One of the perennial problems in philanthropy is why we accomplish so little. Yes, I know the familiar success stories—911 calls, the polio vaccine—but we don’t really have very many successes, now, do we?

But how could that be? The large foundations are rolling in cash, and they can afford to hire the very best program officers, people who had top grades at top schools, who every day survey their domains with a cool and calculating eye based on decades of finely honed expertise. They then consult the great and the good, the mandarins who know the best restaurants in London, Paris, Davos, Aspen, Turtle Bay, and Silicon Valley. Then only the finest grantees are selected, and the result is….nothing! And since the press does such a bad job in covering philanthropy, mistakes can be easily buried.

I’ve always maintained that part of the problem is that large foundations think they can easily manipulate human behavior. I find some wise analysis of the limits that donors can do in two posts by Albert Ruesga, who runs a blog called White Courtesy Telephone when he isn’t at work in his day job as CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

I don’t know much about Ruesga. He spoke at a Hudson Institute lunch that I attended and I thought he had many interesting things to say. But his two posts make some very good points.

Donors give money to organizations because they want third parties to do things. For example, Charles and Marie Robertson gave $35 million to Princeton University in 1961 so that Princeton could persuade graduate students to pursue careers in the foreign service or other government agencies that worked outside the U.S. Princeton, in accepting the gift, implicitly stated that it could successfully persuade Princeton students to pursue the careers Robertson wanted. In 2002, the Robertson family didn’t like the way Princeton was administering the family’s money and launched a lawsuit that collapsed in 2008.

But the problem with the Robertson Foundation case is that students entered the Woodrow Wilson School, fulfilled all the requirements to obtain a master’s degree in public policy, and then (as happened at least once) decided they really didn’t want a government career and found a more fulfilling job as principal oboist with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Although I believe that the Robertson family would have prevailed if the case had gone to trial, Princeton ‘s strongest point was that it was not their fault if students went to graduate school and then changed their minds about their careers.

As Ruesga notes, it’s hard enough for a donor to want A to do something with grantee B, much less for grantee B then have non-grantee C do something.

Causal chains can become rather brittle: all the stars may be in alignment for moving from some cause to a given effect, from one link of the chain to the next; all the felicity conditions satisfied; and yet, of the movement from cause to effect depends on the vicissitudes of human actors, we might be wise to put long odds on the outcome.

In an earlier post Ruesga has a great chart he got from somewhere about tenant management of public housing and how theoretically having tenants in charge will improve properties. Whoever wrote the chart boldly challenges conventional standards of American orthography because they can’t spell (“demand for maintenance personal [sic]”). But the chart has seven steps between “residents on management board” and “improved condition of property,” including “more maintenance staff hired,” “better work by maintenance staff, and “demand for better quality materials.”

As Ruesga acidly notes, the chart shows that “despite all the vagaries of human action, causes and their effects tumble like Pachinko balls towards their lowest state of potential energy.”

Now at the commanding heights of the great foundations, where the magnificently credentialed program officers pursue their daily chore of telling the little people how to live, such charts are commonplace. But they are also meaningless, and have little to do with the real world that foundations theoretically influence.

Foundations can perform large projects. They can build things, and they can fund science. That is the limit of their power.

Albert Ruesga reminds us the foundations, when they attempt to change human behavior, usually fail spectacularly. When it comes to changing society, foundations perform best if they deal with ways to help individuals or change neighborhoods, not to redesign the world.