Leaping Doesn't Mean You Can't Look First

Looking around at the way philanthropy has been presented in various articles, books, and conference speeches, I keep noticing two different approaches to social change:

The “Just Do It!” Approach: In this approach, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. So why not take a bunch of shots at once, learn from the failures, get up, and try to do it again? This approach has the catchphrase “innovation” and it emphasizes lofty goals (end world hunger now!), trial-and-error, and going big or going home. I see this approach being personified by an organization like “The Case Foundation”, or in an article like “It’s Time to Be Fearless”.

The “Study Everything Before Doing Anything” Approach: In this approach, you have to look both ways before crossing the street. You can’t just run off and expect to solve the social problem without putting in a bunch of time to understand it first. This approach has the catchphrase “measurement” and emphasizes academia, careful analysis, and spending a lot of time thinking before rolling out some specifically targeted action. I see this approach being personified by an organization like GiveWell, or in an article like “Six Theories of Change Pitfalls to Avoid”.

The Philanthropy Battlefield

Of course, these approaches are intentional exaggerations, and many non-profit organizations fall on a sliding-scale somewhere between both – no organization actually devotes their entire efforts to doing things at random with no sense of what they’re doing or why or at least some semblance of whether it’s working, and no organization actually does nothing but think about what they could be doing.

Yet, when I see these approaches mentioned, it seems to be in a head-to-head competition, and it keeps feeling like I have to go with one or the other. Either I’m a fearless “Just Do It!”-er who is going to go out there, found my own non-profit, and make history with a big leap, or I’m a stuffy “Study Everything Before Doing Anything”-er, doomed to spend the rest of my non-profit life in a library looking up complex academic articles on JSTOR about development economics.

If I’m advocating for better measurement or careful planning, it automatically means I can’t be doing or innovating. Likewise, if I’m advocating for not sitting around and waiting, it automatically means I can’t be measuring or planning.

I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be an either-or approach.

Two Approaches? Take ‘Em Both!

First, we really need both approaches to be operating at once. We need people out there who are doing some trial-and-error and working on being cutting-edge in the actual field, where the people actually are, getting them the services that are already known to work, or trying out new innovative ideas and seeing if they work. If it wasn’t for the “Just Do It!”-ers, nothing would actually get done. We’d be studying forever.

At the same time, we need careful planners to test the ideas of the innovators more robustly and scientifically, so that we don’t trick ourselves into thinking that something works when it doesn’t. We need the measurers to see if the innovations are actually working, and not just wastes of time and money. If it wasn’t for the “Study Everything Before Doing Anything”-ers, we’d have no idea if things were being done well. We’d be inefficient and wasteful.

The two approaches also feed into each other. The “Just Do It!”-ers on the field provide valuable data for the “Study Everything Before Doing Anything”-ers to test and analyze. The “Study Everything Before Doing Anything”-ers in the labs provide valuable direction for the “Just Do It!”-ers to focus on doing things more likely to work and avoiding previous mistakes.

Two Approaches? Combine ‘Em!

Second, we really need to avoid the extremes. An approach with absolutely zero thought, planning, or testing behind it (the stereotypical “Just Do It!”-er) is going to be overwhelmingly likely doomed to fail. The problems that plague us are enormously complex – too hard for someone to just jump out and fix in one swoop. There are too many potential solutions to try and far few solutions actually work well. Recall that interventions can differ in effectiveness by a factor of 1000. Worse yet, a lot of popular initatives end up harming the people they plan to help. If you choose to do something without thinking, not only could you end up doing something much less effective than you otherwise could, but you could end up just hurting others.

Yet, an approach with absolutely zero action behind it doesn’t get anything done (the stereotypical “Study Everything Before Doing Anything”-er). You need action to actually do things for people – lots of thinking about what could be done and what could be the most effective thing to do means absolutely nothing to the people in need unless the most effective thing to do actually moves on from “to do” to “to done”. If you choose to study without having any plans to turn this into action somewhere down the road, you’re just sitting on the sidelines, totally removed from actually helping.

Thus no initiative to help people can be done totally one way or the other. If you actually want to help people, you need to both study AND do.

What Matters And Why

So leaping doesn’t mean you can’t look first. But at the same time, looking doesn’t mean you can’t leap.

The solution is to see these two approaches not as natural enemies, but natural allies. Stereotypical “Just Do It!”-ers have a lot to learn about avoiding common mistakes that have been done in the past, so they’re not doomed to repeat them. They have a lot to learn about becoming more successful through doing the only thing that can let you know if you’re successful – actual measurement.

Likewise, stereotypical “Study Everything Before Doing Anything”-ers have a lot to learn about trial-and-error. Often, the best data comes from trying a bunch of different solutions and seeing which ones work. You can’t be allergic to failure, because failure is a good teacher too. You do need to actually leverage your work into success.

We need people working on both doing and studying, and we need coordination so that the doing is informed by the studying and the studying is useful for the doing. Likewise, we need money and work going into proven, effective interventions and testing up-and-coming innovation to see if it’s as effective at solving the problem. With people’s lives on the line, we can’t afford to fail in a way we can’t study and learn from, and we can’t afford to let studying go to waste without actually improving the way we do.

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Author’s Note: An earlier draft of this essay appeared on my old blog.