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Weekend Wrap-up: Haiti/Chile, Donor Humility, & Better Teaching

March 5, 2010

Haiti/Chile: The role of experience

Last week, we wrote a CBS news op-ed where we described the kind of  donations whose impact lasts long after the headlines and celebrity appeals end (Giving Donations that Transform Haiti).  In it, we describe effective models in education, health and livelihood that have the potential to move Haiti from recovery to long-term, sustainable development.

Since then, an earthquake hit Chile with a geological force reported to be 500x more powerful than the one that hit Haiti. But the humanitarian crisis has thankfully not been as great, due to the capacity of the Chilean government to respond, better infrastructure, less overall poverty,  the relative population density of affected regions, and a history of earthquakes that made Chile much better equipped to respond to this one.

That last point is important. Experience matters, never more so than in the chaos inherent in disaster response.  That is why we have  emphasized the need to support those nonprofits and ngo’s with specific disaster relief expertise and experience. (See: Haiti: How Can I Help?, Haiti: Jump Starting the Recovery), particularly in the first 72 hours to 1 week after a disaster (See: Haiti: Cutting Through the Noise).

A call for donor-humility

We’ve heard it all too often. Nonprofit leaders bemoaning the arrogance of donors who presume to have a better, often more “business-like” solution. And philanthropists, recounting their earlier cockiness, now tempered by experience and often, disappointment.

In his recent article,  When Good Deeds Turn Bad, Wall Street Journal writer Jeffrey Zaslow,  tells the story of a Cub scout father who told his son, “don’t help the old lady cross the street unless she wants to go.” The article goes on to describe various well-intentioned – and in some cases well-financed –  altruistic efforts that never produced the impact their designers sought, primarily because the donor-outsiders had a deaf ear to the issues and dynamics of the community they sought to help.

This should come as no surprise. Donors usually seek to help those whose circumstances are very different from their own. Given that, the article is a good reminder that practicing high impact philanthropy  means being prepared to be a student, to release ingoing assumptions, and to consider that the answer that is obvious to the donor may not be the most effective for the intended beneficiary.

Speaking of being a student . . .

Better teaching

An article by 2009 Spencer Education Journalism FellowElizabeth Green, in the upcoming March 7th New York Times magazine provides a fascinating portrait of two teachers, Doug Lemov and Deborah Loewenberg Ball, who become the ultimate students of how to build a better teacher. One focused on classroom management; the other focused on better ways to teach math. Magazine Preview:  Building a Better Teacher. The article describes how a combination of careful observation, data-crunching, and analyses led both to the same conclusion that remains controversial to some:  teaching is not a gift, but a profession in which one can be trained.

Even for those who contest Lemov and Ball’s conclusion, it’s a hopeful message. Given the number of better teachers we will need to meet the educational needs of America’s children, relying only on recruiting superstars seems unwise. For those who are interested in supporting philanthropic efforts to improve teaching quality, we encourage you to check out our current donor blueprint on the issue and welcome your comments.

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