An article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy may indicate a change in a 20-year trend of measuring nonprofit performance. The “effective philanthropy” movement took a small hit when the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation announced it was closing down its eight-year, $12-million funding of projects to “get donors to rely as much on their heads as their hearts.” Their funding for Charity Navigator, GiveWell and GuideStar ended shortly after the conclusion of the study.
As you may know, these organizations are three of the most visible and successful tools for public information about financial performance and social impact of nonprofit organizations.
While Larry Kramer, the President of the Hewlett Foundation, made it clear they ended the funding not because the three organizations were ineffective in reaching their own specific goals but because the Foundation’s goal of influencing 10% of individual donors to be more evidence-based in their giving by making high quality information available about nonprofit performance had not been reached. They still support other means of influencing donors to be more rational.
To its credit, the decision to drop the funding was the result of the foundation’s own research through Hope Consulting. The “Money for Good” study showed that few people actually investigate the performance of nonprofits as part of their decision to give. The research indicates that despite the increasing number of ratings and due diligence on nonprofit performance, donors still give most of their money to charities they know well, such as their alma mater or groups that have helped them or their friends. While 85 percent said that a charity’s performance is very important, only 35 percent conducted research on giving, and just 2 percent gave based on a group’s relative performance. “It’s not like we could make them all super rational,” said Jacob Harold, chief executive of GuideStar and a former Hewlett program officer.
A separate study by Grey Matter Research & Consulting in 2023 analyzed how evangelical donors made decisions on whether or not to give in response to typical banner ads by ministries. They found that ads including charity watchdog logos (like Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability and others like those in the Hewlett study) were actually less effective than ads without those endorsements. As most evangelical donors are unfamiliar with these groups the endorsement only increased distraction and clutter without adding value. However, most effective was including a short Scripture verse along with the reference ( e.g., “…a future filled with hope. Jeremiah 29:11) that bumped the response significantly. In other words, a research-based evangelical watchdog endorsement is not as effective as a text from Scripture.
Reading this article about “rational givers” who lean strongly toward making decisions by logic and analysis instead of emotion reminded me of something else I read in the Wall Street Journal about the “left brain/right brain” dichotomy – and that surprisingly this distinction is no longer considered valid by many researchers.
The Journal reported on a two-year study published in the journal “Plos One” about the research of University of Utah neuroscientists. They scanned the brains of more than 1,000 people to measure the specific mental processes taking place on each side of the brain. The neuroscientists found no evidence that the study participants had a stronger left- or right-sided brain network. As it turns out, we are all left- and right-brain people, and our brains work best as a unified system. There is no way to categorize people – or the way they give – into one side or the other. We are fully integrated by design and should not describe someone as being motivated by reason or emotion.
In other words, we cannot be easily divided into “head or heart” people.
I like the Hebrew word, “leb” that most often translates as “heart.” It does not mean simply emotion, compassion and feelings but also is used to describe the seat of our intellect, will, reason and thinking. Everything about us is captured in this single word. Sadly, we have corrupted the word (think Valentine’s Day) and have reduced its full meaning to a sliver of what God intended. We have separated emotion from reason, when in fact, they are joined and completely melded with each other. You cannot truly love without reason or reason without love.
Remember that our best is not when we try to balance “head and heart” but when we see our giving as coming from the full use of everything that Scripture describes in that one word. It is all from one place. It is everything we have.