Jennifer LentferWhere’s the Faith? The Space for Possibility and the Need for Certainty in Philanthropy

By: Jennifer Lentfer In: 2013 Annual Conference| Global Philanthropy| Philanthropy

10 Apr 2013

It was seemingly straightforward. We had provided a small grant to an income-generating project in Malawi. It was to a youthful and energetic group that wanted to start a chicken project, and sell the eggs and the offspring to generate revenue to support their work.

But in their first report, the group explained to us that they had not seen any profit. That was, you see, because a “beast” had eaten all of the chickens. (I assure you I cannot make this stuff up.)

This is also why the group wanted to abandon chicken-rearing in favor of installing a paraffin pump, much like a gas pump you may be used to seeing when you fill up your car. This one would sell oil to light people’s homes and provide fuel for cooking. According to the group, this change in strategy would require much less upkeep, inputs, and security once it was up and running.

I was faced with a question. Would I fund this group again? What would it take for you to do so? More information? A little faith? Or a lot for that matter?

In philanthropy, our work is often focused on unanswered questions. What is development? What is aid, philanthropy, social enterprise, impact investing? Do they necessarily improve the lives of people who are poor? How can outsiders help in the most effective and sustainable ways? What kinds of beasts live in Malawi and how does one get into the chicken coup?

Many of us have observed what some call the growing “data dash” in the philanthropic sector. Earlier this year in his annual letter, Bill Gates extolled the gospel of measuring what we do in philanthropy. As a grantmaker and a monitoring and evaluation professional, I have personally been part of an increasing effort by donors and nonprofits to find more precise ways of measuring progress in order to make consequential judgments.

We’ve all heard these phrases, over and over, in myriad ways and contexts:

“It’s vital that we understand what works and what doesn’t work and why.”

“That’s all very well and good, but how would you measure that?”

“When do you anticipate that you’ll be able to see the results from this?”


In fact, the search for evidence has become ingrained in every aspect of grantmakers’ and grant seekers’ day-to-day work. Obviously, the need and the desire to be accountable in our industry are not going away. No one wants to see resources squandered, so it’s natural to look for ways to prevent this.

Some people see more evidence-seeking behavior very positively. To them, international philanthropy guided by data and objective decisions will be inherently more effective and less wasteful. With more information at our fingertips, grantmakers can take stronger steps toward ensuring accountability and value for money—or so the logic goes.

Some people see the search for evidence in a different light—as onerous, limiting, and burdensome. They see social change as a force beyond logic and induction. To them, abstract metrics and experimental design is far from the difficult, intimate, or complex factors at play.

Are these irreconcilable worldviews? Do you see the value in the rising demand for results? Or do you identify more with those who are the reluctant suppliers of our insatiable appetite for evidence?

There seems to be a growing polarity between the thinkers (the people who make decisions behind their desks, based on the information before them) and the doers (those working on the ground).

There is absolutely nothing wrong with deepening the thinking behind the doing. My own career has been devoted to this very endeavor. For me what matters most now is how the thinking takes place and what’s needed to enable us to listen and become more responsive and effective partners. Can we as grantmakers acknowledge and challenge our own policies and practices that can often marginalize and demotivate those at the forefront of social change?

Let’s start by pausing and asking ourselves one thing. Why are we doing all this measuring?

Jennifer Lentfer is the creator of

1 Response to Where’s the Faith? The Space for Possibility and the Need for Certainty in Philanthropy

Prentice Zinn

April 12th, 2013 at 11:41 am

“There seems to be a growing polarity between the thinkers (the people who make decisions behind their desks, based on the information before them) and the doers (those working on the ground).”

The Council of Foundation should offer to tattoo this quote on the forearms of all of the attendees at their next conference.

We need more reminders like this that question how metrics mania might devalue other ways of knowing, of creating meaning, listening, and learning.

You challenge all of us to be skeptical that we are measuring what matters.


Most of us are suckers for managerial reductionism and are swept up by the noisy circus of evaluative charlatanry in our own disciplines.

Many other folks have observed that the evaluation and outcomes blather serves as cultural capital in our professions – self-serving symbols of power, status, expertise, etc.

Who has not seen how measurement is used to reinforce our institutional narrative fallacies to justify our interventions, raise money, and stake out our domain?

And who among us has not recognized how we fetishize our boxes and arrows, triangles, and info-graphics?

Are the thinkers are up to your challenge? Nope.

The do’ers, are. They are light-years ahead.

Comment Form

Welcome to RE: Philanthropy! In this blog, guest and Council bloggers share ideas and insights on the most pressing issues in philanthropy. If you want to contribute, please contact

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Council on Foundations.


Sam Davis
Caroline Roan and Atiya Weiss
William Vesneski
Allison Lugo Knapp
Matt Robertson
Linda J. Philipp
Jeff Pickering and Susanne Norgard
Michelle Bermudez
Mindie Reule
Bruce Trachtenberg and Michael Hamill Remaley
Paul Connolly
Ira Strumwasser, Ph.D.
John Stremsterfer
Heather Scott
Mark Hecker
Suzanne Skees
Susan Beaudry
Susan Swan Smith
Albert Ruesga
Erica Wood
Debbie Starke
Mayur Patel
Novelette Peterkin
John Colgan
Hillary Nather-Detisch
Suzanne Stringfield
Kathy Merchant
Heather Lord
Alicia Philipp
Jeff Stanger
Josie Burke
Matthew Nelson
Carol Thompson Cole
John Feather
Terry Kaelber
Bill Linder-Scholer
Priscilla Enriquez
Sophia Guevara
Rick Cohen
Holly Welch Stubbing
Omar Brownson
Jennifer Leonard
Adrienne Vargas
John Harvey
Trabian Shorters
Andrew Ho
Lisa Parker
Rita L. Soronen
Ruby Takanishi
Diane Melley