Philanthropy’s false optimism

After I closed my last company I found myself growing increasingly pessimistic. Pessimistic that my career to that point had generated any real social impact. Pessimistic that social programs had any real effect. I had figured out how to make a living in the social sector, but not social change.

In the year or so between shutting my business down and joining the Family Independence Initiative (FII) I pursued a number of opportunities. At one point I found myself listening to a coworker philosophize about how her intense optimism fueled her quest to end poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. I remember thinking to myself how I wished I shared her optimism, and lamenting my loss of faith in social sector work. Appropriately, this lecture on optimism was delivered in a luxury vehicle with heated leather seats on our way to discuss a six-figure Word document prepared for a multi-billion dollar foundation. Africa has never been so saved.

Also during this period before joining FII I was courted by a social sector technology startup. My experience at the intersection of technology and nonprofits was attractive. However, the CEO of this company made it clear that my lack of faith in the social sector was not, telling me I was “too pessimistic” for the job.

For a long while I thought she was right. Why couldn’t I just believe in the social sector, and enjoy the cognitive dissonance of doing well for myself while believing I’m doing well for others as well? As much as I wanted to believe, I just didn’t.

True pessimism

It wasn’t until I joined FII that I realized what true optimism is, and how in my opinion the social sector masks extreme pessimism as false optimism.

At the heart of any social intervention is the theory of change. The theory of change assumes that some form of external intervention (tutoring program, job training, etc.) can drive a positive outcome (kids graduate from school, parents get jobs).

In human services, the theory of change is often steeped in a deep rooted belief that the poor cannot achieve on their own. These stereotypes include wrongheaded beliefs that the poor are:

  • Bad parents
  • Don’t value education
  • Are not capable of holding jobs
  • Don’t care for their health

These assumptions are not only wrong, but they underscore a cynicism that undermines the presumption of philanthropic optimism. Poor people can and do succeed everyday on their own terms without any external “social intervention”. We see this at FII and GiveDirectly is making this case in international development.

An optimist all along

I used to think I was a formerly optimistic person who had become a pessimist after realizing the social sector did not have the impact I had hoped. The exact opposite is true. I started my career with a pessimistic view of the poor. I believed they could not succeed. I was wrong, I was a pessimist.

Now I know the poor can and do succeed every day. I am an optimist. But the social sector is not, and with good reason. The optimism I speak of undermines the fabric of the social sector. Trust in people ironically is an affront to those of us who make our living “aiding” the poor. If they can do it on their own, what do they need us for?

Indeed, what do they need us for.

The social sector business model, of which I’m no doubt a part, is to sell donors on a disbelief in the poor, and then to sell their outcomes as ours. But nonprofits do not create social impact, people and families do.

Optimism is believing in people. Optimism is investing in families. Anything else is pessimism, although I’m not terribly optimistic the social sector will change.