The Head and the Heart

I noticed an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy the other day that may indicate a change in a 10-year trend of measuring nonprofit performance. The “effective philanthropy” movement took a hit when the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation announced recently it was closing down its eight-year, $12-million funding of projects to “get donors to rely as much on their heads as their hearts.”
Their funding for Charity Navigator, GiveWell and Guidestar will be ending after this year.
As you probably know, these organizations are three of the most visible and successful tools for public information about financial performance and social impact of nonprofit organizations.
Ironically, the decision to drop the funding was the result of the foundation’s own research through Hope Consulting. The “Money for Good” study showed that few people actually investigate the performance of nonprofits as part of their decision to give. The research indicates that despite the increasing number of ratings and research on nonprofit performance, donors still give most of their money to charities they know well, such as their alma mater or groups that have helped them or their friends. While 85 percent said that a charity’s performance is very important, only 35 percent conducted research on giving, and just 2 percent gave based on a group’s relative performance.
“It’s not like we could make them all super rational,” said Jacob Harold, chief executive of GuideStar and a former Hewlett program officer.
Reading this article about “rational givers” who lean strongly toward making decisions by logic and analysis instead of emotion reminded me of something else I read recently in the Wall Street Journal about the “left brain/right brain” dichotomy – and that surprisingly, this distinction is no longer considered true.
The WSJ reported on a new two-year study published in the journal Plos One about the research of University of Utah neuroscientists. They scanned the brains of more than 1,000 people to measure their functional lateralization – the specific mental processes taking place on each side of the brain. The neuroscientists found no evidence that the study participants had a stronger left- or right-sided brain network.
As it turns out, we are all left- and right-brain people, and our brains work best as a unified system. There is no way to categorize people – or the way they give – into one side or the other. We are fully integrated by design and should not describe someone as being motivated by reason or emotion.
In other words, we really can’t be divided into “head or heart” people.
I like the Hebrew word, “leb.” It does not mean simply emotion, compassion and feelings but also is used to describe the seat of our intellect, will, reason and thinking. Everything about us is captured in this word.
I hesitate to tell you that “leb” is translated in English as “heart” because we have corrupted the word (think Valentine’s Day) and have completely lost its full meaning. We have separated emotion from reason, when in fact, they are joined and completely melded with each other. You cannot love without reason or reason without love.
Remember that our best is not when we try to balance “head and heart” but when we see our giving as coming from the full use of everything that “leb” describes. It is all from one place. It is everything we have.


  1. Fred, This is one of my favorites of your recent writing! I love it and believe it to be true…

    • Todd – You are one of the most brain integrated people I know!

      • Fred — I agree completely with Todd. This is great.
        And I’m going to send it to our group — as both confirmation that we should continue to pursue objective results, and as solace for when we inevitably end up leaning towards subjective inclinations.

  2. good description on the word “leb”
    reference to Maimonides definition …………………

    • Michele – I looked it up in “Guide For The Perplexed” (what a wonderful title) and you are right. Here is one of my favorites from that. “A wise man’s heart is at his right hand”

  3. Loved reading this today! The head and the heart applies to everything we do each day ….loving, giving, serving, working, helping, praying….the list is endless! Oh how I love you, Fred!

    • Toni – thank you! Yes, it is all one piece.

  4. As always, you are insightful and helpful. I agree about the unity principle. We need to listen to both our heart and mind in balance.
    I liked what Teddy Roosevelt said: ” I think there is only one quality worse than hardness of the heart and that is softness of the head.”
    In an earlier time, one major foundation donor ( J D Rockefeller) in Teddy Roosevelt’s era pursued “scientific philanthropy” and sought facts and root causes to solve problems fully and forever. Matters and lessons learned may move us in a different direction now from seeking such a single facts based goal. It’s encouraging that the Hewlett Foundation evaluated its program and acted upon its findings.

