Are three principles of effective philanthropy enough?

Sean Stannard-Stockton has provided an excellent overview of The Center for Effective Philanthropy's three basic principles of, well, effective philanthropy:

1. Clear goals;
2. Coherent, well-implemented strategies;
3. Relevant performance indicators.

If you come to charity by way of the business world, this formula no doubt sounds familiar. In fact, it's the staple of many an intro entrepreneurship class--including my own--as well as the foundation of leading how-to books for start-ups.

Which isn't to say it's bad advice--quite the contrary. Whether you're running a charitable foundation or a social business funded by earned income, these three basic principles are essential for success.

However, that doesn't mean they're in themselves sufficient to succeed. As important as these principles are, the fact remains that a charitable venture can be faithful to all three and still end up a failure--not in spite of its goals, strategies and performance indicators, but because of them.

The problem isn't that these are business principles inapplicable to charity--that's a false dichotomy, as unhelpful as saying that the mundane rules of meter and rhythm are irrelevant for creating sublime poetry. Rather, the danger lies in reducing any corporate environment--whether charitable or commercial--to a set of tasks and rules.

Formulae such as this fall short of addressing the relation between part and whole. On one level, they tend to frame a social issue in such a way as to isolate it from its broader social context. In so doing they create micro-solutions that can actually exacerbate macro-problems, if not fail to reach the target goal itself.

Marshall McLuhan was wont to say that the specialist is someone who never makes small mistakes while moving toward the grand fallacy, and we tend to see a similar phenomenon in charity. As I've said elsewhere, it's like telling ourselves that we'll be happy if we reach our target weight--we can reduce philanthropy to a clear goal with coherent strategies and relevant metrics, and yet at the end of our diet find ourselves twice as unhappy as when we began.

This brings me to a deeper problem with such principles--namely, their insufficiency for creating an environment that relates to us as human beings. We consist of an array of transactional rules, from blood flow to heartbeat to language norms to systems of exchange. At the same time we are all more than that, from the collectives we inhabit to our inner sense of self. A business with a sterile mechanistic culture breeds dissatisfaction and in so doing generates systemic inefficiencies; a charity even more so, given its stronger transformative valence.

This, in short, is the irony of our present models of effective charity: the more we reduce charity to efficient transaction-based problem-solving, the less efficient charity is likely to become. For such principles to function as we'd like, we need to understand how they work together to create something more.