Goal Posts: How good goals raise the philanthropy game

By Andrew Serazin
February 10, 2020
Three key criteria can help leaders ensure their organizations follow-through on ambitious goals.

When Melinda Gates addressed a packed Seattle conference hall on October 17, 2007, few in the audience were expecting a radical proposal. I was a senior program officer in the Gates Foundation’s global health program and deeply familiar the foundation’s objectives, yet what she said that day took even me by surprise. Indeed, Gates’ message was shocking:

“Advances in science and medicine, promising research, and the rising concern of people around the world represent an historic opportunity not just to treat malaria or to control it — but to chart a long-term course to eradicate it.”

With a doctorate in biology, specializing in malaria, I understood the true meaning of these words. I had published a first-author article in Science magazine several years earlier on the exquisite adaptations that mosquitoes use to transmit malaria. Eradication means zero disease transmission, even where conflict breaks down supply chains and the rule of law, and even in places where current transmission rates are a hundred times higher than what is needed to sustain disease. Zero means zero.

After Gates’ announcement, initial shock turned to skepticism from many outside observers and academic experts: Didn’t they know how difficult eradication would be? Didn’t they know that the World Health Organization attempted eradication in the 1970s and abandoned the project? The conventional thinking was that eradicating malaria was practically impossible.

Bill and Melinda Gates knew all of this. They fully understood current facts and historical perspective. They easily could have tinkered away on minor improvements to individual malaria control initiatives: more accurate diagnosis, better management of severe malaria, etc. Yet they urged transformation. Twelve years on, there has been incredible progress in the fight against malaria, and a whole new suite of interventions essential for eradication have been developed that were never thought possible. Far from creating another dusty analysis that sits on the shelves, the Gates Foundation set a unifying and ambitious goal, and has pursued that agenda with unrelenting focus.

At the Gates Foundation and now as President of Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF), my experience is that having clearly defined, ambitious goals makes everything else in philanthropy easier. Grants. Communications. Advocacy. Good governance. Recruitment. Public trust. With that in mind, here are three criteria I use when thinking about setting goals:

  1. Be Simple: Complex language often disguises fuzzy thinking. Plain language will have broader appeal to more people than jargon or technical terms. Simplicity enables every staff member, grantee, or acquaintance to become an advocate. For example, there is great power in the way that Yuri and Julia Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives expresses a singular question that guides its activities: “Are we alone in the universe?”
  2. Be Free: Philanthropy is a form of capital that is maximally free to pursue the long-game because it is liberated from common short-term pressures such as business competition, elections, and stock performance. Use this freedom to your advantage and tackle big problems.
  3. Be Distinctive: Too many organizations, especially private foundations, get drawn into a morass of groupthink when describing long-term aspirations or objectives. For example, prototypical statements include:

“Promote the well-being of humanity throughout the world.”

“Build a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.”

“More inclusive, just, and healthy future for everyone.”

“Maximize opportunity and minimize injustice.”

These statements of purpose come from the Rockefeller Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Arnold Ventures. Can you guess which is which? There’s little to differentiate them. Without a distinctive message, boards, employees and potential grantees can struggle to identify the purpose of the organization and which projects are appropriate to support.

 

 

Yet if the benefits of effective goal-setting are so clear, why do organizations fail to set goals or fail to deliver on them?

The biggest impediments for philanthropic organizations tend to be a perfectly understandable anxiety about hurting people’s feelings, fear of accountability, and worry about the potentially limiting effects of precise metrics.

There’s an idea that a change of direction might negatively impact grantees and other partners. The thinking goes: If a long-term grantee is declined for funding, wouldn’t we suffer reputational damage? What will withholding funding say to someone we’ve worked with for years? Perhaps it’s better to just say “yes” one more time.

Yet always saying “yes” has hidden costs. This mindset depletes financial resources which could be better spent elsewhere and also erodes the mental resources of professional management and board members. If your key players are spending time and expertise on projects that are not performing, they’re increasing their psychological expenditures without a clear return on investment. At TWCF, I have found that competitive processes for funding are an essential mechanism for maintaining healthy relationships with partner organizations.

At the same time, clear goals can create anxiety about accountability. People understandably worry about who will get credit when a project succeeds and who will take responsibility if it fails to meet its goals. This is a good thing. In my experience, good goals force you to be realistic about what you can control and what will be left up to others. Good goals push organizations and grantees to be clear-eyed about what they can’t control and to seek out partners who are maximally prepared to respond to unexpected challenges.

For instance, TWCF’s Global Innovations for Character Development initiative seeks to put human relationships at the center of the international development agenda. Against such lofty aspirations, we will test a pipeline of more than twenty-five interventions for their effects on gratitude, empathy, forgiveness and other character strengths. We will leave it up to others to implement such programs at larger scales that we can support. The more clearly we define our role — in this case providing an evidence base for action — the more likely we are to recruit others to the cause.

Another objection I often encounter is that instituting simple and tangible goals could limit exploration and creativity. And it’s true, narrowly defined goals can promote false precision in metrics and reduce a noble vision to misleading details. This is a reasonable concern, but rather than discouraging one from setting goals, it should further emphasize the need for clear definitions.

For example, our Accelerating Research on Consciousness initiative seeks to test different theories of consciousness in a series of head-to-head trials. Two key indicators of success include formally testing theories against each other through a process known as adversarial collaboration, and the amount of funding the program attracts from other donors. Consequently, we define success on both the ability of the research process itself to eliminate things that aren’t working, and the ability of projects to drive further inquiry. Rather than diminishing the vision of making progress on the age-old mystery of consciousness, a good goal and its attendant indicators can bring refreshing clarity.

Clear and distinctive goals are essential to effective philanthropy, but setting them requires creativity, humility, and courage. Goals help us transcend institutional limitations and imagine what a better world could look like. At TWCF, we don’t focus on global public health or poverty alleviation; our sights are set on what it means to be human. Twelve years from now, what if a billion people benefitted from innovations in forgiveness and gratitude? What if universities re-claimed their commitment to shape the whole human person? What if meaning, purpose, and truth became central, not peripheral, to global institutions? Like a world without malaria, this too would be a future worth having. Clearly defining our goals now will help us get there.