“Good Intentions Are Not Enough”: key questions philanthropists should ask themselves

by Stephen Tall on October 10, 2014

philanthropy impact“Good Intentions Are Not Enough” is the title of an article I’ve written for the latest issue of Philanthropy Impact magazine. You can read it here (pages 87-89). Here’s how it begins…

Good intentions aren’t enough. Let me give you an example. A programme called ‘Scared Straight’ was developed in the USA in the 1970s to deter juvenile delinquents and at-risk children from criminal behaviour by bringing them into contact with adult inmates to make them aware of the grim realities of life in prison.

Early studies showed astonishingly high success rates, as much as 94 per cent, and the programme was readily adopted in the UK and other countries. However, none of these evaluations had a ‘comparison group’ showing what would have happened to the participants if they had not taken part. When tested through Randomised Controlled Trials it was discovered participation in ‘Scared Straight’ resulted in higher rates of offending behaviour than non-participation: “doing nothing would have been better than exposing juveniles to the program”. Yet it continues to be championed by some British police forces despite the clear evidence it actively increases crime.

What this illustrates is the importance of ‘the counter-factual’ – ie, what would have happened otherwise? This is a crucial question for philanthropists, all of whom will have greater calls on their generosity than they can possibly meet. Inevitably this means there is an opportunity cost in making a donation: whatever money you give to one charity is, of necessity, money denied to another.

All philanthropists I’ve met are acutely aware of this responsibility. But how many can confidently say their decisions to fund one charity over another are always based on sound evidence? And how many, when making their donation, also seek to ensure the work they are supporting is being robustly evaluated to ensure it’s doing the good everyone hopes it will? Put bluntly, how do you know your money isn’t being used to fund another ‘Scared Straight’, a programme developed with the best of intentions, but which inadvertently did harm to the young people it aimed to help?

To read on here’s the link again.