Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Doing Good Better

Doing Good Better, a book by William MacAskillMany people want to make a difference. The desire to help others is seemingly embedded in our DNA and a key component of many religions. We choose careers and donate time and money to worthy causes in hopes of making the world a better place.

In his book, Doing Good Better, Oxford philosophy professor William MacAskill uses real-life case studies to illustrate how these decisions are often based on assumptions and emotions. Through these stories, he shows that our best intentions may lead to ineffective – and sometimes even harmful – outcomes.

MacAskill is a prominent figure in the “effective altruism” movement – a philosophy that applies data and a scientific method to charitable decisions. While trying to figure out which career would allow him to have the greatest impact, he discovered that the potential for change was often hampered by a lack of information and our own personal bias.

Instead, MacAskill and his colleagues developed a practical, data-driven approach that suggests each of us can make a tremendous difference no matter our available resources. Effective altruists believe we must do good better.

Questions and analysis
In weighing one choice versus another, effective altruism ask five key questions:

  • How many people benefit, and by how much?
  • Is this the most effective thing I can do?
  • Is this area neglected?
  • What would have happened otherwise?
  • What are the chances of success, and how good would success be?

MacAskill shows how many of our assumptions about doing good are misguided. His more rigorous and analytical approach is often counter-intuitive. For example, he argues that one might save more lives by becoming a plastic surgeon rather than a heart surgeon, simply by donating money earned to worthy causes. After all, a heart surgeon can only operate on a finite number of hearts in a career.

Defining ‘better’
The book defines ‘altruism’ to mean ‘simply improving the lives of others’ and ‘effective altruism’ to mean ‘doing the most good with whatever resources you have.’

I wanted to like this book. In the course of consulting for nonprofit organizations, I have often found faulty assumptions and misunderstandings at the root of less-than-effective outcomes. So, an approach that promises to improve decision-making – to let our better altruistic tendencies shine – was appealing on its surface.

The book makes the case that charitable efforts should be measured and judged for effectiveness, and that improved understanding will help us do good better. However, despite MacAskill’s persuasive arguments, my enthusiasm began to wane the more I read.

Lack of humility
It’s clear that MacAskill, in setting out to make a difference in the world, has the best of intentions. He has done his homework and wants to share his insights in support of those goals. In doing so, however, he can’t help but reveal his own biases, no matter how much evidence he collects.

I believe most people aim to treat others well, sharing whatever time and resources they can. And each of us hold some causes more dear than others. A concern with doing the MOST or being the BEST is often driven by ego as much as a commitment to a cause.

With the wisdom of experience, recognizing that ‘good enough’ is a reasonable and authentic goal should not diminish one’s altruism. Our charitable impulses are rewarded by making us feel good, a fact that the author does not take into consideration.

Not all of us can be doctors, pursue advanced degrees, or contemplate helping others as an intellectual exercise. And yet, if you are not counted among these elite difference-makers, in order to do the most good with whatever resources you have, MacAskill essentially implies that you should just support the causes he considers worthy.

Subjective evidence
In war-torn Africa, an emergency surgeon with limited resources must perform triage by assigning degrees of urgency to wounded patients. MacAskill uses this story to illustrate both the harsh realities and benefits of asking critical questions. How serious is the problem? What happens if we wait to treat it? What are the chances of success if we act now? Those who work in health care know how difficult it can be to accurately answer questions like these.

To determine which charity or cause is most worthy of support, MacAskill uses the quality-adjusted life year (QALY), which is a measure of health across time. QALYs are based on gained health outcome. For example, assuming two patients will live to the same age, is it better to cure a man of blindness at age 20, or cure a woman of cancer at age 55? QALYs are supposed to provide an objective answer.

When “data-driven” decisions are fueled by subjective or even speculative answers – how good would success be? – it really undermines the whole premise.

Cultural bias
One altruist cares deeply about Arctic wildlife endangered by climate change. Another volunteers countless hours to help the homeless in her community. And another donates money every year to buy mosquito nets to help stop the spread of malaria in Central Africa.

According to the book, only the third person is “doing the most that they can with the resources they have.” This is a preposterous assertion.

