THE BLOG
07/02/2010 02:44 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Infatuations with Science, Business Keeping Philanthropy, Society from Real Progress

Foundation officers often mistakenly seek to apply scientific principles to complex social problems. And, civil society is endangered by an increasing market mentality on the part of new nonprofit leaders, says Stanford University's Bruce Sievers.

Sievers' book, Civil Society, Philanthropy and the Fate of the Commons, offers specific steps for philanthropy to improve the way in which it tackles various social problems and enlivens civic life. Sievers argues that efforts to strengthen civil society deserve a central position on the philanthropic agenda since it's a prerequisite for the achievement of most other philanthropic goals.

For many decades now, Sievers writes, foundations have attempted to apply scientific theory to such social problems as uneven access to public goods, including quality education, affordable health care, a clean environment and opportunities for robust civil engagement. Success has been elusive because of the random nature of human affairs, which runs "counter to the scientific vision of prediction and control."

Sievers is quick to add that it is useful to employ data when seeking to make informed judgments about grantmaking. His key argument is that getting to a solution of a social problem is difficult, and expectations of perfect solutions or complete results should be tempered by the knowledge that "social problems...are not straightforwardly solvable through the direct application of the techniques of laboratory science."

While seeking to demonstrate impact is a good thing, it cannot always be achieved. "While it is not unreasonable to expect that [charitable] contributions will yield some evidence of beneficial results," writes Sievers, "the exaggerated emphasis on metrics in the form of substantive accountability is becoming a driving force in the field, creating unrealizable expectations and a distortion of organizational priorities." Today's most pervasive societal problems are those that philanthropy, of all the sectors, should be most adept at tackling. But Sievers says it has limited its ability to do just that by more narrowly focusing programs and promising market-like results.

The solution, Sievers contends, is for foundations to focus on inputs -- processes -- more than outputs, or results. Foundations should work in true partnership with others, especially those most affected by a problem or proposed solution. And they should guide their work based on practical, local knowledge, not top-down management based on abstract theories.

The Aspen Philanthropy Group (APG), a gathering of foundation leaders, has identified the process of measurement and evaluation -- both of foundation strategies and individual grants -- as a topic for study by the Aspen Institute's Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation. The program has convened a series of working groups of experts in various issue domains to identify broad principles and practices in the M&E space that can lead to the twin goals of continuous learning and informed decision-making. More on this later when the team reports out to the APG in late July.