern life; or, if not bypass it, at least mitigate it.

The root of this can be found in an eternal human bugaboo: pride. Complexity bars the aspirations of control. But control and love are antinomies, so any genuine philanthropy worthy of its etymology must learn to give up control. It’s the only way to address the power imbalances that otherwise corrupt relationships.

Any nonprofit organization is an immensely complex collection of complex persons trying to work together in a complex situation. Navigating that complexity requires an intimacy of knowing that donors rarely possess (although counter examples might be found in education and the arts). One should give modestly, not in dollars but in demands. The donor should start by yielding to the grantee. As one recipient put it: “Being of and around wealth does not a deep-community-knowledge make. Humility yields many, many great things.”

The report highlights the conduct of particularly good program officers whose common trait was “deference.” They didn’t assume they knew the organization’s needs better than those running the organization. They listened carefully. They let clients know that funding was not to be purchased by nonprofits adjusting their missions or practices to pander to the foundation. Good program officers worked with a light touch, being neither too prescriptive nor too coy about their own interests.

In other words, good foundations are modest foundations.

This should not surprise us, as we would typically expect our institutions to reflect those qualities we most treasure in ourselves and others. The CEP report, despite its jargon, and there’s plenty of it, is an important step in understanding that effective partnerships ought to reflect the ways human beings normally and ideally interact.

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