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Charity Navigator launched its “Third Dimension of Intelligent Giving,” Results Reporting, earlier this year. Results Reporting joins two other rating areas—Financial Health and Accountability and Transparency—in Charity Navigator’s evaluation system, aimed at informing potential donors about the relative strengths and weaknesses of various nonprofit groups. ­­

As is the case with the other rating areas, CN’s stated reason for pursuing Results Reporting is laudable: to help charitable givers make wise decisions in choosing the charities that are most worthy of their donations. Specifically, this measurement looks at outcomes of charities’ work and whether these results are providing “social value,” which they define as “offering meaningful change in communities and peoples’ lives.”  The methodology focuses on five areas, including how the organization’s mission aligns with its program areas and solicitation materials; the results logic (how the charity intends to get from problem to solution); and whether its outcomes are externally validated.

Of course it is good for a charity to have a well thought out mission and a defined, logical strategy to accomplish that mission. Indeed, it is good for a donor to care about (and make informed decisions based upon) whether a charity is doing what it sets out to accomplish. Yes, a good organization leader will be cognizant of the results of the charity’s work and learn from and adapt programs based on this data. Sure, it would be nice if they would share this with their donors and the public. So why might this be a bad thing?

Aside from the problems inherent in defining “social value,” and the negative impact this might have on donors’ support for organizations that have less clearly defined or measurable results (I have think tanks and other academic-oriented endeavors in mind), I think it puts the burden of proof in the wrong place. On its website, CN states that it is “specifically focusing on the way charities come to know, use and share their results with stakeholders including donors.” This shifts the criteria by which charities are being evaluated from the quality of their service to the quality of their marketing. How does this help the charities? Just who is being served here—the charity or the donor? Is this making these organizations better in some way or adding another level of bureaucracy and overhead? I am inclined to think the latter. Aside from being unnecessary, such marketing efforts are beyond the capacity of many small, nimble nonprofits that are nevertheless well worth supporting.

Of course, whether a charity is actually following through on its goals is another question, and one worth asking. (A topic for another day, perhaps.) But it is not CN’s intention to do this within the scope of their Results Reporting. Rather, its aim is to rate charities based on how they communicate their work to the world. I think this is a checklist we can do without.

But the deepest problem with CN’s Results Reporting criteria is epistemological. In CN’s world, how do we know an organization is effective? Because the experts have told us so. And that opinion is backed up by other outside experts (“validators”), so God help you if you disagree or dare to think for yourself. Walker Percy, a southern writer and philosopher, had an axe to grind with experts. He was leery of the disconnectedness that occurs when a mediating expert with pat theories is introduced between a person and his perception of reality.

In his essay “The Loss of the Creature,” Percy describes a pair of tourists who stumble across a remote village. Their glee at having discovered an “authentic sight” is tempered by their desire that the genuineness of their experience be verified by their ethnologist friend.  Percy reflects:

Their basic placement in the world is such that they recognize a priority of title of the expert over his particular department of being. The whole horizon of being is staked out by "them," the experts. The highest satisfaction of the sightseer (not merely the tourist but any layman seer of sights) is that his sight should be certified as genuine. The worst of this impoverishment is that there is no sense of impoverishment. The surrender of title is so complete that it never even occurs to one to reassert title. A poor man may envy the rich man, but the sightseer does not envy the expert. When a caste system becomes absolute, envy disappears. Yet the caste of layman-expert is not the fault of the expert. It is due altogether to the eager surrender of sovereignty by the layman so that he may take up the role not of the person but of the consumer.

I do not refer only to the special relation of layman to theorist. I refer to the general situation in which sovereignty is surrendered to a class of privileged knowers, whether these be theorists or artists. A reader may surrender sovereignty over that which has been written about, just as a consumer may surrender sovereignty over a thing which has been theorized about. The consumer is content to receive an experience just as it has been presented to him by theorists and planners. The reader may also be content to judge life by whether it has or has not been formulated by those who know and write about life. (Percy, The Message in the Bottle)

In an interview given to Sojourners before his 1989 Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities, he was more blunt: “If you come to the point where you are relying on the experts, the scientists, to give me the answers to my life, or the social planners to get me out of the mess I'm in--that's unfortunate to the degree that it destroys one's own initiative.”

I think there is application here to the world of philanthropy. The mission of an organization is at the very heart of why a donor chooses to fund it. I believe that donors are very capable of discerning for themselves, sans experts, whether a charity’s “results logic” makes sense. To the extent that CN takes that decision out of the hands of the donor, it undermines a donor’s initiative and his or her engagement in that organization. Philanthropy is and should be deeply human. Even its name reflects this—philanthropy is the love of man, not the love of metrics. We do not need to surrender sovereignty here.

1 thought on “Charity Navigator 3.0: Missing the (deeply human) point of philanthropy?”

  1. Paul says:

    Astute observation as to how many not-for-profits seem to operate today.

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