The Impact of Intention

Jan. 16, 2014, 11:30 p.m.

In order for an action to have worth, it must be rooted in good intentions. Many would nod in support of this statement, and personally, I agree. But does it apply to the realm of social impact and acts of public service?

Before diving into that question, learning from a source of analogous inspiration can be helpful (shout-out to the In the United States legal system, intent has great affect on determining the crime and punishment of an offender. Malice aforethought — intent to kill — must be proven to convict someone of murder. It results in the most severe punishment for crimes involving the death of another human being.

Voluntary manslaughter, a lesser offense, is “an intentional killing that is accompanied by additional circumstances that mitigate, but do not excuse, the killing.” Emotions such as anger, fear or desperation reduce the severity of the crime from a murder to voluntary manslaughter. Intent is also central to the definition of involuntary manslaughter, “the unlawful killing of another human being without intent.” This version of the same act receives the most lenient punishment. Should the importance of intent translate as heavily to the creation of social good as well as harm?

64.5 million people volunteered 7.9 billion hours in 2012, including 63 percent of millennials (citizens aged 16-35). These individuals, whatever their motivation, are the engine upon which many nonprofits depend to provide the services so badly needed in our communities. I have never come across an organization that requires proof of pure purpose as a prerequisite to donating time or money. But should they? Does intention affect service?

Qualms about the factors initiating good deeds have been around for centuries, as noted by Dan Kadlec for TIME magazine. “The Chinese Zen Master Chuang-Tzu argued in the 4th century B.C. that most philanthropy was meant to further one’s own business or personal interests,” he points out in an article questioning why the reasons people give matter — as long as they do give.

There exist many combinations of either better or worse intentions leading to successful or failed outcomes. Examples include corporate giving — successful service performed for ulterior motives, and well-intentioned service resulting in disastrous consequences (such as Westerners serving abroad). These do not prove a point, but they do illustrate two things that are certain.

First, good intentions do not guarantee positive social impact. Dambisa Moyo, author of “Dead Aid,” is one spokesperson for this truth. Second, we have the responsibility of measuring outcomes regardless of intent. Stanford’s Paul Brest, previously of the Hewlett Foundation, teaches a course entitled Managing to Outcomes and has written and spoken on the topic for the Stanford Social Innovation Review and Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. Not every solution is expected to work perfectly, but full effort must be given to ensuring the successful creation of positive social impact. Beyond that, it is necessary to record lessons learned from failures and share them to prevent future blundering of others.

So…does intention affect impact? Should high school-aged volunteers have to prove they are serving only to promote social good and not because an upcoming college application will expect it? I do not believe that intent should have that much weight. I cannot shake my instinct that any endeavor is better accomplished when one’s aims align with the purpose of the end goal. However, when we are faced with so many severe challenges, we cannot afford the luxury of deeming certain acts of service less than others and must focus all energy on positive outcomes.


Contact Elizabeth Woodson at [email protected]

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