    • I always like the word “dynamic balance” because it sounds like we are going somewhere with balance and not just finding the middle way. Of course, I have never been balanced. But then you know that already.

  5. Fred: I highly recommend the book “The Righteous MInd” by Jonathan Haidt. It suggests that in most decisions it is emotions that make the decision and then the “rational” part of the brain “lights up” and goes to work to find good reasons for why the brain has decided to do what it wants to do.
    The book is based on a great deal of experiential research as well as neuroscience using MRI’s.
    It suggests to me that the statement (once thought to have been made by William James) that ” ‘Freedom’ is the ability to pause, between the stimulus and the response and make a choice” is quite true. To put it another way: the heart will have its tendencies, but before action is taken it is important to engage the reason. Apparently the research on giving has indicated that we choose not to take the time to do that. We feel and then act. According to Haidt, those emotions are based on core values that we may not even be aware of holding AND, they tend to be different in “conservatives” and “liberals”.

    • Mike – This is a post from Nicholas Taleb, the author of “The Black Swan” talking about how the economist Daniel Kahneman impacted his life: “The first idea Danny gave me in Rome is that people do not perceive stand-alone objects, rather differences away from an anchor point. He said that it was not cultural: even the vision of babies was based on identifying variations. It was simply more economical for the brain to do so. Investors are more affected by changes in wealth than by wealth itself and they are very sensitive to the way information is presented to them; they are more unhappy if one tells them they have lost $10,000 (the variation) than if one informs them that their wealth is now $480,000 (the total). They just take a benchmark and react to variations from it. So one could make them react more rationally by modifying the anchor.
      That small point was miraculous: upon my return to New York I forced the clients to write off the amount they were willing to lose during the year (like an insurance premium expensed at the beginning of the period). I then posted performance reports showing how much they “recovered”, ie, money not lost. It was a wonder pill: clients became excited as they treated the money not lost as if it were a profit.
      The second – equally potent – point I learned is that people do not aggregate information properly. When the portfolio is composed of many trades, and the net performance is positive, though some trades were up while a few were down, the clients got excited when they only saw the net total, but not when they saw the details. A small loss in a trade more than compensated by gains elsewhere would turn them off, and cause them to interrupt my lunch for an urgent conversation.”
      Reason and emotion are a great team.

  6. Our allocation team met today so this timely as always. 🙂 I am sharing the link.

    • Yes, Nan, you do have a mixture of head and heart folks on that team!

  7. Fred,
    I certainly share your thought that “It is all from one place. It is everything we have”. Curt Thompson, MD in his book, Anatomy of the Soul (Tyndale, 2010) has a wonderful and insightful discussion of the connections between psychological attachment theory (a Neo-Freudian concept), brain neurophysiology and spirituality. I had the opportunity to be in a workshop that he did at the Christian Association for Psychological Studies annual conference in early April. We tend to think that the left brain, the presumed rational or cognitive-reasoning part of our brain is somehow in competition or conflict with the right brain, the creative or emotional part of our self. While to some degree the left side can over-ride the right, the primary operational sequence is actually the other way around. As Thompson says it; “Bottom to top and right to left”. It is very much designed as a coordinated and hopefully cohesive system. Thompson quotes Daniel Siegel who has defined the mind; “the mind is an embodied and relational process, emerging from within and between brains, that regulates the flow of energy and information”. Thanks for the embodied and relational flow of energy and information from your blog and the subsequent dialogue. I trust that many of The Gathering would find Thompson enlightening in a variety of relational contexts.

  8. Thanks, Smith. This is timely. We are helping to host a conference on mental illness and the church – like Saddleback did earlier this year. I am going to follow up with these suggestions. We are looking for someone who can address brain science and mental illness.

  9. I concur with Smith about Curt Thompson and that he would be a fantastic addition to any events you are planning. We’ve had him at Art House North and Sara had lunch with him Friday at Willow. lmk if I can help.


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