Ever since the publication of Peter Frumkin’s Strategic Giving: The Art and Science of Philanthropy in 2006[i], the push to become more wise with the provision of resources for the betterment of others has taken off in the western world. In ways both profound (outcome-oriented philanthropy) and dangerously overly simplistic (e.g. focus on charitable overhead), thinking critically about what is both intended and what is resultant from a philanthropic act, is slowly leading philanthropists to a decrease in the quantity of unproductive philanthropic investments and at the very least a stemming of those resulting is greater harm or fragility to targeted beneficiaries.

The general picture Frumkin painted was one where the act of giving follows a process of consideration of the following items in the context of their tension and alignment with public need:

– What public value will be produced

– What is the grantmaking methodology and the theory of change to be pursued

– What giving style and profile level will be satisfying to you

– What is the time frame and pace of fund disbursement to guide your giving

– Through what kind of institution will you conduct your giving

Why these considerations in particular? As put in a later book Essence of Strategic Giving[ii], Frumkin sees in these five frames checks on a philanthropic degeneration into either a bland and disconnected exercise in the writing of checks (metaphorically or literally) or into a selfish and shallow indulgence of the leisure class. Generally stated, what should I consider to keep my actions from degenerating into non-productive routine and mere acts of vanity? We do it (1) by remaining connected with the public as those evaluating the value we profess to be creating. We do it by (2) assuring one can assess the effectiveness of the methodologies we make use of. We also do it by (3) being honest with ourselves about what are the minimum conditions needed to keep us going with it over the long term. Contextualized by what resource constraints we as givers have, what (4) are the optimal time frames for the disbursement of resources from a risk management perspective? And finally, we do it by (5) considering the mediums, mechanisms and institutions we will use to give or carry out the particular items of our work.

Much can be written or said about each of these frames and an even greater discussion is waiting to be had through exploration of his discussion of the complex web of power relations between donor and beneficiary in philanthropic giving. But here I’m actually more interested in what is not presented in this case, which I call out only because it is one of the more complete presentations of the strategy of giving discussions laid out in recent years. For as complete as it is, it underdeveloped a more primary set of concerns that need to be made explicit in the discussion of giving, altruism and philanthropy in the western world. These concern the definition of the value/benefit created in the philanthropic act.

Are We Acting Idiotically?

The term “idiot compassion” often comes up in discussion of Chogyam Trungpa’s critique of self-serving altruism. It is said that Gurdjieff originates the term, in a classification of types of “idiocy” but it becomes clear in reading Trungpa’s work that his usage is quite distinct and is in fact embedded in the way ethics has been defined in Buddhist traditions for centuries.

It’s an interesting term, meaning an act of “helping” from a place of egoistic self-fulfillment. To “do good to someone” in order to receive self-satisfaction. An act to please the ego or the scratch the itch of an internal neurosis that is not directly motivated by an impartial assessment and response to an external need.

The harsh ring to the term idiot in English seems to go back to its Latin and Greek origins –expressing ideas of the unskilled, uneducated or the ordinary in a quite pejorative sense– and was no doubt understood By Trungpa when he adapted it to express the sentiment he brought with him from his Kagyu tradition. He kept it for good reason, as we’ll explore below. There’s a sense of seriousness for him with regards to how we regard benefit or the good.

A Materialist (Buddhist) Ethics

Key to unpacking the significance of this term and its distinction from modern ideas of “ethical” action are the distinctions between ethics and moral altruism and the clear articulation of the complications inherent in altruistic intention. Firstly, because Trungpa would consider “idiot compassion” all acts not tied to “skillful” assessment of whether an action or intervention is helpful or not.[iii] This requires defining clearly what “helpful” means. Both what is it and what are its criteria for judgement? It is a type of ethics of the act.

But we would classify this type of ethics as materialist. Materialist/m is to understood in the sense of actions not tied to any ideas, wishes, hopes or dreams; it pays attention only to ‘what is produced or not produced from an action’. This means no one should have false ideas of altruism as “kindness” or even necessarily of giving someone what they want, insofar as a person may want something that is harmful or self-destructive. Non-idiotic compassion, and thus non-idiotic philanthropic action implies a very active and engaged investigation into the quality of relationship and results of interaction between actor and acted-upon, whether the actor and acted-upon be altruist or beneficiary.

