One of the great problems for donors interested in social policy is that they want their programs to work. Who wants to fund an ineffective project? But far too often donors push to get grantees to come up with the results they want, or that they think they want.

I have several examples of this dilemma in Great Philanthropic Mistakes.

The Ford Foundation’s Grey Areas program wanted to use their grants to transform the lives of the poor in America’s inner cities, but they also didn’t want to seem as if they gave orders to the poverty-fighting organizations they supported. So these nonprofits struggled to create persuasive grant proposals that would please Ford’s program officers.

Both the Ford and Rockefeller foundations in the 1950s and 1960s created coercive, eugenics-inspired ways to limit population growth, but did not realize that the only way to reduce the world’s population was not increasingly coercive mandates crafted by mandarins in New York, London, or Turtle Bay, but in the decentralized decisions of tens of millions of women to limit the sizes of their families.

Nevertheless, program officers continue to come up with Big Plans and then make grants to prove their ideas were correct. In a recent article in Financial Times, Tim Harford has a cautionary tale about the dangers of false beliefs.

Harford is an economics columnist for Financial Times. (I reviewed his book Messy here.) Harford is very good at what he does, and he always comes up with interesting ideas.

This article is about what psychologists call “motivated reasoning,” or what Harford calls “thinking through the topic with the aim of reaching a particular conclusion.” Every sports fan does this when the ball doesn’t fall the way then want it to: It must be the umpire’s fault!

Harford also discusses the work of Oxford behavioral economist Guy Mayraz who asked focus groups to pretend they were farmers concerned about the price of wheat. The focus group members were divided into “farmers” who would get more if the price of wheat were high and “bakers” who benefitted from cheap wheat. The result was that both groups “forecast what they hoped would happen.” The farmers foresaw that the price of grain would soar and the bakers saw a wheat price crash as inevitable.

“This is wishful thinking in its purest form,” Harford writes, “letting our reasoning be swayed by our dreams.”

Harford’s principal story is about Han van Meegeren, a Dutch master art forger. In 1937, Gerard Boon, a noted anti-fascist, came to Abraham Bredius, a Dutch expert on the paintings of the great 17th century master Johannes Vermeer. Bredius was so renowned an authority that his nickname was “The Pope.”

Boon was looking for money to help foes of Benito Mussolini flee Italy. Could Bredius verify that the painting Boon carried, “Christ at Emmaus,” was a Vermeer?

Bredius did more than agree. He wrote an article where he said the painting was “quite different from all his other paintings and yet every inch a Vermeer…When this masterpiece was shown to me, I had difficulty controlling my emotions.”

Only 40 paintings by Vermeer were known to exist before the war, but during World War II, six more “authentic” paintings were “found” and sold for a total of what in today’s prices would be $100 million. In May 1945, representatives of the Allied Art Commission knocked on the door of art dealer Han van Meegeren, who had sold the “Vermeers” to many prominent Nazis, including Hermann Goering. We learn that, while the Dutch people starved, Van Meegeren held orgiastic parties where prostitutes grabbed jewels from giant bowls as they left. But where had these Vermeers come from?

Van Meegeren explained that he had forged them himself. He bought 17th century paintings and scraped away the paint so he would have an authentic canvas. He bought a 17th century jug to use as a prop. The paint hardened because he mixed 17th century paints with phenol formaldehyde, a form of plastic. He chose the subject “Christ at Emmaus,” because Bredius had previously speculated that Vermeer could have, during a gap in his career, produced Biblical paintings including one about Emmaus. In his trial, however, he explained that he was no collaborator, but was cleverly working to take Nazi gold away from the control of the Third Reich.

Van Meegeren was thus absolved of treason but convicted of forgery. Shortly after he was convicted, he went to the hospital with heart trouble and then died. After his death, investigators found that van Meegeren was actually a fervent fascist who prepared a lavish book of “Nazi iconography” that he signed “to my beloved Fuhrer in grateful tribute.”
Here’s the lessons program officers can learn from the story of Han van Meegeren: take the promises grantees offer with a large grain of salt. In particular, program officers should be skeptical of proposed grants that promise to substantially change social policy nationally. They should realize that just because grantees say they will deliver what you want does not mean that they can deliver what you want.

“When we are trying to interpret the world around us,” Harford concludes, “we need to realise that our expertise can be drowned by our feelings.” That’s a lesson program officers should keep in mind when judging the efficacy of “world-changing” proposals. And they might consider more modest—and more realistic—proposals: if a too-good-to-be-true “Vermeer” comes across your desk … it just may be.

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