The Trouble with Stakes

Last evening, during the President’s health-care speech, I found myself frustrated. Why can’t someone just talk to me straight!? Why can’t anyone simply compare the perspectives, analyze the arguments, and explore the implications free from rhetoric, empassioned mantras, scare tactics, and tear-jerking stories. Why can’t we have some kind of genuinely objective perspective?

The answer’s pretty simple: the genuinely objective observers don’t CARE enough to do the careful analysis.

The people who care, the ones who invest time and energy and resources, are the one who have something on the line. They have a stake.

The connection from there was at once natural and surprising. So often in the non-profit and social entrepreneurship worlds, we extoll the virtues of (and even decry the absence of) objective, third-party impact assessments and evaluations. We proclaim (often quite correctly) that it is impossible for those at the heart of a venture, doing the day-to-day work, pouring their blood, sweat and tears into their programs to accurately assess their own impact and effectiveness.

The problem, of course, with these stakeholders (and any stakeholder) is that they CARE.

Essentially, we’re saying that in order to provide a reliable assessment, you must not be a stakeholder in the venture. You must not care.

Admittedly, this is a bit of a hyperbole. But it seems worth looking at. If what we want from non-profit and social entrepreneurship evaluation is thorough exploration, careful analysis and strategic recommendations, can we truly rely on evaluators without a stake?

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One response to “The Trouble with Stakes

  1. While I agree with the general thrust of your remark, I am not as cynical as many about the ability for a thoughtful human being to be fair, balanced, and appropriately dispassionate in evaluation. If the evaluator cares about these values, they can apply them in a very helpful way even if they hold some stake.

    For example, Brian Gong (among others) taught concepts that were an attempt to verify understanding before applying judgment. He set the standard of being able to articulate a person’s position, even if you violently disagree with it, in terms that that person will agree that you understand their point of view before responding with an evaluation of their views. While much of today’s journalism is a characture of what the profession is really about (which is, in my view, providing a researched, nuanced report of ideas and events that highlights the key issues and implications and how people on all sides feel about them), I learned techniques in my training as a journalist for fair and balanced reporting. For example, you should be able to send your article to a colleague and they should not be able to tell by reading it which side of the issue you favor.

    My point is that if a person cares the most about being fair and balanced, if they care the most that all parties will acknowledge that their evaluation was equitable, then they can still care about the issue and achieve a useful degree of credible evaluative reflection. This requires discipline and restraint, but it is achievable. Those values are not dead.

    I would add, per Dr. Williams, that it is also useful for them to include a description of their personal background and known biases as part of the evaluation report.

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