In a speech to the staff of the Hewlett Foundation, William Schambra of the Hudson Institute issues a sweeping challenge: “After a century of strategic philanthropy, involving untold billions of dollars, we have in fact failed to solve even one social problem once and for all, by penetrating to its root cause.”

Schambra is most concerned in this speech with questioning both the means and the ends of a scientifically driven approach to giving, which he calls “strategic philanthropy,” and which the Hewlett Foundation has championed for many years. I admire Schambra’s courage in giving this speech to this group of people.

Unfortunately, his vision of the social sciences is too narrow.

“The first large, modern foundations … rejected the everyday wisdom of charities … because they believed that the newly developing social sciences—with their theories of change and logic models—could carry us beyond charity, to strike decisively at the root causes of social problems.”

I have a doctorate in political science, and I never came across a theory of change or a logic model in my graduate work, and I’d be surprised if any of my classmates did.

What I did experience was a thoughtful and nuanced approach to causality, inference, the synthesis of qualitative and quantitative information, and the limits of data.

Schambra goes on to make a popular contrast between forms of knowledge: “With the natural sciences … we knew what constituted knowledge and how to go about accumulating it. But in the social sciences, it was not so clear, nor, given human nature, is it ever likely to be.”

I’m sorry, but this simply won’t do. There’s plenty of accumulation of knowledge in the social sciences. In my own discipline, we know a lot about voting behavior, the effect of electoral systems, the role of institutions in shaping economic development, the factors that contribute to democratic transition and consolidation, and much more.

Schambra anticipates this objection, but he uses the plurality of knowledge against the social sciences—as if they should aspire to a monocausal vision of human behavior. He says: “To this day, theories about the causes of human behavior multiply endlessly. We are left with many interesting and diverse schools of thought on the subject. But we have no universally accepted collection of proven findings, waiting to be plugged into our theories of change.”

Schambra is on to something here, but it’s not what he thinks. It is a good idea to look for proven findings that we can “plug into” our theories of change. (I prefer to think of it as drawing on existing research to help argue for connections between short-term outcomes over which a nonprofit or funder has control and the longer-term outcomes that answer the “so what?” question.)

But just because there is no “universally accepted collection of proven findings” doesn’t mean that we should give up on the endeavor. We should approach it with humility, a proper respect for the ongoing process of knowledge development, and the recognition of how much we have yet to learn.

From reading his thought-provoking work over the years, I think ultimately Schambra objects to the hubris of what he labels “strategic philanthropy.” He thinks that hubris derives from a scientific approach.

But the best of the social sciences is rigorous and flexible, explanatory and descriptive, ambitious and humble. It is these traditions that can usefully undergird philanthropy, which continually grapples with the debate that Schambra (and Peter Buffett, in his widely cited New York Times op-ed) usefully engages for us: What are we doing with this money, and why?

Because the (monetary) means do not, ultimately, justify the (philanthropic) ends. Just because you have money to invest in philanthropic causes doesn’t mean your ideas are good. Rigor and humility are necessary guides.

Schambra puts his finger on a “stubborn fact”—“there are many institutional incentives for each foundation to pursue its own insulated and prideful way, and very few to submit to a larger collective.” While some may say that changes to those institutional incentives is what will make this stubborn fact yield, those who value the sector’s independence would do well to hasten their own embrace of humility, reflection, and realism. The needs of our time demand no less.

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