After thirty years as Director of an international foundation, the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind, I was excited to come across a long article on the evolution and current buoyancy of philanthropy in the newspaper Le Monde. Yet, reading it, I grew perplexed by the way in which an ideology of philanthropy inspired by the world of business was accepted without any critical questioning.

One only has to be familiar with the American Council on Foundations and to have witnessed the missionary approach of American foundations in Europe to know the catechism: the superiority of philanthropy on public action. At the time of the great neoliberal wave that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, this was the same rhetoric the World Bank was using with ‘good governance’, i.e. unconditional justification for the privatization of public services in the name of the superiority of private management. They happened to forget to point out that the indicators of good governance promoted by the World Bank had been developed by neo-conservative American think tanks. And one of the crowning achievements of private management was the ability of companies to measure in detail the results of their action.

Confronted with the unstoppable rise of China and its governance model that fails to fit its criteria, the World Bank has toned down its lectures on ‘good governance’ and its virtues for development. However, its deeply-inseminated management philosophy has continued to infiltrate all spheres of social life. The World Bank’s missionary approach to the European Commission has left deep scars, namely the introduction of ‘New Public Management’ and its obsession with impact assessment. As for the ‘logical framework’ systematically used by the European Commission in its tenders, it has innumerable objectives, sub-objectives, ‘deliverables’ and impact measures, mixing up planning and strategy. Now this same approach is being promoted in the case of philanthropy.

This passionate obsession for measurement in philanthropy is due, in fact, to two phenomena: first, the ideology of private public management; and second, the mutual frustrations often experienced by a Foundation’s Board and its permanent team. The former has the statutory authority but doesn’t get its hands dirty. The latter is involved in the day-to-day action but has no decision-making role. This results in the Board’s fear that it is not in control of actions taken. In response, a Board often requires that the results of actions must be measured, which overlooks the fact that such a requirement has critical implications as to the nature of the action itself. Indeed, is it really possible to isolate the impact of one player or action over a 3-5 year period when a foundation is committed to the real challenges of the 21st century, which include building a world community capable of responding to the interdependent nature of the anthropocene era, promoting common values that unite societies, and profoundly rethinking governance and the economy; in other words, driving the transition toward sustainable societies? Obviously not. The requirement to measure the impact of an action pushes private philanthropy towards very limited projects, offering the philanthropist opportunities to ‘pull ahead’ or identify a ‘niche’ in the same way a company seeks a niche in the market.

We also tend to forget the perverse effects of measurement. As this represents the main criteria for assessing the effectiveness of an action, it becomes the very objective of the action, not unlike when the police are asked to ‘rack up arrests’. A philanthropic view that is obsessed with measuring its impact becomes what Alain Supiot, professor of international law at the Collège de France, calls, in his recent book, ‘Governance by numbers’: instead of focussing on the evolution and governance of our societies, we are preoccupied with adding up actions, which, in the name of the micro efficiency of each, rope our societies into meaninglessness.

In a context of increased interdependency between societies, scales of action and issues, what tool other than a foundation is capable of rising to the challenge of establishing a connection between local innovation and an evolving global context, between concrete action and transforming the way we think, between the short and the long term? If we want to utilise the specific character of the foundation, due to its independence and financial stability, which allows it to commit to long-term goals, all direct impact measurement methods should be abandoned in order to focus on research into what is relevant: Are foundations taking action where it is needed? Are they able to support and generate the people that will make a difference? Do they know how to find the balance between innovative work and what Edgar Morin called ‘a reform in thinking’? Are they able to learn from their achievements and mistakes? If foundations – the only institutional tool able to confront transitional challenges – give up on this task, who will take over?

Pierre Calame Chief civil engineer Chairman emeritus of the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind