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Moneyball Philanthropy: “Back to School” Film Review by Jennifer Landres

October 27, 2011

Jennifer Landres

This is the seventh in a series of “Back to School” book reports by members of our team. We selected books, and in this case, a movie based on a book, based on their potential to help us in our own work to identify high-impact philanthropic opportunities and help donors improve their philanthropic impact. We hope this series helps make some of our own learning transparent so that others may benefit.

This week’s “Back to School” film review is by Jennifer Landres, Project Manager and Analyst at the Center. 

Last week, I went to see Bennett Miller’s film, Moneyball, based on the book by Michael Lewis. I went to the movies as an escape after a long day at work, and philanthropy was the last thing on my mind. But as the plot of the movie unfolded, my mind kept wandering back to my work at the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, and how the central premise of Moneyball directly relates to the work that we do.

“It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.”

So opines Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s—and I can’t help but agree. Baseball in America is a time-honored pastime, a sport laden with tradition connected to childhood memories of summertime, hotdogs and fireworks. It’s Field of Dreams: If you build it, he will come.       

These engrained traditions are precisely why Beane’s adherence to sabermetrics—specialized statistical analysis of baseball through objective, empirical evidence—so deeply shook up the entire MLB institution in 2002.  In the “pre-Moneyball era,” baseball fans, scouts and coaches spent time tracking data such as batting averages and RBI’s, which Beane claimed—and proved—to be subjective, flawed, and ineffective indicators of success (read: winning games). Rather, the movie presents Billy Beane and Asst. GM Peter Brand (based upon the real-life Paul DePodesta) as a foil to the more “traditionalist” baseball scouts and executives, because they search for empirical measures of player performance that actually impact the game. Ultimately, by tracking metrics such as OBP (on base percentages) and numbers of pitches-per-at-bat, Beane and Brand successfully identified, recruited and developed “underappreciated” (read: cheaper) players and could therefore put together a winning team on a leaner budget than the large-market teams.

Something about this fundamental tension between tradition and innovation, subjectivity and objectivity, gut-instinct and evidence resonated strongly with me. Philanthropy, at its core, is staunched in tradition. Whether it comes in the form of inherited wealth, multi-generational giving, supporting long-standing institutions within the community, or grateful recipient giving (e.g., giving to your alma mater), philanthropy has historically been guided by a wide range of motivations—often the least of which has been data and empirical evidence. Furthermore, when donors have tried to access information to inform their giving, oftentimes the only available data (e.g., overhead ratios, how good other donors felt, how much awareness and funds were raised) has not helped them achieve meaningful changes in the lives of the people they sought to help.

Equally compelling data comes from the issue of cost per impact. In Beane’s case, the A’s cost-per-win during the 2002 season was $441,000 (based on the A’s team payroll of $41,942,665). In contrast, big-name franchises, like the Yankees, spent $1.308 million per win (based on the Yankees $133,429,757 payroll), for exactly the same number of wins that season!

There are similar gains to be had in philanthropy, if you know where to look. For example, in the case of emergency food provisions, choice and/or bulk purchasing models represent a particularly efficient and effective strategy to get food to households in need. For as little as $16 to $37, a family or four can eat for a week. This is compared to the $150 to $220 that it can cost a traditional food bank to provide enough food for the same family for the same amount of time. That increases efficiency as much as four to fourteen times over. [For more on these models, please see our High Impact Philanthropy in the Downturn guide.]

The Center for High Impact Philanthropy exists to help donors develop a better understanding of the impact they seek and how to find cost-effective, evidence-based models to achieve that change. Many would argue that baseball is not just about winning, and philanthropy is not necessarily just about impact. But if you care about winning and you care about impact, then the metrics that you look at matter.

“What CHIP tries to do is estimate the ‘cost per impact’ of various ways and means of doing good—to apply the science of sabermetrics, made famous in baseball, to the art of giving money away. Think of it as Moneyball Philanthropy.”- How to Give Your Fortune Away, Philadelphia Magazine, June 2011

8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 27, 2011 11:58 am

    Metrics matter. But how good are we in philanthropy in finding the right ones?

    The real take-away from Billy Beane is not that analytical approaches to decision-making triumph.

    It is more about how often they fail because they track the wrong stuff, ignore the right stuff, or are biased six ways from Sunday. He waded through a lot of horse-hockey.

    Baseball has more statistical passion and nerdy metrics than most observed human phenomenon but it can barely plumb the depths of winning and losing on game day.

    Similarly, the predictive failure of our platoons of tenured economists in spotting the current economic crisis has them all scratching their heads and astutely avoiding the occupy protests at their local town squares.

    I think we can do better than “moneyball philanthropy”, but it is a provocative analogy.

  2. October 31, 2011 10:59 pm

    With a 95% rating on Rottentomatoes.com Moneyball fails to deliver any thesis on whether or not people can be condensed to data. It’s a topic you’d imagine might have tickled the scriptwriter – but compared to Sorkin’s earlier efforts, this has all the subtle touch of a baseball mitt.
    Personally I think with the exception of Jonah Hill’s performance, your post here is more enjoyable and thought provoking.

  3. February 4, 2012 3:30 am

    It is interesting to see how “Moneyball” has sparked so many responses from the nonprofit field. A year ago I did an article with Ken Berger, the President and CEO of Charity Navigator, along much the same lines. Called ““Billy Beane and Outcomes: what baseball can tell the nonprofit world about measures and measurement”, it appeared in the August 2010 edition of the Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal, and can be found at

Trackbacks

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