If I Only Had a Brain

I was recently teasing a professor for bringing me up to a pivotal moment: this wasn’t the plan at all, but, having seen what he had to teach, I couldn’t un-see it — and am therefore left with the decision of what to do about it.

As I told him, the moment the penny dropped for me was when we had a guest lecture by Michael Weinstein, recently of the Robin Hood Foundation. At Robin Hood, Michael had become famous for being a data-driven do-gooder: the heart of the case study we discussed with him was the process he instituted for measuring current and potential grants in terms in pure dollar terms.

That idea wasn’t universally popular in the press, the public, or the philanthropic community when Michael was running Robin Hood — and it wasn’t with our class, either. The obvious objection, which found plenty of voice in our discussion, was and is that it’s icky, impossible, or both to measure charity by “relentless monetization.”

Oddly, I found myself supporting Michael’s position. I’m heavily natured and nurtured against the idea that money can measure everything, or especially the most important things. In general, I just want to help out, and I’m pretty intuitive about that.

What I saw and respected in Michael’s process, though, was the premise that we shouldn’t be awarding millions of dollars purely or even mostly on the basis of intuition. Monetization wasn’t about cheapening human lives; it was about imposing discipline on the always-slippery process of grantmaking.

I still think about this, and wonder how well it worked in real life beyond the confines of a neatly-packaged case study. In any case, I’m sure Michael’s methods weren’t the last word in effective charity, but I don’t think that was the point. Instead, they were the first words that convinced me that being disciplined even in charity is not a matter of having no heart but rather using our brains to do the work our hearts insist needs doing.

What to do next remains an open question. But putting the power of mind in service of the heart’s vision should be part of the answer.