By broadly framing its methodology and implications, Doing Good Better oversells effective altruism as a practical tool and comes off looking more like a promotion for GiveWell.org, the charity evaluation site launched by the movement’s founders. The website doesn’t hide its bias:

We believe that there are many organizations that do great work but don’t meet our criteria or work on issues outside the scope of our research.

How do we do good?
The question is worth asking. Doing Good Better is a good read – MacAskill is an engaging writer who poses many provocative questions. There are enlightening stories and observations that would be helpful to anyone who cares about helping others. The chapter on ethical consumerism – many product purchases don’t help the intended beneficiary nearly as much as a direct donation would – is particularly eye-opening.

Those who donate time or money are likely to be more effective altruists if they think critically before taking action. Those who are looking for a way to measure effectiveness should keep looking.

Bright Future

FaceForwardIn 1915, five Minneapolis leaders came together to start one of the nation’s first community foundations. This past Friday, I joined 1,700 others in celebrating The Minneapolis Foundation’s centennial at the Face Forward Futurist Conference.

The day was filled with renowned speakers offering insights into the future of health, education, technology, and civic engagement, among other topics.

Can nonprofits grow the pie?
Dan-PallottaKicking things off, Dan Pallotta, founder of the multi-day AIDS Rides and leader of Advertising for Humanity and the Charity Defense Council, proposed that the way we’ve been taught to think about charity is all wrong.

Pallotta, who spoke on the same subject in one of the 100 most-viewed TED Talks of all time, outlined the numerous disadvantages of the current model of philanthropy:

  • All money must go to the people the organization is dedicated to serving.
  • No money should go to leaders, fundraisers, or marketing people.
  • No money should go to scaling the organization’s impact.
  • Failure is prohibited.

Pallota argues that looking solely at what percentage of a charity’s funds go directly to the cause is too limiting. “Instead of asking if a charity has low overhead, ask if it has big impact.” He believes that the reason more nonprofits don’t achieve remarkable results is because they don’t invest in themselves the same way that for-profit companies do.

Because of the prevailing mindset, the media, and industry watchdog groups, charities are forced to forego what they need to grow:

  • More attractive compensation for effective leaders – to lure and keep the best people.
  • Time and patience for meeting the long-term goal – changing as many lives as possible.
  • A willingness to take risks – to meet the demands of a highly competitive and rapidly changing business environment.

Pallotta believes nonprofit organizations must behave more like entrepreneurial businesses, foregoing immediate results to invest in growth and a more significant impact.

The one major flaw in his argument? There is no direct cause and effect between money (either compensation or investment) and success. But it’s provocative to imagine what might happen if people cared enough to throw the same time, money, and effort at challenging social problems as we do at entertainment or other for-profit business ventures.

The theory of everything
dr-michio-kakuThe next presentation was by Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist and host of the nationally syndicated radio program Science Fantastic. Kaku is the latest in a long line of physicists – from Newton to Tesla to Einstein and Hawking – to make science both accessible and revelatory.

Kaku placed today’s technology environment in historical context as a way to predict how our lives may change in the next twenty years.

Today, your cell phone has more computing power than NASA did in 1969 when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Moore’s Law is the observation that computing power doubles every two years. Actually, it’s now doubling closer to every 18 months. Cheap processing power promises to make a host of innovations commonplace, such as:

  • Augmented reality. Google Glass was the first wave. In the near future, we will be able to access information instantly with contact lenses or implants.
  • Intelligent paper. It’s thin, bendable, and portable, with all the capabilities of a tablet computer. You can hold it in your hand or cover the walls of your home with it.
  • Longer, healthier lives – nanotechnology is expected to revolutionize medicine, eliminating some conditions at the molecular level and alleviating others through extremely targeted treatment.

Education is another area ripe for change. Technology cannot match the human ability to recognize patterns, glean insights, and apply them in innovative ways. In a world where mass customization will replace mass production, an ability to think becomes more important than an ability to make things. As Kaku noted wryly, “The problem with the American educational system is that we produce great people who can live in 1950.”

Toward the end of Dr. Kaku’s talk it dawned on me: With all of the daunting social challenges facing humanity, will technology help us do the right thing?

