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Why Cognitive Dissonance is Key to Effective Philanthropy

This month’s article, the third by Eric Nonacs and Ehren Reed concerning major trends in philanthropy, asks a critical and timely question: In difficult times, how can a philanthropist remain optimistic and engaged, while also being realistic?

effective philanthropy Photo courtesy of Mario Gogh via Unsplash

Following the news these days is not an easy task for the optimist. In recent months alone, we have witnessed COVID’s inexorable march, the horrors taking place in Ukraine, rampant inequality and a global loss of faith in democracy, government and institutions. All of this against the backdrop of a world rapidly confronting the realities of climate change and the varied calamities that flow from it.

Unsurprisingly, even the most well-intended and open-minded philanthropic efforts can seem inconsequential in the face of the numerous existential challenges we now face. And, with this in mind, it’s understandable that so many of us seek to ignore the bad news that’s out there, or worse, fall into the trap of paralysis and inertia.

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As earlier articles in this series have suggested, navigating the current landscape of challenges facing humanity requires today’s philanthropists to entertain ambiguity, embrace complexity and democratize their decision-making processes. It also requires hope and the belief that through a delicate combination of passion, resources, cooperation, patience and persistence, any problem can be solved.

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At times like these, it’s worth reflecting upon the experience of others who have confronted unimaginable hardship, yet, somehow, managed to stay positive and avoid debilitating pessimism. US Admiral James Stockdale was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War; he was held for over seven years in the notorious Hỏa Lò Prison (aka the ‘Hanoi Hilton’) and experienced not only repeated and severe torture, but also years-long uncertainty as to whether he would see his family again, or even survive. Yet, as he revealed in a conversation with the author Jim Collins, Stockdale was able to preserve his sanity and carry on by making a critical distinction between a steadfast, pragmatic belief in a positive outcome and baseless optimism: “The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.” He continued, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

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Similarly, in trying to tackle issues as nuanced as racial inequality, climate change, and immigration, today’s philanthropists must move with the urgency these crises demand, but must also rely upon patience and pragmatic long-termism, recognizing that progress may take a generation to realize. For example, the destructive potential of climate change mandates that we move quickly and decisively on implementing strategies for both mitigating and adapting to this threat while understanding that certain factors (the world’s current energy needs, the existence of ‘bad actors,’ the amount of carbon and methane already in the atmosphere, etc.) will slow us down. In confronting this and other challenges, philanthropists must act with ‘ferocious patience.’ The ferocity to treat crises like the emergencies they are, and the patience to stay in the fight for the decades it will likely require.

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This is but one example of the cognitive dissonance–understanding and acting upon a set of paradoxical inputs and insights–that today’s philanthropists must embrace. Others include:

  • The suggestion that philanthropy should be pragmatic about its goals and modest in its expectations—especially in light of our divided and highly-charged cultural and political discourse—whereas the depth of the problems we are confronting requires us to be both optimistic and borderline irrational in defining our aims.
  • Our efforts are both important and insignificant. While there is an imperative for all of us to confront the profound fractures in our societies, polities and environment, there are limits to what one individual’s (or a single foundation’s) money can achieve, and, more fundamentally, there is a limit to what money–without the support sound policy, positive behavior change, and collaboration between people with differing points of view–can accomplish. Accordingly, we must be comfortable being ‘appropriately small,’ while being clear-eyed about our goals, and ensuring that we are meeting those goals.

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In grappling with these seeming contradictions, the work of the author and business strategist Roger Martin provides some useful guidance. Across a number of articles and books, Martin advances the idea of ‘integrative thinking,’ which he defines as “a form of reasoning which allows you to constructively face the tensions of opposing models. Instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, you generate a creative solution. Your solution contains elements of the individual models, but is superior to each.” He honed his ideas primarily through interviews with private sector leaders, but his concept of the ‘opposable mind’–one that is flexible enough to hold, and ultimately reconcile, two contradictory ideas, without retreating to simplicity when faced with complexity and uncertainty–should serve as an aspirational goal for the philanthropist seeking to support individuals and organizations engaged in addressing truly wicked problems.  

So, where might integrative thinking–and the lesson of Admiral Stockdale–lead us in meeting the daunting challenges mentioned above? If nothing else, we need to realize that hope is a ‘long game.’ And that evidence-based optimism, wedded to patience and persistence, is not a failure of belief. It is, instead, a way to make peace between the philanthropic imperative, widespread uncertainty, and the practical limits on our ability to effect change.

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