Response to Nick Deychakiwsky: humanistic or technocratic?

Kathleen Enright

Nick Deychakiwsky’s article ‘The Programme Officer’s Dilemma’ in the June issue of Alliance describes a set of tensions that perplex many in philanthropy. Am I a humanistic or a technocratic grantmaker? Which approach is better? Paul Connolly cautions us that this is a false, even a harmful choice. Being self-reflective enough to understand the role these tensions play in decision-making is a clear and important first step, one that Nick both suggests in his article and models in his own work.

Grantmakers for Effective Organizations navigates these tensions every single day. After all, we were initially founded by two constituent groups who, at the time, could be perceived as embodying the extremes on the continuum – evaluators (technocratic) and capacity builders (humanistic). In the early years we felt that tension acutely. Yet it quickly became clear that the best evaluators are those who understand the importance of strong interpersonal relationships and are adept at engaging those closest to the issues in a collaborative learning process. And the best capacity builders are those who bring enough discipline and objectivity to their work to make the right diagnosis of issues and make tough choices about when to help and when to walk away.

The need for self-awareness is never more apparent than when proudly technocratic grantmakers justify decisions made out of ego and hubris by applying the more favourable labels of ‘strategic’ or ‘outcomes-based’. Or when over-zealously humanistic grantmakers emphasize the role of passion and intuition in order to avoid tough decisions or justify an approach that isn’t thoughtful or deep. These self-deceptions do damage beyond the specific context by giving confirming evidence to those predisposed to see the shortcomings of the ‘offending’ approach. In fact these are unfortunate applications of helpful concepts.

The best grantmakers among us have proved irrefutably that you can be strategic without assuming that you know better than the people and organizations that are closest to the work, that you can be responsive in a disciplined and rational way, and that you can build in a role for gut instinct in an objective decision-making process. Like a master chef combining flavours that work only when in balance, sophisticated grantmakers seamlessly blend rationality and responsiveness, emergence and planning, along with deeply held values and approaches built on rationality and intellect.

Kathleen P Enright
President and CEO, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations

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