Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

March 14, 2011

Nonprofits should trust themselves

By Todd Cohen

Nonprofits need to remember not to forget how to think for themselves.

Despite the best intentions, many nonprofits risk losing sight of their mission, losing touch with their customers and donors, and losing confidence in their own ability to develop and run sustainable organizations.

The culprits are foundations, trade groups and consultants that are fixated on metrics and short-term results, and peddle that mindset to nonprofits that are only too willing to check their judgment at the door in exchange for those groups’ philanthropic dollars and self-promoted expertise.

But those dollars come with a tight leash, turning many nonprofits into little more than extensions of foundations, many of them inbred organizations whose own power and perceived wisdom flow from little more than donated or inherited wealth.

As a result, nonprofits must swallow organized philanthropy’s force-fed diet of measurement-driven strategies for serving clients, raising money and running their shops.

Measuring results and thinking strategically can indeed be highly productive for nonprofits.

What is flat wrong, however, is the idea that vision, effectiveness and sustainability depend only on what can be quantified, when in fact success and impact are as much a function of experience, social intelligence and intuitive thinking.

The time is ripe for nonprofits and funders alike to start rethinking the way they think about doing business.

As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote on March 7, a new way of looking at how we think is emerging.

Brooks says that big policy failures in our society have stemmed from an “overly simplistic view of human nature.”
The prevailing view, not only on policy matters but in many aspects of work and life, he says, is that we are creatures divided into reason, which we can trust, and emotion, which is suspect.

That perceived division, he says, has distorted our culture.

“Many of our public policies are proposed by experts who are comfortable only with correlations that can be measured, appropriated and quantified, and ignore everything else,” Brooks says.

But while Americans “are trapped within this amputated view of human nature,” he says, a “richer and deeper view is coming back into view,” thanks to researchers in fields like neuroscience, psychology, sociology and behavioral economics.

What those researchers are finding, he says, include the insights that much of the best thinking takes place in the unconscious, which makes up most of the mind, and that emotions are not separate or opposed to reason but are its foundation and the basis of the way we assign values.

That research also has shown us that “we are not individuals who form relationships,” Brooks says. “We are social animals, deeply interpenetrated with one another, who emerge out of relationships.”

The charitable marketplace is only as good as the relationships it fosters: The people who work in and support the nonprofit sector are most effective when they learn to work together, listen to one another, and treat their co-workers, boards, donors and collaborating organizations as partners truly willing to share risks, resources and power.

Yet many foundations, trade groups and consultants, and many nonprofits that are convinced they need and depend on them, are becoming increasingly blind to anything but metrics, short-term impact and, increasingly, ideological doctrines, whether right or left.

They also are becoming increasingly tone-deaf to strategic thinking that tempers cold calculation with personal insight and judgment based on experience, relationships, and the realities of the marketplace.

Equally disturbing, too many foundations and trade groups have become consumed with their own turf and power, so while they preach collaboration, they cannot bear not to be in control.

Nonprofits need to free themselves from the rigid, two-faced culture of these philanthropic powerbrokers, trust themselves and find philanthropic partners they can trust in working together to making our communities better places to live and work.

Enhancing nonprofit partnerships

Please join PJ on March 24 for a webinar that will focus on nonprofit partnerships.

Leading the webinar, to begin at 1 p.m. Eastern time, will be Susan Jakes, an extension assistant professor, family and community development specialist, and adjunct professor in psychology at North Carolina State University.

In her work, Jakes partners with communities to design programs that promote systems-and-community-change.

While many nonprofits are open to the idea of partnerships, she says, partnerships in reality can be more of a threat or burden than a source of energy, innovation and resources.

So please join us for our March 24 webinar, when Susan will talk about ways in which partnerships can be a valuable asset to your nonprofit and help magnify your impact and enhance your recognition.

To find out more about the webinar, and to register, click here.


  • At 1:38 PM, Anonymous Leonor Alfonso said…

    Todd, thank you for bring up the critical issue of the relationship between nonprofits and foundations.

    Grantmakers for Effective Organizations believes that robust partnerships between grantmakers, grantees and other key stakeholders are central to making an impact on the issues we care about. In fact, one of the key findings of GEO’s Change Agent Project was that the most change-making grantmakers are driven by the belief that grantees and community stakeholders are well suited to play a role in setting and leading the agenda, and that answers to the problems they seek to address lie within the community. We find the lack of genuine stakeholder engagement risky for grantmakers because it can lead to ineffective or failed programs, broken relationships with grantees and, ultimately, to community disengagement. For more information on our work to increase stakeholder engagement in philanthropy, please visit

  • At 7:26 AM, Anonymous Brigid said…

    Yes! Thank you for this post, it's a very pressing issue in philanthropy.

    I often cite the analogy in end-of-life care. Care is determined based on what is measurable, and the quantifiable stat is length of life. What is not quantifiable is the quality of life. So you may have treatments that promotes extension of life, even at the cost of quality of life. Because the latter is not able to be measured, and outcomes are only judged according to metrics, patients may end up worse on an non-quantifiable scale.

    Not saying to ignore the quantitative, but just as you say, that they need to be considered in hand with the elements that cannot be measured: goodwill, respect, humanity.


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