Being GREAT at Doing GOOD

I had the opportunity to speak with author, speaker, and activist Nick Cooney about his recently released book, How to Be Great at Going Good: Why Results Are What Count and How Smart Charity Can Change the World.

Nick has lectured across the US and Europe, authored a number of books on seeking social change, and has had his work featured in many major media news outlets. 

Below you can listen in on our phone call and/or read a few of the things about the book that I like and a couple things I'm still wrestling with. Would love to hear your thoughts. So please leave a comment.

////////A Few Thoughts on the Book//

Two things that I really like...

  1. Charities Needs a Clear Bottom Line. A theme that runs throughout Cooney's book is the need to create, clearly communicate, and make all decisions around a bottom line. Successful businesses know this. They also know that to not do this means to pose a threat to one's continued existence. I really like that Cooney is bringing this kind of thinking to the world of charity. He is right in challenging us when he asks, "Are we simply trying to do some good or are we interested in doing the most good possible?" This is challenging thinking in the charity world where the currency is often good feelings experienced by good people trying to do a good thing for someone in need. Every leader, volunteer, and donor needs to ask, "What are we trying to accomplish to here? Are we measuring it? Are we doing it well? Are we doing it efficiently? "
    Cooney even suggests we tie a dollar amount to it. This would mean asking, "How much money does it take us to provide (for example) one job for one of our neighbors? Who else is doing this work and how much does it cost them? Can we do it for less so that we can find more jobs for more people within the confines of our budget?" These are hard questions to face that practitioners of charity often resist because we want to be justified by our good motives. This might be why research is showing how little change charity is actually having on the problems they are set up to address. Which leads to the other thing I like...

  2. Charity Should Inspire Intellectual and Organizational Rigor. Charity often gets a pass from critical evaluation and hard-line numbers questions because charity is treated as if it is about the good intentions of good people. However, Cooney presses us to consider that if we believe achieving social good is more important than making money, shouldn't charity inspire its leaders to serious intellectual and organizational rigor? I think I am with him there! I would not want my doctor to be content with her altruistic motivations for practicing medicine. I want to know she is committed to being the best she can be at her job! If we care deeply about the problem that we seek to address, then Cooney says we should commit the highest level of professional, academic, and economic rigor to what we do.

Now, a couple things I am still wrestling with...

  1. That Clear Bottom Line. As much as I believe more leaders need to work hard at facing the brutal facts about their effectiveness, efficiency, etc., there is a side to this that I am less sure about. Cooney stresses that if we want to change the world, we need to find the most impact per dollar. For example, if my $100 can prevent 20 children in Pakistan from going blind, but it would provide only one job for the young men facing poverty n my neighborhood, then my choice is clear. I can do more good (sight vs. a job) for more people (20 vs. 1) by investing in option A. I understand the logic but, because of my own values, I can't come to terms with this completely.
    The ethos of my work with EIRO is about investing deeply in one's local context. My particular vision is that the world is enriched by people who live placed lives - living fully and deeply with a vision for the Kingdom in a particularl place among a particular people. That does not mean we can't donate time or money to help with blindness in Pakistan, but at some level we have to accept that there are some things that take more money and more time to accomplish than other things. (Maybe if we had more people investing more of themselves and their resources in the social good, this point would be moot!). Cooney questions our bias to issues that affect people and places close to us when we could do more good per dollar elsewhere. This is a bias I agree that we have, that must be kept in check, but I personally feel is a good part of our hard wiring to prompt us to live redemptively in the contexts in which we find ourselves. (This becomes problematic when the materially wealthy intentionally move to contexts where they are distanced from the hard realities of the poor, but that is another story!). This concern leads to another very similar one that I have...
  2. Quality vs Quantity. If you listened to the interview, you know that I shared with Nick my concern about quality versus quantity. I used as an example Thistle Farms in Nashville, which was highlighted by WuDunn and Kristof in A Path Appears (which I highly recommend). They work with women who have been caught up in sex trafficking. Their approach, which has brought some criticism, is to spend deeply on a few rather than superficially on larger numbers. They have a beautiful home for women to live in community, great food to share together, a business for jobs, recovery ministries....the works! They have chose to create holistic and long-lasting change. As much value as I see in the bottom line thinking for charities, I think that the people at Thistle Farms are on to something. Along with the bottom line we have to ask about the depth of change we are seeking to create, and we may find that significant, sustainable, lasting change will cost us more to reach fewer people. And that, I think, is okay. (Again, if more people were engaged in these things, this point would also be moot!).
    For example, there is a ministry in my area that provides sack lunches in the summer for kids who normally get subsidized school lunches during the school year. The most bang for their buck is in measuring the number of sack lunches distributed each summer. One way of applying the bottom line would be the rigorous pursuit of greater quantity - to find ways to get more food to more kids for less money. However, I have a sense that if the rigor of the quality question were applied to this work, some hard realities would surface. Like..."How many kids actually need this food? Does this program actually help families to progress toward greater food security? What impact does this have on the dignity of the parents seeing vans pull up and drop off lunches for their kids with the assumption that they would be hungry otherwise?" So, what if with $20 this program can provide one lunch for 20 kids, but it would take $200 to get one family engaged in programs (food co-ops, financial counseling, etc.) that would move them to a place where they no longer need to depend upon charity from food drop-offs? They would move from impacting thousands of kids each summer to impacting a few dozen families. Quantity impact per dollar would go down significantly, and the metrics would be less appealing on the website. But what about quality impact? So, if the bottom line is used with some critical awareness of the actual good being accomplished, not just services rendered or goods disseminated, then I really think Cooney is on to something here!

In Closing...

Overall, I would certainly encourage leaders of nonprofits to read and pay attention to this book. You will not agree with all of it. I know that I didn't. But you will be challenged by it in important ways. Don't read it as an instruction manual on what you need to do with your charity, but do use it as a discussion starter with key partners in your work.



Posted on May 27, 2015 .