Why is philanthropy so boring? Because disagreements disappear in any room known to house philanthropists.

Honest debate, indeed honesty itself, is rare when donors are around, because most people, especially grantees, avoid saying anything that may ruffle a feather.

So hosannas to the Wallace Foundation of New York for its amazing invitation to Bill Schambra of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal. Although Wallace prides itself on seeking results “we can measure,” it asked Schambra – a self-described “notorious critic” of metrics – to present his case to the foundation’s board. (His talk and a response from Wallace’s president, Will Miller, are reprinted in Nonprofit Quarterly.)

Schambra criticizes Wallace’s focus on measurement and metrics. He connects this criticism with his well-known critique of the dominant foundations in early twentieth-century America, such as Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie. They, too, believed numbers should guide giving:

It’s difficult to overstate the role that measurement was to play in philanthropy’s plans for America. Statistics, numbers, metrics were to be gathered en masse as the best way to probe social problems to their roots.

Stats were also, Schambra adds, intended to resolve bitter political fights, because numbers would be neutral and nonpartisan. That was the conceit of the turn-of-the-century Progressives whose thought dominated the early philanthropists.

The idea went something like this: Social science experts in universities, supported by philanthropists, would measure the results of various social engineering experiments. Those results would then guide government policy, as well as further research and giving. Ugly political disputes would fade away as social scientists traced social problems to their roots and cured them the same way a new medicine cures a toothache.

Alas, a century later, things haven’t turned out that way, because nonprofits, governments, social problems, and even measurements are not as simple as the measurers assumed.

Schambra quips, “Measurement hasn’t tamed politics. Politics has seduced measurement.” Today

both sides of any political dispute are able to generate reams of social science evidence, proving indisputably that a given proposal will either rescue or ruin the republic. Policy research institutions are now understood to be not neutral arbiters of abstract metrics but highly partisan numbers factories for diverse political agendas.

Meanwhile, today’s metrics mania forces every nonprofit to

shoehorn its real-world work into the abstract, unfamiliar professional jargon to which data accumulators resort when they wish to generalize across (that is, to make disappear) the varieties of particular experiences.… [A nonprofit] must recast its programs into as many different languages and metric frameworks as the foundations from which it seeks funding.

Schambra concludes that donors should not rely on numbers alone to guide their giving. Instead, they should cultivate

robust and open discussion and disagreement among a variety of points of view, whether armed with numbers or not.

Wallace president Will Miller gives a thoughtful response to Schambra, acknowledging such points as the need to choose grantees that are already doing the work the foundation desires, “so our grants do not torque them off mission.” He generously adds that

debate sharpens thinking. In my experience, civil conversation almost always bears this fruit. One small example: The day after our dinner, the board reviewed a draft values statement and replaced the word “metrics” with the word “evidence.” Why? Bill’s comments had reminded us not all evidence comes from measurement.

This leads to one point that Schambra, in my view, should have conceded: Today’s emphasis on measuring the results of giving doesn’t stem entirely from the tradition of Progressive social science, powerful though that tradition is among institutional donors. No, in part it arises in response to the stinging criticisms philanthropy has received from Schambra and others, who have critiqued the Progressives’ philanthropic offspring and their frequent failure to achieve good results from their billions in donations. (See, for example, Philanthropy Daily's own Martin Morse Wooster’s Great Philanthropic Mistakes.)

For decades, big foundations have been assailed from the center-right, including by Schambra, and also from the left by groups like the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, which has repeatedly observed that center-right foundations have produced more social change than many larger mainstream foundations.

Yet that very success relates to Schambra’s criticism of Progressive social science. If conservative donors like, say, the John M. Olin Foundation, have achieved more bang for their buck, it’s because they didn’t approach their giving as “value-free” social scientists. While not eschewing all measurements, they were guided by higher questions than arise from crunching social science data: What allows a society to flourish? What role for free enterprise did America’s Founders intend? Can hand-outs to the poor harm as well as help? Are courts a good means for re-shaping society? Are communist nations a threat to America?

By considering such issues, these donors tacitly endorsed the twentieth century’s most powerful critique of social science, made by political philosopher Leo Strauss. Schambra’s complaints with philanthropy’s “metrics mania” echo Strauss’s complaints with social scientists. For instance, Strauss doubts that social science data-crunching has discovered truths that wise men and women of old could not have told you without gathering statistics, and Schambra chuckles at using metrics to discover that “serving wine at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum” will attract young adults.

Strauss also objects to social scientists’ jargon, to their hyperspecialization and blind faith in science, which lead them to discard the perspective of “common sense” that helps us to recognize that some “data” are far more important than others.

Strauss warns that social scientists often view “human beings as an engineer would view materials for building bridges”; indeed, social scientists can even believe they can “observe human beings as we observe rats.” Far better, Strauss argues, to return to “the perspective of the citizen” and seek to “understand social reality as it is understood in social life by thoughtful and broadminded men.”

That, I submit, is what wise and effective center-right donors have done when they have studied the exceptional way that America was founded two centuries ago and then attempted to support practical and academic projects aimed at strengthening our “traditions of personal freedom, entrepreneurship, and democratic institutions that protect individual rights,” as three sage observers of American giving once put it (see “An Exceptional Nation,” by Alexander Karp, Gary Tobin, and Aryeh Weinberg).

“The only alternative,” Strauss insists, “to an ever more specialized, an ever more aimless, social science is a social science ruled by the legitimate queen of the social sciences – the pursuit traditionally known” as ethics. To follow Strauss’s advice, donors must seek to understand human nature, which is too messy and mysterious to be captured entirely by statistics. This in turn will lead donors to understand better what communities need to flourish.

Numbers can play a role, but wisdom is indispensable. Gaining such wisdom will require the kind of vigorous debate that the Wallace Foundation was brave enough to welcome into its board meeting.

FOOTNOTE: Leo Strauss’s harshest critique of social science appears in Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics, an anthology he and his students produced. Strauss begins his contribution bemoaning how the new social science “is supported by foundations of immense wealth with unbounded faith and unbelievably large grants.” But irony of ironies, the book itself begins with editor Herbert Storing acknowledging that the project received financial assistance from the Ford, Rockefeller, and Relm Foundations.

Speaking of metrics and ethics, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics begins by observing that equal precision can’t be expected in all types of study, and that political issues and questions of what is good for humans especially don’t allow for extremely precise measurements. See Book I, ch. 3.

On the John M. Olin Foundation, John J. Miller has written the two best accounts: a shorter one in Strategic Investment in Ideas: How Two Foundations Reshaped America and a book-length one in A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.