October 20, 2005
by Jamila S. Owens
The following essay was prepared for a discussion on effectiveness in philanthropy—part of a series of six discussions entitled "The Dialogues on Civic Philanthropy: Perfecting Our Grants" (2005-2006). By clicking the links to the right, you can access more information on this series, learn about the Dialogues project as a whole, read other prepared essays, and download discussion transcripts.
SOMETHING ABOUT the term effective seems so dry, clinical and minimal. While perhaps we should all strive to be effective, I certainly hope that is not all we aim to be, and don’t think it should be the scale by which we judge.
To be effective (according to Daniel Webster) means to produce a “decisive, defined or desired” result – not all three, but at least one, and that is just fine. We should all aim to do at least that, I guess. But being effective, to me doesn’t seem that impressive. It’s too safe. It keeps the lights on. It gets the bills paid, but it doesn’t create the spectacular, which is what the best of philanthropy does.
The best of philanthropy is not just effective. It is amazing. It produces results going beyond the scope of most human vision or imagination, and often does so through means that defy standard reason and calculation (and therefore don’t get the blessing of many boards or funders). However, it is that kind of philanthropy that “blows the top” off of possibilities and inspires the best in others by going beyond the aims of effectiveness, by putting effectiveness at risk for a wider lens of what can be accomplished when working against the insurmountable.
Whether we speak in terms of volunteer time or volunteer money for the public good, effectiveness, as a term and a concept, discourages risk for the sake of avoiding “failure”. It encourages organizations to stay in the lines when truly actualizing their missions may require seeing no lines at all. Instead, most of us aim to be effective, and seal our fate in mediocrity. After all, the best way to ensure effectiveness is to be sure to aim low.
The envisioning and creative power in philanthropy that creates the amazing is rare, but maybe not as rare as we think. It is thought to be only safely wielded by those with enough of their own money to “call the shots” and having enough power to bend the rules. However I think what drives the best of this kind of philanthropy can be honored and actualized throughout. In addition to holding up effectiveness, we can honor passion, dedication, collaboration, creativity and risk, being willing to honor the journey as much as we praise the result.
Jamila S. Owens is a program officer at the Georgia Humanities Council.
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