October 20, 2005
by David H. Smith
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.
“THE ROAD TO hell is paved with good intentions.” The maxim conceptualizes a reason for thinking about the consequences of the good we try to do. Meaning well isn’t enough. Still, there are difficulties in focusing on assessment of our generosity.
Assessments of effectiveness presuppose a fairly clear specification of goals to be achieved. Who sets those goals? Who might change them in the course of the act of doing good? A foundation awards a gift for work to be done over a three year period. During the interval they refine their objectives and become more concrete and specific about the goals they hope to attain in their entire grant making. What standards should they use in assessing the performance of this grantee – those in place when the grant was awarded, or those in place at the conclusion of the grant period? Using the more refined and specific criteria amounts to changing grading standards in mid-course and is, in a sense, unfair to the grantee. But limiting them to the earlier standards essentially prohibits the funder from learning from their experience and to rewarding performance that now seems inadequate. Fairness in granting is not like fairness in grading.
Indeed the very specification of goals, so necessary in assessing effectiveness, entails setting directions for the grantee. That is something we may well resist in other contexts. A good parent’s assistance with higher education must sit pretty loose to attainment of predetermined goals. All faculty members are familiar with the pathos of students whose parents want them to be doctors, lawyers or merchant chiefs when the student’s love is art, or philosophy or poetry. We all want our grown children to be self-supporting and to take advantage of their educational opportunities. Is it right to stipulate which opportunities they must seize? There may be contexts in which social help is like this idea of good parenting – in which the truly dedicated philanthropy will simply provide resources then sit back and watch what the beneficiaries do with it.
This said, assessments of effectiveness remain important in most philanthropy that would avoid paving that road to hell. One reason for this is that philanthropy is a distinctive kind of helping out or doing good. In particular philanthropy connotes action on a fairly substantial scale. Paying for one’s child’s college education is not philanthropy. Providing scholarships for some group of young people is. When helping out is raised to this level it becomes part of our society’s mechanism for communal provision. A scholarship program does not automatically become a creature of the state, something that public authority controls, but it is one of the many mechanisms that we have for assisting each other. As such it may be exemplary – of something that should be done or of a waste. When public funds are allocated for educational assistance, it must be taken account of. Assessment of efficacy is therefore mandatory.
Moreover, much philanthropy today is mediated. Most of us can’t accomplish our responsibility to help on our own; we need to pool resources. In effect we trust others to help out on our behalf – through the Red Cross or United Way or Catholic Charities. The fact
David H. Smith is professor emeritus of religious studies, College of Arts and Sciences, at Indiana University at Bloomington and adjunct professor of philanthropic studies at the School of Liberal Arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
Home | Learn About Hudson | Hudson Scholars | Find an Expert | Support Hudson | Contact Information | Site Map
Policy Centers | Research Areas | Publications & Op-Eds | Hudson Bookstore
Hudson Institute, Inc. 1015 15th Street, N.W. 6th Floor Washington, DC 20005
Phone: 202.974.2400 Fax: 202.974.2410 Email the Webmaster
© Copyright 2013 Hudson Institute, Inc.