Via Lucy Bernholz’s twitter feed, I followed along earlier this month with the DonorEdge Conference. During the conference Jacob Harold of the Hewlett Foundation’s Philanthropy Program gave an address. Jacob talked about the “Elephants in the Philanthropic Room” and said there were two of them:

Some nonprofits are better than others
Some donors are better than others

On their face, these don’t seem like elephants, they seem like statements of the obvious. But I remember the heated debate that exploded when at the second NetSquared conference someone suggested “some nonprofits just suck.” To many, this was an intolerable comment (even though, it is objectively true). The fact is, while they try hard and are good people, some nonprofits are not very good. Some of them are even doing harm. The resources these organizations are using are being wasted and could be used by a better organization to make a real difference in the world. The nonprofits that can do more good with the available resources are better than other nonprofits.

Are some donors better than others? In a recent post I talked about a shift from thinking about philanthropy as the act of making a gift to thinking about it as the achievement of impact. When we measure philanthropy by looking at the gift, then it is hard to argue that some donors are “better” than others. Maybe more generous. Maybe more rich. But better? However, when we think about philanthropy as the achievement of impact we begin to see that by making gifts to the right nonprofits in the right way, some donors can achieve more impact than other people who give the same amount of money. These donors are better donors.

This same conversation came up again at the recent National Convention on Volunteering and Service. In a panel I spoke on with Sonal Shah, the head of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Engagement, Shah said that it should be OK if there is not a spot for everyone who wants to volunteer. While this seemed heretical to suggest at a conference on volunteering, I think Shah is right. Just like some people are better employees than other people. Some volunteers are better than others.

All this makes many people uncomfortable. These really are “the elephants in the philanthropic room.” But why? It doesn’t seem to make us uncomfortable if someone tells us they think Honda is better than Toyota, or Starbucks is better than Dunkin’ Donuts. We’re all free to believe that some investors are better than other investors or argue over whether the 1998 Yankees were better than the 1986 Mets.

Say it after me: Some nonprofits are better than others! Some donors are better than others! Some volunteers are better than others!

Its OK! That’s how life is. Just because some donors, nonprofits or volunteers are better than others doesn’t mean the others aren’t good people who are trying hard. Doing good is hard work. Really hard work. And some people and organizations are better than others at doing this hard work well.

AdvertisementSean Stannard-Stockton is a principal and director of Tactical Philanthropy at Ensemble Capital Management. Ensemble Capital provides families both traditional investment management and philanthropic planning. He is the author of the blog Tactical Philanthropy and writes the column Tactical Philanthropy for the Chronicle of Philanthropy.