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About What Peter Buffett Said on Philanthropy, ROI and Understanding

27/09/2013 09:08 BST | Updated 20/11/2013 10:12 GMT

This summer I have read with interest Peter Buffett's Op-Ed in the New York Times and blogs in the Huffington Post US. He touched on beliefs close to my heart; however good our intent is, philanthropy and love cannot be measured in monetary values, and what people need most is love, compassion and understanding, and not "philanthropic colonialism" (and in order to achieve this we must try to be sincere with ourselves and leave attachment to "our way" at the door). Mother Teresa once said that the world hungers more for love and understanding, than for bread.

With global economic uncertainty still with us, and sovereign states struggling and cutting back on their spending, expectations of philanthropists, charities and aid agencies are immense. We are trying to practise cost cutting and to find new ways of helping because we are frustrated with the old ways. Some of us turn to seeking Return on Investment (ROI) on giving and social efforts - because this is what has worked for us in business.

The difficulty with attempting to use measures such as Social Return on Investment (SROI) is that the resulting value is only as good as the underlying data and assumptions made, prior to giving qualitative improvements in life a monetary value. Adding a numerical and monetary value to a human feeling cannot be anything but a subjective exercise - even when we mean well and try hard - so calculations like SROI are filled with assumptions and judgments. We also try to make measures uniform, but the world is very diverse. So there is no guarantee the calculated value reflects accuracy or helps us in the understanding of real value to other people. We risk creating more complexity, clog our understanding and alienate us from others - especially those we are trying to help.

But why do we try to measure SROI? - It is a fear that our philanthropy will be misused; it is a fear that our kindness will be abused; it is an attempt at making sure our giving is successful and efficient, and that's all understandable. Abuse of our trust and kindness is not okay, and effectiveness is important, but we must be careful that our FEAR doesn't translate into "False Evidence Appearing Real". Philanthropy is notoriously hard to measure, and there is a profound truth in why this is so - philanthropy is the love of human kind - and how do you measure love?

When we translate love for humankind into monetary values and complex calculations, we risk losing touch with what really matters. We risk that we might make the simple complicated and miss the truth that only love, compassion and understanding can bring. It is in the simple that we can see clearly. If we simplify we can bring about transparency and start demolishing our fears through understanding. As the economist John Kenneth Galbraith said;

"Do not be alarmed by simplification, complexity is often a device for claiming sophistication, or for evading simple truths."

Having goals is good, but when we try to measure too much, we also risk creating a barrier between us and those whose performance we measure. Too much measuring of the acts of those we are trying to help, risks giving an air of mistrust and disproportionate power. Where there is authority there is division between human beings that are in truth, equal.

As philanthropists we have the ultimate power, and that is to reach out and give others our gift of unconditional love, compassion and understanding. As we all know, another person's faith in us will strengthen us, but their mistrust might weaken us, especially if we are already down.

We can also make sure our giving is not made conditional upon what we believe is right and be careful not to make others conform to our values and norms. We can try not to judge too quickly. To see without judgment is not easy, and it takes great courage because we must leave the security of our own opinions, cultures, religions, traditions and fears behind - habits that have taken a lifetime to develop - and instead we must listen without prejudice so that we don't negate someone. We can then freely accept that even if we do have lots to share, we might not have all the answers and that's actually good enough. Indeed it's a relief. The world is such a wonderfully diverse place, one great solution that worked in one setting, or with one individual, might not work in a different time or culture. But that is alright too - we can work together with those we are trying to help and be greatly enriched by the barrierless encounter. We can discover the real joy of giving.

As givers and philanthropists we are uniquely positioned to recognise our common humanity, our interconnectedness, our oneness. So let's not allow yardsticks alone define what we do - or worse, separate us - let's instead see others as an extension of ourselves, and let's really listen to what our earth sister and brother wants and thinks. Even if our traditions and religions are different, we are all in the same human family and filled with the same hopes of prosperity, family, friendships, happiness and peace.

We now know that to truly help is not just to share our riches or skills, but to try to listen without judgment, develop understanding and compassion, give encouragement, see what others aspire to, and help them reveal their inner riches.

"To understand the heart and mind of a person, look not at what he has already achieved, but at what he aspires to." Khalil Gibran

We could call all this a move towards "conscious philanthropy".