The Parable of The Star Thrower Giving for Impact
M ost people are familiar with Loren Eisley’s story of The Star Thrower . At least they think they are. Most of us have heard a saccharine version of the story.The original version differs from the familiar version in some key ways, teaching us important principles about giving for impact. In the version of the story that has become so familiar, a girl is walking along a beach after a storm. The beach is covered with starfish drying and dying in the morning sun. One at a time, she picks up the starfish and hurls them as far as she can back into the sea. A curmudgeon comes along and says to the girl, “Why bother? It doesn’t really matter because you can’t possibly save them all.” The girl ponders the question for a moment and, picking up another starfish, responds, “It matters to this one.” She then hurls it into the sea. This story teaches us a powerful lesson: that every single one matters. I worry, however, that the story also implies that we should be satisfied with helping one where many may be suffering.This familiar version of the story also leaves unchallenged the curmudgeon’s assertion that we can’t save them all, allowing us to conclude incorrectly that we can’t. In Eisley’s original story, the star thrower is an adult who is throwing starfish back into the sea, not from a sandy beach, but from a craggy, dangerous shoreline. There, he is ap- proached by the narrator of the story who is perplexed by the star thrower. After ponder- ing overnight what he saw, the narrator re- turns the next day to join the star thrower.
Everyone—every single one—matters. Measuring Impact If everyone matters, how do we help them all? One of the key principles is to give with an eye on impact. That is, we need to give our time and money to organizations that actually make a difference. As we focus on having impact, we need to measure impact. Let’s consider our felons for a moment. If we focus on impact, our questions shouldn’t focus on the number of people a program serves, but on the outcomes of the program. Consider a program that provides training to recently released prisoners. It shouldn’t matter how many people are trained (an input measure), nor should we be concerned about their test scores (a preliminary output). We should, instead, be focused on outcomes like the number of people who get good jobs after completing the program or the number who don’t return to prison—especially as compared to groups not participating in the program. Traditionally, philanthropists have put their money where their hearts are. Increasingly, however, sophisticated donors are measuring outcomes for impact. This shift is driving The trick is to scale up the programs that actually work. If you have a program that reduces recidivism (the rate at which ex- convicts return to prison) in a meaningful way with a group of 100 or 1000 participants, we need to find ways to scale that up to address the entire relevant population. We need to recognize, of course, that not all program candidates will be a good fit. A program that improved results. Scaling Impact
In this version of the story, the message is almost the opposite of the familiar version. Rather than suggest the futility of trying to save all the starfish, the story implies we can save all the starfish if only we have enough star throwers. This in no way contradicts the notion that every individual is important. In fact, it reinforces it. If every person matters then we should—we must—find a way to save them all. Everyone Matters Let’s consider what that means, that everyone matters.That means that everyone, including people who are different from us or far away from us, is equally important. While we may see people in our family, our neighborhood and community as being more deserving of our love and attention, ultimately we should recognize that every human being on the planet has an equal claim on the world’s resources. For most of us, this rings true when we think of starving children in Africa. The principle, which I hold is universally true, must also apply to felons. For most of us, this represents a bigger leap. Consider, however, that a program or effort to help reintegrate a felon into productive society not only helps the once and former criminal, but also helps society. If that individual returns to prison, it not only creates a public expense for care and feeding, but it also means that some new crime has been committed, and some additional cost has been suffered by the public.
16 I Nonprofit Professional Performance Magazine
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