Secrets to a longer life
Buettner_woman_tp_jpg_610x343_crop_upscale_q85In 2004, Dan Buettner led a National Geographic expedition to find the longest living cultures – places where people reach age 100 at rates 10 times greater than in the United States.

After identifying five of these communities – or Blue Zones – Buettner and a team of scientists visited each location to identify lifestyle characteristics that might explain longevity. They found residents of all Blue Zones shared nine specific characteristics:

  • Family is put ahead of all other concerns
  • Strong social ties (loneliness shaves eight years off life expectancy in the U.S.)
  • Regular, moderate physical activity as a part of daily life (not workout programs)
  • Life purpose (living for something bigger than oneself)
  • Stress reduction
  • Moderate calories intake (no fad diets)
  • Largely plant-based diet
  • Low alcohol intake (usually wine)
  • Engagement in spirituality or religion

One piece of good news from this project: You don’t need to have money to live healthy. Since the initial research was completed, Buettner has successfully shown that we can create Blue Zones in diverse communities across the United States.

  • Residents of Albert Lea, Minnesota, built 46 new community gardens. 44% of adults participated in walking groups, logging over 75 million steps. Schools banned eating in hallways and stopped selling candy for fundraisers. After one year, healthcare claims for city workers dropped 49%, Participating businesses saw a 21% decline in absenteeism. And participants added 2.9 years (projected) to their lifespan.
  • In California, Hermosa, Redondo and Manhattan Beach citizens suffered from high stress and an addiction to automobiles. Today they are happier, healthier and more engaged with their community than ever before. After enacting a series of initiatives to promote healthier living, nearly a third of all kids now walk to school, more than 60 restaurants added healthier options to their menus, smoking rates fell 30%, and obesity rates dropped 14%.

The Blue Zones Project has shown that environment plays a large role in longevity and public health. Personal discipline is like a muscle. In the wrong environment, that muscle gets fatigued and we make less healthy choices.

Asking the right questions
AtulGawande-New_Headshot_ProfilePhotoDr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon, researcher, and author of the book Being Mortal, presented our final keynote address – on how to alleviate suffering at the end of our lives.

Modern medicine has transformed everything from childbirth to injury and disease, making once-frightening medical conditions easily treatable. But when it comes to aging and death, what medicine can do often runs counter to what it should.

Gawande suggested that the past 100 years might be considered the century of the molecule, in which we began to understand medicine down to its smallest components. Looking ahead, he argued, medicine must move to a century of the system. One in which we come to better understand how all those pieces fit together.

Today, our medical focus is on survival and safety above all else. In poignant stories of his own patients and family members, Gawande illustrated how modern medicine is like a machine that delivers pills and procedures – often unnecessary and sometimes even harmful.

As we age, a good life might be possible even without good health if doctors focus more on the person than the patient, asking questions such as:

  • What is your understanding of your health now?
  • What are your fears and concerns about the future?
  • What are your priorities and goals for the end of your life?
  • What would you be willing (or unwilling) to sacrifice?

The diagnosis? Conversation and empathy are the best medicine.

Drawing parallels to design
So, what does all this talk of the future have to do with my little corner of the world?

Dan Pallotta took a fresh look at the prevailing mindset that limits how effective nonprofit organizations can be. Michio Kaku pointed out that even with the adoption of astounding technology, the future belongs to those who are intellectually agile. Dan Buettner distilled what he learned from studying one group to propose solutions that work for others. And Atul Gawande advocated for a collaborative approach that starts by asking questions.

I know I’m showing my bias, but those sound a lot like the skill set – and thinking – that designers bring to the table. The future is bright indeed!

Behavior Change

Image of target with arrows all around - none of the arrows hit the targetI’m going on vacation later this week – a ten-day family road trip. Planning has been ongoing for weeks. At this point, packing clothes and food is all that remains of our preparation. Without being slaves to a rigid schedule, each day is marked by a goal. That goal is represented in most cases by a destination.

Even accounting for detours and bad weather along the way, shouldn’t our trip – like any worthwhile design or marketing initiative – really be measured based on whether or not we ended up where we intended to go?

Missing the point
Listening to someone evaluate the effectiveness of a given design, you may hear:

“It’s very creative.”
“People really liked it.”
“It helped build awareness of the brand.”
“It increased engagement.”

