Unlearning the Dance of Deceit

David Sasaki
Oct 5, 2017 · 8 min read

Welcome to our new blog. Two friends, Glenn Fajardo and David Sasaki, meet up for drinks and tacos, discuss many things, and some of those things turn into blog posts here. Our first is a discussion about what Melinda Tuan called “the dance of deceit” that is so common between private foundations and non-profits. David works at a large private foundation in the Bay Area and would like to have more honest conversations with non-profits. Glenn works at a large non-profit and would like to have more honest conversations with funders. After a bit of ranting, we come up with some ideas:

DS: Over drinks we both expressed our mutual disdain for the play-acting that is so common in conversations between program officers and grantees. We all seem to get that social change is complex and depends on infinite variables, most of which we can’t control. But then when a program officer and a director of an organization sit down to discuss the progress of a grant, it’s like we suspend disbelief in order to let the fiction go on. We often talk about metrics as if they’re meaningful, as if they’re some sort of test score, when usually they’re just numbers on a spreadsheet with only the loosest connection to what actually matters. Speaking from the perspective of a program officer, I find it frustrating. But for a grantee, with all the power dynamics inherent in being dependent on foundation funding, it must be totally maddening. What has the experience been like for you?

GF: In some ways, I think that metrics — and candidness — are analogous to creativity. People will say that they want creativity, but they will reject creative ideas. People like the idea of creativity, but not its realities. People like the idea of metrics, because they like the idea of being objective and rational — they want to be able to claim those attributes as part of their personal identity. But I think part of the reality of a rational approach is finding out that you were wrong — or shall I say, not quite right — most of the time. To really get it right, we often have to go through several iterations of our understanding of not only the solution, but also our understanding of the problem. To keep finding out that you are wrong goes against an emotional need for validation. Not solution validation, but personal validation. So there have been conversations where the thought-bubble above my head reads, “If I told you my truth, what would you do with it?” I have had my doubts whether someone could be persistently curious with me to eventually find the nuances of the truth, because I’m not sure they are super attuned to their own emotions in a metrics conversation. Does that make sense?

DS: So much sense. I think we naturally desire a sense of certainty and that we grow attached to our original assumptions and ways of working — and this is equally true of donors and grantees even if the incentives may differ. I’ll use a concrete example like I Paid a Bribe, which collects and analyzes anonymous reports of bribery and allows users to commend honest officials. The goal of the initiative is to reduce bribery so that all citizens have equal access to government services. So one would think the conversations between I Paid a Bribe and their funders would focus on difficult questions like: What is the history and social context of bribery in a particular place? What has been learned from successes and failures to reduce bribery in other contexts? What have academics learned in their large-scale, longitudinal studies of bribery? What are small experiments we can test to see if they are promising? What do users have to say about their experience, why they use the website and what they hope to get out of it? But I have overheard these conversations and instead they focused on the comforting metrics: How many registered users do you have this quarter compared to last quarter? How many reports did you receive? How many government officials have responded to reports? How many organizations in other countries have adopted the platform? As long as these numbers are increasing, then both the grantee and the program officer can feel good about continued funding without addressing the original question: are we coming to a better understanding of bribery and are we able to do anything about it?

It all seems to comes down to trust — trusting that we can be honest with one another without suffering negative consequences (like reduced funding). Does that sound right? Do you have any advice for a program officer like me as to how I can establish that kind of trust from the beginning?

GF: Ah yes, those comforting metrics, philanthropy’s version of the vanity metrics instead of actionable metrics. I do agree that it does come down to trust, and unfortunately trust is easier said than done when realities are messy. There might be a useful analogy in dirt and things that pick up dirt. When James Dyson was designing a vacuum cleaner, he made a point of making the bin clear, so that you could see all the dirt. He said that his competitors were delighted that he had been so stupid and retailers wouldn’t have it. They all believed that customers wouldn’t want a vacuum cleaner that looked unclean, where you could literally see all the dirt. But Dyson understood that his customers wanted to see that “unpleasant” dirt because that was the evidence that the vacuum cleaner was effective. If you as a program officer want to establish trust from the beginning, you have to show that you value seeing those “unpleasant dirt” metrics, because you understand that they have better potential to guide action and iteration. And if I were grantee, I’d believe you more if you could use some concrete examples. If you were to say, “In this project, most funders would want to see metrics A, B, and C, because those are the ones they could more easily brag about in their marketing and PR. I’m more interested in the unpleasant dirt metrics of X, Y, and Z — which may not win you any PR points — but I believe could give us a better sense of what is working. The answer you might think I want to hear is [this]. But I’m more interested in you having a series of testable hypotheses and credible fast tests that increase our rate of learning, as Tom Chi would say.”

