17 July 2014 ~ 1 Comment

How to Make Hard Choices (and why a universal NGO ranking system is impossible)

I’m sure most of you have viewed your fair share of TED talks. This one is about “How to Make Hard Choices” – and it is certainly worth a view as we all make “hard choices” every day and this perspective might make those choices feel a lot more empowering.

While watching it, I realized that her argument about hard choices relates to why NGO ranking systems are impossible. When we are trying to decide which job to take, which house to buy, or which person to marry, we all want to know which choice is “better” than the other – and many people ask similar questions about the non-profits they should give their money to or places they should volunteer.

Ruth Chang’s argument in the video is that with hard choices, there is no “better” or “worse” choice, nor are the choices “equally good” in some sort of equation where if you made one slightly better it would tip the scale. These kinds of choices don’t work that way…. she describes them as “on a par”. Neither is better. And no matter how many spreadsheets we do, impact analysis we try to conduct, or analytical processes we go through, there will never be a universal “right” answer.  Though there is no “right answer” there is a “right answer for me” – and that isn’t because one is better than the other for us, we’ve already decided that’s not the case. Instead, it’s because we’ve voted with our decision. We’ve voted for who we want to be, what we want to represent in the world, and what reasons we want to create that align with our own values and vision for ourselves in the future.

When I do talks at universities, I often speak about “voting with your money”. I remind the audience that each time we each buy a plastic bottle, we are voting for more of that in the world. When we choose to bank with Bank A over Bank B, we’re voting for more of Bank A’s in the world, and so on and so on. Ruth Chang extends this argument into our personal choices about how we live our lives. Do want to wear all black today, or the 1980’s colorful unitard? Neither is better. But my choice is a vote – a vote for what I want more of in my life, who I want to be that day, and what I want to stand for at that moment. Choosing to be a lawyer rather than a philosopher, a decision Ruth discusses from her past, could be you taking an internal stand for a number of things. “I choose to be someone who makes practical choices about money – and I am choosing the job that pays more.” Or “I choose to be someone who follows their heart, and my heart is saying philosopher.” Or “I choose to be someone who prioritizes being home to pick up their kids from school each day, and the philosophy job will allow me to do that.” Or….. any number of other reasons that WE make up. And by making those reasons up, we are defining who we are, and as Ruth points out, writing our own life stories.

So back to NGOs and rating or ranking systems… how does this relate?  Just like in a job decision, there are certainly some jobs that are better than others, just like there are some NGOs that are better than others. In a job search, you might find a few jobs that are almost the same, but one pays a lot more, is in a better location, has smarter people, has more contracts, and isn’t about to go bankrupt etc etc. The “hard decision” doesn’t come into effect until after you have weeded out a lot of the easy choices – the things you know you don’t want to do.

In making a decision about where to give you time or money, you can go through the same process. There are certain factors which you need to evaluate to decide if the non-profit organization is even worth considering: Is it transparent about it’s financials? Are their corruption concerns? Do they have the proper staff they need to perform their work well (do they have social workers for the children in their care, etc)? Do I believe the leadership is ethical and values driven? Etc…. you can use whatever tools, interviews, or websites you need to decide which organizations you want to choose from. But THEN it becomes what Ruth would call a “hard decision”. Is a child’s rights organization, or an environmental protection agency “better”? Which is having “more” impact on the world? There is no right answer, and all of the analytical tools out there which are trying to quantify impact will fail to be relevant at this final stage, because there ISN’T a way to compare across our different values. Your same donation might help “save one life from cancer” or “improve 10 people’s lives by helping them get well paying jobs so they can support their families”…. Neither is better. YOU get to place YOUR values, YOUR vision for the future, and YOUR reasoning around who YOU want to be in that decision.

And the good part about owning that decision, is that then YOU are responsible for it. In other words, we can’t simply rely on outside forces, like business school rankings to decide which MBA program to choose, or GiveWell‘s website to tell us where to give our money. We certainly should use those tools to check – what do other people think? Is there reason to be worried that this group isn’t ethical or isn’t a top performing group? If yes, then we cross them out. But once we get to the “top”, we can’t outsource our choices to others, and we can’t blame them when we make ones that don’t work out well. We get to vote and decide what type of person we want to be, based on the reasons we make for our decisions.

And that is indeed how you write your own future, and the future of our world.

Check out Ruth Chang’s TED talk here…

  • http://zenmonkees.wordpress.com ZenMonkees

    Really wonderful post; we can’t expect every factor of an organization to be quantified by one measuring system. And volunteering is worth taking a few risks, as we learn a lot in the process.