Applying the same standard to our family vacation, one could say:

“Nice shortcut.”
“We had fun.”
“We saw things we’ve never seen before.”
“It was great to spend time together.”

So, what’s wrong with that? Those are all good things. True. But what was the goal? We could accomplish any of those things without stuffing our possessions into the back of a car and driving thousands of miles.

Too often, I see a fundamental misunderstanding about what constitutes effective design. Organizations aim too low (“Make it look nice.”) rather than doing work that really matters. If you want to put butts in the seats, double your endowment, improve products and services, or move people to action, you need to change behavior.

The knowing-doing gap
For the professional trying to encourage behavior change and the people they are trying to influence, there is a substantial obstacle. People already know what to do.

After all is said and done, more is said than done. – Aesop

Self-improvement is a $10 billion per year industry in this country because the most likely purchaser of a self-help book is the same person who purchased one previously. Good intentions are undermined by short-attention spans, risk aversion, analysis paralysis, and other assorted distractions.

To turn knowledge into action, we need to focus less on what to do and more on how we can bring ourselves to do it.

Get more specific
The better a problem is defined, the better the solution. To enact a solution, we need to turn an abstraction – the recognition of an idea or truth – into a belief. For example, eating less and exercising more is an abstract approach to losing weight.

“I believe that if I eat less and exercise more, I will lose weight.”

This is a more powerful statement that can lead to a decision. The decision requires specifics. What is the need? What is the desired outcome? Who stands to benefit and why? What obstacles must I overcome? Is this problem actually many problems?

Assuming the belief in the idea remains, specific answers lead to root causes and direct actions. We must continually ask: What is one thing I could do today that will make this idea real?

“From this day forward, I will walk the dog for 15 minutes, twice every day, rain or shine.”

Getting to the root causes of a design or marketing problem requires similar rigor.

Tell a better story
Every great story is fueled by conflict – obstacles that seem insurmountable, villains who seem invincible. The conflict that most often expands the gap between knowing and doing is fear.

“That’s too risky. We always do it this way.”
“What if I fail? What if people laugh at me?”
“We better wait until our path is more certain.”

As a teenager learning to drive, I struggled with the manual transmission. I hated the noise of grinding gears when I missed shifting from first to second. Or, even more embarrassing, when the car stalled out and I had to restart it in the middle of an intersection.

The dominant story playing in my head was: You’re terrible at driving a stick shift. Things weren’t going to get better unless I found something better to replace that story. One day, looking around from the passenger seat, it hit me. There are thousands of people on the road. They may be different ages, different backgrounds, but they have one thing in common. They all successfully learned to drive. If they can do it, certainly I can, too!

In the earliest stages, when people are still considering a behavior change, a story needs to inspire. (You can do this!) Later, once they have made a decision to act, your story needs to reassure. (Everything is going to be okay.)

Great stories encourage us to think and act differently – to create a different reality or future. Creativity is not the ability to write or draw. Creativity is the ability to see – to bring a novel perspective to bear on a problem or issue.

Measure progress
Design and marketing should be focused on outcomes as much as aesthetics. How will we know if we are successful? This should be established at the outset, then tracked and reported on as your efforts unfold and evolve.

Successful behavior change requires a more systemic focus. It requires that design and marketing have access to and influence on other facets of the organization. The bigger the problem, the more difficult it becomes to unlock the results. Breaking your efforts down into smaller parts makes it possible to celebrate short-term victories as you pursue long-term changes. It also encourages adjustments to shore up areas that are lagging.

Project post-mortem meetings are a great way to share knowledge across an organization. What worked? What surprised us? Paraphrasing Albert Einstein: “If you want different results, you have to do something different.”

Time well spent
It is surprising how much time is spent on window dressing and how little time is spent on solving the real problems of real people.

I have warned clients that good design – good marketing – is no silver bullet. It can’t overcome poor products or service. It can’t fix myopic organizational decisions or misplaced priorities. What it can do – what it must do – is spend more time working toward meaningful behavior change. If not, like Sisyphus, we’ll be pushing that same rock up that same hill for eternity.

Time is short. Let’s start being more effective.