Do you think that approach would be effective, or not so much?

DS: It’s good to know I’m not the only one who derives pleasure from looking at all the dirt and dog hair that my vacuum cleaner collects each week. I love the analogy. You know, I really think you got straight to the heart of the issue: Do we care about marketing or do we care about learning? When I was at Gates Foundation, more than 100 people worked in communications while the strategy, measurement & evaluation team had less than a dozen people. Just look at the org chart and budget of any foundation or non-profit and they almost always invest more in marketing than learning. Even when learning is a priority, we often use it to back up our existing arguments with more evidence rather than to test and question our assumptions. I was recently listening to the excellent Rough Translation podcast about how western media report about rape in Congo. When a reporter found that human rights organizations were exaggerating the number of women who were raped during an attack, the playwright Eve Ensler wrote her an email saying “Funders are like shoppers. They’re fickle and change brands in an instant, particularly if they feel something might be wrong and someone is lying. You have introduced a problem. And now they will start to doubt.”

When I heard that, I understood Ensler’s argument. Funders are fickle and they often care about a risk to their reputation more than sticking through difficult problems. But then here was Ensler saying that it’s better to lie about the number of rapes to keep funders on board than to try to fix a broken system which incentivizes women to lie and suffer humiliation in order to get the basic food and services they need to survive and provide for their children. It’s a direct consequance of the lack of trust and honesty between funders and the organizations that do the important work. So here’s my advice to fellow program officers that want to deepen their trust and honesty with grantee organizations:

  • Come to every discussion from a place of detached curiosity rather than a desire to enforce accountability. Practice Appreciative Inquiry.
  • Emphasize every time you’ve been wrong, what you’ve learned and how you’ve adapted.
  • Own up to your own assumptions and biases and ask grantees to help question and challenge them. Ask for recommendations of books and articles that challenge your beliefs and assumptions.
  • Write down the core hypotheses, assumptions and risks for every organization you support and keep coming back to them during every conversation. Keep questioning in an curious, appreciative manner why things are unfolding differently than was originally planned.
  • Continue to support an organization even when you disagree with their choices. Recognize that they are closer to the work than you will ever be and are better positioned to make decisions. Voice your disagreement while maintaining your respect and support for their autonomy. Come to consensus with them on how you’ll eventually reflect on whether it was the right choice to make after enough time has gone by.

Is there anything you’d add? Do you have advice for NGOs to interact with their funders more honestly and authentically?

GF: I’d add that I love the Rough Translation podcast! What I think is interesting about the Ensler quote is that it gets at the asymmetry of trust. You can’t turn on trust like a light bulb. But you can turn it off like a light bulb, even when you didn’t mean to hit the switch. This asymmetry can make us all more risk averse in a different way — we’re less likely to be transparent with each other. We might err on the side of avoiding deeper conversations because we don’t like our odds (and not because we are hopelessly hardened cynics).

I don’t have “proven advice” for NGOs to interact with their funders more honestly and authentically, but I have some guesses on how we might get better at this.

  • I’d mirror and adapt your advice to program officers for NGOs. Those are the types of things we can all do.
  • Consider explicitly acknowledging some psychology behind this, which suggests that people have a hunger for certainty. By naming the dynamic, you might reduce the risk that you’ll be a prisoner to it.
  • Find a diplomatic way of calling out the heart you mentioned: “Do we care about marketing or do we care about learning?” But I wouldn’t frame it as a binary choice. Instead, draw a Venn diagram, filling it in with concrete examples from your particular context. Maybe starting with a structure like this:

The idea is not to just use metrics in the overlap of the two circles. You may end up using metrics from all three areas. But you’ve created a shared understanding of the context for each metric you use.

  • Together with your funder, try “rehearsing” what the conversation could be like if things don’t go perfectly — role play a scenario where things aren’t going as well as hoped 3 months from now.
  • Finally, to reassure a funder, make it clear that you understand that learning in and of itself is NOT the goal. The goal might instead be to find a repeatable model for impact. Alexander Osterwalder explains this in the context of a for-profit business, and we can adapt what he says by substituting “impactful” for “profitable.”

Sobering Thoughts

Glenn Fajardo and David Sasaki grab drinks, talk about everything and then write a blog post about whatever one thing they can remember.

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