Philanthropy Action

Analysis, Interviews, and Reviews


I’m not an “impatient optimist” like Bill and Melinda Gates. When it comes to making the world a better place, I think impatient optimists are quite possibly a part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Led by some terrific organizations, the nonprofit and social entrepreneurship sector is generating solid evidence on the effectiveness of programs aimed at alleviating poverty, combating homelessness, preserving natural resources, and the like. The Obama administration has embraced this emphasis on rigorous evidence—and caused many in the sector to raise the specter of “epistemological nihilism” or paralysis due to demands for proof that is too hard and expensive to generate.

The real problem, and the real fear, among nonprofits and social entrepreneurs is not the difficulty and expense of finding evidence, however—it’s that the changes realized are often small ones. Indeed, sociologist Peter Rossi has gone so far as to coin the Stainless Steel Law of Evaluation: “The better designed the impact assessment of a social program, the more likely is the resulting estimate of net impact to be zero.”

There’s good reason for this, and it’s not a flaw of evaluation. It’s that human beings, political systems, economic systems and the social problems they create are complex. Despite this basic fact, the nonprofit sector and, increasingly, social entrepreneurs have told us for years that small donations or investments can “change lives” or make other huge impacts. It’s obvious why they do this—to raise money. But it also sets ridiculously high expectations among the general public. That’s why evidence that microfinance has had a small but positive impact in poor rural communities has been portrayed by some as a “failure.” To quote Esther Duflo,  a co-founder of Jameel Poverty Action Lab and recent winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant: “[Microfinance is] useful, but it’s not like the miracle drug to end poverty.” The only reason we would expect it to be a miracle drug is that we were told it was.

Who’s telling us that? You guessed it—the impatient optimists. They’re doing it for understandable reasons. The needs are great; big solutions seem like the right way to fix big problems; and it seems cruel not to try to fix such pressing problems quickly. So if a program shows some promise, it’s quickly promoted as a “solution.” Only later do we learn that early results aren’t replicable, the program doesn’t work at scale, or the benefits are far more modest than initially advertised. The impatient optimists run the risk of producing inspired donors in the short term and cynics in the long term.

What’s the solution? Patient optimism—a view that combines the belief that change is possible with the belief that any significant transformation takes a great deal of time and effort. It recognizes that programs that produce small or marginal benefits even for a small portion of aid recipients are good programs. It funds continued experimentation to find ways to achieve a little bit more with each dollar. It doesn’t believe in silver bullets but is willing to place small bets on risky innovations with potentially high returns.

What’s an example? Deworming. Hundreds of millions of children suffer from a variety of parasitic worms and treating them is both low cost (usually less than $2 per child) and has a large impact on school attendance. However, we know that in the same locales where worms are a problem, the children don’t learn much when in school because of failures of the education system. Does that mean that we shouldn’t fund deworming? Absolutely not. But we should do so with the full understanding that we’re not likely to see large gains in educational achievement as a consequence any time soon. That doesn’t mean we need to try to fix everything at once—which doesn’t work either—but that we should make what small improvements we can, where we can. Deworming will improve lives in many ways other than test scores and will allow the people who benefit to take more action to help themselves.

Impatient optimists are like investors in subprime mortgages in 2007. They can be so blinded by the upside that they fail to do their due diligence. In the end, their impatience and pursuit of outsize returns fuels waste and disappointment. Patient optimists, by contrast, have lowered their expectations of any particular program or intervention, but not their belief in a better world over the long term. If we’re going to succeed in making the world a better place, we need to convince more people to lower their expectations, too. Then we can get about the work of trying, failing, learning, improving—and truly making the world a better place.


Allen Spicer

Well said Tim.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to learn expectations in philanthropy are overblown. Even in giving our money away we are constantly demanding greater returns for our dollar.

It is perhaps false to attribute large project changes to small $25 contributions. Does that mean KIVA (or a similar organization) is misdirected? The balance they are trying to achieve is taking the impatient person and giving them a sense of the return on investment through a combination of visible/written progress and returned cash.

As you approached toward the end of this article, I can’t believe ‘patient optimism’ and long-term growth are different beasts entirely. Can we ask people to see the light? Sure. Maybe it should even be a priority. But strategically addressing the customer is a fundamental priority for any business. If customers are getting confused in their ignorance of the issues maybe its because ignorance is bliss. Ignorance is certainly less work.

Anyway thanks for the article. Somewhere I would bet E.F. Schumacher is smiling.

- A. Spicer

June 29, 2010

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