I'm Just Not That Into "Theories Of Change"

An offhand question asked by a colleague the other day got me thinking. She asked me, “In five years, what would you like to be known for?” This is a slightly different version of the standard where-do-you-want-to-be-in-five-years query.

The way it was framed drew me up short and made me think.

My immediate answer was “I would like to be known for helping people be the people they aspire to be in public life.”

The reason this got me thinking is that I am a part of the “nonprofit sector” or “philanthropic sector.” Among my colleagues, everyone is talking about change. They’ve been talking change since long before that young senator from Illinois took the reins of power.

For years now, every nonprofit organization has had to have a “theory of change ” that it could whip out and explain. Every funding request, it seems, now requires a statement of the recipient’s “theory of change.”

All this “change” business has always made me feel out of step with my nonprofit friends, but I never quite was able to put my finger on why. Now I know. I’m not too interested in change. That’s not what drives me. I’m interested in helping people.

It seems to me, surveying the field, that the clamor for “change” has pushed out an important — and, I might argue, fundamental — aspect of philanthropy. This aspect is directly related to the root of the word: love of humanity. Organizations and individual people who just want to help others tend to get set aside as funders seek more and more impact for their donated dollars.

This effect is completely understandable and I don’t indict anyone for it. Funders really do need to stretch their donations further. There really are large problems to be tackled, problems that will take change more than charity. And, many individual people do need help due to broader forces that ought to change.

But there’s also a human scale and I fear that there are too few people speaking up for it. It’s the individual person helped to find a job, or a place to live. It’s the citizen who learns she or he has a voice and can use it.

After all, “change” can come about from individual improvement just as it can come about through systemic action. My personal bias, simply because this is where I feel most comfortable, is to know that people on an individual basis can live better lives because of something I might have done.

We need both change and charity.

So, how can we keep the human scale of philanthropy and not shove it aside, even as we try harder to do more with less?

5 thoughts on “I'm Just Not That Into "Theories Of Change"”

  1. Brad, this really strikes a cord. A major part of my work involves public diplomacy. My organization partners with the US Department of State to arrange partnerships between US museums and museums abroad in which the two museums bring their respective communities together to work on a joint project. This can be exploring a common problem, shared history, or mutual opportunity.

    We do so in the conviction that ordinary citizens, being themselves and interacting directly as they practice their professions, are the best ambassadors and the best architects of mutual understanding among peoples. It’s our conviction that a teenager abroad who works with a US museum curator on one of these exchanges may take from it a different sense of the US–a sense of connection–which pays dividends somewhere 10, 20, or 30 years down the road when that teenager becomes an adult participant in his or her own society.

    Now, in a world of results-based philanthropy, can I prove this? Absolutely not. An outcomes-based assessment at the end of the project won’t capture it–the payoff we are after takes place years after the project ends. And will anyone fund us to do a long-range study? No, not on your life.

    So here is a program that embodies what the papers and think tanks are calling for: citizen diplomacy. And in a world in which we strictly follow outcomes-based philanthropy, we would have no choice but to strangle it in its crib in favor of funding something more assessable.

    There’s something wrong in this scenario…

    Erik Ledbetter

  2. Erik, I should have replied to this sooner. You make excellent points. It is incredibly difficult to “prove” results of so much of what we do. On the other hand, we need to make SOME kind of case that we’re having an effect — even if only to ourselves, to keep us toiling away.

    It’s a tough dilemma, I don’t have a good answer yet. Although, I do find promise in a portfolio approach to assessment (taking a cue from educational assessment here).

  3. Happy to have found your blog!

    I hear what you are saying about helping people, so this isn’t to contradict it, but rather to share a quote/idea that was important to me in thinking about my desire to help people. Maybe it is too revolutionary for your taste….

    “If you have come to help me, then don’t waste your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

    The quote is often attributed to an Aboriginal activist group from Queensland, Australia in the 1970s. It is specifically from Lila Watson, who was one of the group members, but she said she that she was not comfortable being credited for something that had been born of a collective process.

    Anyway, just a thought. I’ll look forward to hearing more from you at the upcoming conference in New Hampshire. All the best, Elizabeth

  4. Elizabeth, I have always liked that quote and thank you for bringing it into the mix!

    What I like about it is the radical antiphilanthropy it embodies. (And I mean that in a positive way.) That may be my contrarian nature coming out.

    I look forward to seeing you in New Hampshire.

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