Santa - if you deal in such things - what I'd love from you this year is more curiosity

Acknowledgement that we should explore the unknown has always helped humankind, writes Caroline Fiennes

Caroline Fiennes
Caroline Fiennes

In 1929, Werner Forssmann, a junior doctor in Eberswalde, Germany, found in an obscure 19th century journal a print of a man passing a tube through a horse's jugular vein into its heart to measure changes in ventricular pressure.

He wondered if it were possible to investigate human hearts in a similar way. His seniors said he was crazy for asking and told him to go back to work.

Undeterred, he sneaked into the x-ray room, made a slit in his own arm, threaded a small tube into his own heart and took some x-rays showing the position of the tube. He was fired. But in 1956 he won a Nobel Prize for, in effect, co-founding the field of cardiology.

Acknowledgement of unknowns and the curiosity to explore them has helped mankind hugely. So I'm surprised that curiosity is scarce among colleagues in charities and philanthropy, given that so much is unknown. For example, what happens to educational results as we vary class sizes, duration or terms? Or what if, like the Khan Academy, we were to invert the traditional model to give students online lessons at home and spend time with teachers at school doing exercises and problems?

In anti-poverty programmes, does it matter if surveyors who, for example, collect data on people's income for rigorous evaluations are male or female or if they collect that data on paper or on electronic devices? If the measurement tool affects the apparent results, then surely we need to know. What does the literature say about how domestic charities can best collaborate? Are there inexpensive short-term marker outcomes that reliably predict the long-term outcomes we really care about? When can beneficiaries' perceptions of an organisation be used as a reliable proxy for the effectiveness of that organisation? After an earthquake, is it better to pull people painstakingly from the rubble or to amputate trapped limbs and move on to the next person? And does it matter in terms of outcomes that, as the Stanford Social Innovation Review recently reported, non-profit board places are increasingly being occupied by the rich? These questions might all affect our success, yet all remain unanswered.

So Santa - if you deal in such things - what I'd love from you this year is more curiosity. Please also bring some for donors, foundations and operating organisations, because they all have many practices that probably could be usefully questioned.

Do the expert panels that assess applications make better decisions than those made by flipping a coin? Do the type and extent of a funder's engagement with grantees affect outcomes? When should donors make a few large grants and when should they make loads of small grants? Can donors' existing data be used to predict whether or not a particular grant or organisation will succeed? So incurious are most donors that Clara Miller, president of the FB Heron Foundation, which helps low-income people and communities, says that "most philanthropy is a culture of bureaucracy; it isn't a culture of discovery".

The instinct to see and answer myriad questions like these could help us to understand and achieve much more - but we do need curiosity.

Santa, can you help?

Caroline Fiennes is director of Giving Evidence and author of It Ain't What You Give

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