The success of Philip Seymour Hoffman

Measuring results for many charities is tricky. Helping people grasp reality is a good start.

In 1992, I first noticed Philip Seymour Hoffman; he was playing a young student in Scent of a Woman. In the 1996 movie Twister, he added whirlwind energy as a manic storm chaser. and strongly registered with me.  

But in 1999’s Magnolia, his performance as a compassionate nurse providing palliative care to Jason Robards moved me and made me a fan. And his 2005 Oscar-winning role as author Truman Capote was unnerving.

Magnolia, 1999

Tragically, Hoffman died of an accidental drug overdose in 2014 at age 46. The New York Times called him “perhaps the most ambitious and widely admired American actor of his generation.” I felt his loss. It was painful watching him in A Most Wanted Man, released the summer after Hoffman’s death: the anguish and despair of his character did not seem like acting.

So when I was critiquing a client’s ability to define “success” and be consistent in reporting "results” to donors, his mention of Philip Seymour Hoffman stopped me short.

Reportedly, the actor struggled with drugs and alcohol after university. Through rehab, he became sober at age 22, and stayed sober for 23 years. But the addiction regained control and he spiraled downward to his eventual death.

The client who mentioned Hoffman deals in addictions. He asked me how much sobriety and for how long, constitutes “success” for individuals, or for the agencies that helped them?

A Most Wanted Man, 2014

For more than a decade we have been challenged by reports such as “Philanthropists Demanding Measurable Results from Their Donations” (Chronicle of Philanthropy, Dec 3., 2007).  It’s now accepted that donors are more “strategic” in their philanthropy, and want plans and projects with specified deliverables.

I mostly support that desire, most of the time. Focusing on measurable results has made charities think hard about what they do and why. We remind our clients that support for general causes and institutions and for what I call "The Noble Effort" is decreasing, and that donors increasingly ask for results they can see and grasp in numbers. We repeatedly ask clients: "So what?"

Yet many KMA clients are in the social service sector, or are otherwise motivated to change people’s lives. When dealing with the extremes of life – poverty, addiction, mental illness, homelessness – reporting satisfying measurable results is difficult.

To measure, you need a scale of progress; to create a scale you need a definition of success. That definition of success must respond to a donor’s desire to see "results" but also remain authentic to the situation and truthful about the forces that govern our work.

That’s tough, ethically and practically.

Consider a man I’ll call Lionel.

Once a productive factory worker, Lionel was injured in an industrial accident. Before the corporate insurance processed a disability claim, the business went under, leaving him with no salary, sick pay or disability pension. Already living paycheque-to-paycheque, he lost his house, and then lost himself in alcohol.

When I met Lionel, he was living in a tent in a ravine, working his way through various helps from social services. But he also was entangled with the police and courts after violent conflicts with others living rough.

Lionel told me that during a meeting with a social worker, the session became adversarial, with tempers flaring on both sides. When things settled, the social worker said that he was recommending Lionel for anger management counselling.

As Lionel tells it, “I said ‘I’ve already had anger management training. That’s the only reason I haven’t come around there and punched your lights out.”’

To Lionel, success that day was mustering enough restraint so as not to assault the social worker. For Lionel, that was progress. But how can a charity working with Lionel explain that to a donor?

Lionel eventually became sober, gave up his panhandling spot, and quit using the overnight shelter program where he and I and first met. I was told he found housing, and was maintaining himself and his housing on social assistance.

I had known him for five years. His path began a few years earlier. City social services and at least a half-dozen charities were involved at different points.

Is Lionel’s a success story? He will always need social assistance. But he is sober and safely off the streets. To me, that’s a success. But is that a “measurable result” that will satisfy a donor?

Our job as fundraisers is to secure donations. To do so, we must set our organizations apart from others, define and report outcomes that can be quantified, and illuminate our work by telling a story with a positive outcome.

The pressure to describe measurable results leads us to treat our activity as almost synonymous with success: “Your gift made possible the hiring of three additional counsellors, who conduct an average of 15 counselling sessions per week.” But what is the impact? Is that success?

We trust that donors will review number-studded infographics and infer, more or less justifiably, that we have an impact. But without a definition of success, it’s vague, at best.

Then we often compound the error with another – we tell the exceptional story rather than the common one.

Recently a client that works among people who are homeless told me of a person who came through their housing, left, got a job, started a business, bought a house and now volunteers. We decided not to tell that story. Because whatever stories we tell define what we mean by success: the donor expects us to be able to accomplish it again.

Further, a vague association between activity and success, combined with exceptional stories misleads the uninformed donor, and risks alienating the donor who is paying attention.

In truth, we can’t reduce anyone’s story to measurable bits. Lionel’s life and those of millions more served by thousands of charities defy measurement. Yet those charities make a crucial difference.

I believe we give up too much by a wholesale capitulation to the drive to make everything measurable. We must push back, and boldly educate our stakeholders about reality, to bring them on the real journey with us.

We must communicate how hard change is for people on the edges, how long it takes, how frail the chances seem at times. We must acknowledge what can and does go wrong, and yes, how seldom it is that one agency accounts for all the impact.  

We must advocate for the long-haul effort, for funding the sustained presence over time. Even as we generate useful graphics and charts, and are accountable for meeting specific goals, we must pursue the hard task of helping donors make informed, nuanced decisions.

We should also respect the fact what we report as organizational success was earned by those we serve. Success belongs to the people living our stories, and their definition of success trumps ours.

Was Philip Seymour Hoffman a success?  He created a monumental body of work, playing complex characters with empathy and insight. He died prematurely, of a drug overdose, devastating family and friends.

For an addict, 23 days, or even hours, may be a huge success; the 23 years of sobriety achieved by Hoffman would seem like a miracle to many. In his life, as for most of us, “succeeding” does not mean escaping hardship or tragedy. Nor, in the end, does life fit into a definitive equation leading to a measurable result.

We owe it to ourselves and our donors to try to explain the implications of that reality for the charities we serve.

- Larry Matthews