06/16/2013 04:52 pm ET Updated Aug 16, 2013

When Doing Good Isn't Good Enough

When was the last time you heard someone use that old aphorism, "The perfect is the enemy of the good"? Almost always, the phrase is deployed as a warning: Don't get so wrapped up striving for perfection that you fail to do what's merely good.

On its face, this sounds like sage advice. When it comes to good deeds, action is certainly better than inaction, and we can ill afford to wait for perfection when the needs all around us are so immediate and so real.

At the same time, I think there is a danger in this approach. If all "good" is created equal, it becomes impossible to define what's "better" or "best." As I wrote last week, this is a real problem for nonprofit funders trying to decide where limited resources should be invested. When philanthropies and government bodies look at the nonprofit sector, they see good intentions all around. Every nonprofit dreams of making the world a better place, and the natural inclination for funders is to reward those dreams with dollars.

Unfortunately, those dollars are in increasingly short supply, and funding every good intention is no longer a viable option. Money, it turns out, is a lot like light: warm and comforting in its most diffuse state, but powerful as a laser beam when properly focused.

I've written already about the role that philanthropies can play in advancing our shared goal of bringing effective practices to scale. This week, I want to examine the role of government officials, who often find themselves in a difficult position when it comes to balancing the needs of constituents with their own need for political support.

To give just one example, I recently sat in on a local government hearing where a statewide nonprofit was making a modest funding proposal that would have more than doubled its outreach among a very needy population.

When the presentation was over, all of the elected officials went out of their way to express their gratitude for the nonprofit and to urge a continuation of their public/private partnership. But when it came to the issue of funding that partnership, these same officials clearly felt uneasy. One woman struggled at length to communicate her objection, until she finally settled on a personal example.

"You folks are doing such good things and I'm so glad to have you in our community," she said. "But Organization X is also made up of good folks trying to help our kids the best they can. How am I supposed to explain why they don't get this money? I wish we could help every good organization out there, but we can't."

For me, that statement perfectly captured one of the central obstacles we in the nonprofit world face in our efforts to create lasting social change. In effect, these policymakers were saying that they had no business rewarding the best organization at the expense of all the merely good ones. Like many elected officials, they seem to believe that goodness is determined by intent rather than impact, and that motives are just as valid as measurement.

Though widely held in political circles, this view is looking increasingly antiquated. Among national nonprofits, measurable outcomes are fast becoming the irrefutable standard for effective practice, yet too many government funders still seek to maximize the number of do-gooders in their community, rather than the net impact of their goodness.

The difficulty, of course, is that political realities often discourage elected officials from rewarding the best at the expense of the good. By insisting upon outcomes as the primary criterion for funding decisions, policymakers run the risk of appearing unresponsive to their constituents, because so many community-based nonprofits simply don't have the capacity to produce the kind of performance metrics needed to make their case.

When one organization does attempt to use evidence as the criterion for justifying the public allocation of resources, other organizations suddenly appear to be wanting. This new criterion disrupts the marketplace of public funding, and the incentive structure for policymakers is too convoluted to support a courageous political decision.

Nevertheless, I would argue that political courage is exactly what is required if government funders hope to achieve the greatest possible impact at the lowest possible cost. Sprinkling funds across the entire nonprofit sector in order to keep everyone happy will do little to bring about any sort of fundamental change.

Moving beyond the "good enough" mentality will only happen when government officials find the courage to focus on the end users of social services -- people who often don't vote. If value and accountability are demanded from those paving our streets or teaching our children, why should government accept any less from those who would serve the most vulnerable populations within our communities?