The Path to a Healthy Understanding

A materialist ethics is thus grounded in an epistemology that is fundamentally empirical in nature. The nature of this brand of empiricism is too involved to discuss here, but the point to take away from this is that true compassion is never divorced from right understanding of states of affairs and their causes. You are looking for this right understanding not simply in the world (bodies, states of affairs) but equally in our minds. “Right Understanding” from the tradition Trungpa worked in could be interpreted as an active, non-rigid, non-fixed, but karmically focused activity of coming to a proper understanding of causes and correlations of particular afflictions and issues.[iv] In absence of that proper understanding there is an open and continual investigation. As he is quoted as saying “It is better not to have any compassion than to have idiot compassion”. It is better to do nothing, than to act unskillfully. One could say that for him, understanding well presupposes a type of acting well, in the form of non-prejudgment, and continual proactive learning from the variety of types of action. By speaking of a “path” to healthy understanding, he would iterate that there is no destination or even a sufficient threshold one would ideally pass before being somehow qualified to act. The threshold or destination is simply being on the path, making the process of active learning ones’ disposition.

The Role and Analysis of Intention – What is intended? What is an Intention?

Thirdly, on the other end of the spectrum (on the other end of an object-oriented or external focus), Trungpa’s contribution here is to assert that compassion as action cannot be divorced from motive. One could say this is the case as well in our modern conceptions, but here we’re asked to go even further. Because in this conception we are blind neither to the unconscious, nor to the heterogeneous and often duplicitous conflict of biological drives with conscious intention. We’re asked to recognize that we are often self-deceptive or motivated by conflicts between competing self-identities as well as by a hierarchy of intricate internal pleasures, aversions, or even occasionally, aggressions. What we often feel is best is motivated by ease, pleasure, and an aversion of discomfort and the difficult.

The reason this is key for distinguishing compassion from idiot compassion, or philanthropy from idiot philanthropy is summarized perfectly by an example given by Trungpa’s student Pema Chodron:

“There is compassion and there is idiot compassion; there is patience and there is idiot patience; there is generosity and there is idiot generosity. For example, trying to smooth everything out to avoid confrontation, to not rock the boat, is not what’s meant by compassion or patience. That’s what is meant by control. Then you are not trying to step into the unknown territory, to find yourself more naked with less protection and therefore more in contact with reality. Instead, you use the idiot forms of compassion and so forth just to get ground.”[v]

Chodron here is affirming a clear separation of subjective assessment from objective state of affairs in the definition of value. They are two separate things that much be evaluated separately. Are we acting out of a desire to control something in our environment? Are we acting out of fear, anger, perhaps shame? Are we looking to project superiority? Here it is less an issue of intention matching action as it is establishing clarity of motives. In the tradition of analytic philosophy “intention” is most often associated with action and goals external from or in causal relation to the mental act of intending. Here, Trungpa would say that intention refers to itself, being nothing other than an internal affect connected to an externally focused or projected desire (which for our purposes here we can call a “goal”). Goals equally refer to themselves, being nothing other than a propositional expression of a desired end state or set of desired end states. In this conception there can be alignment between the two things –intention and goal–, but it is not necessary, and one could speculate whether true alignment is even very common. Goals, being externalized propositionally based entities face a litany of real world obstacles to being met. The flux of intentions in us as humans are amongst the biggest of those obstacles. How often are our true original goals met? Are they sabotaged or diverted into other things? If I set a goal for some type of altruistic action, but my intention –unspoken and perhaps even unconscious—in taking action altruistically is only to get recognition for my action, what happens to stated “goals” once I’ve been paid that recognition? If I set a stated goal to do x but my intention is an unclear muddle of impulsivity brewed from deep affective states of pity, fear and shame, my actual goal may continue be x but it will come into direct conflict with my intention, which will be to expiate those affective states through a series of expiative impulsive actions until that affective state changes.

What is Meant by Idiocy as a Quality of Action

We can now make this clearer. Idiot compassion and idiot philanthropic action can be boiled down precisely to a what and how. The “what” is : a quality of action that derived from unclear or unskillful (lacking precision, or sufficient understanding), ungenuine (not grounded in the truth of ones’ intentions –internal affect—or goals –external propositional expression of a desire), and/or unaltruistic (an action not done on the basis of creating value or benefit for an Other) motives. The “how” is : a quality of action that done without proper care to causal connection, to logic models, to functions, to measured and effective benefit. The final characteristic of the idiotic is that it is reflexive, in the sense that the criteria as addressed to an external party or external state of affairs equally pertains to ourselves our own self-interventions and attempts at self-benefit.

Frumkin-Trungpa Framing Considerations or Considerations on What’s Needed for a Philanthropy to be Minimally Strategic (Taking into consideration only these two authors)


– What public value will be produced

– What is the grantmaking methodology and the theory of change to be pursued

– What giving style and profile level will be satisfying to you

– What is the time frame and pace of fund disbursement to guide your giving

– Through what kind of institution will you conduct your giving



– What is the intention behind the desire to give?

– Are the intentions clear? Honest? Truly altruistic in nature, meaning they increase the wellbeing and power of acting of the recipient?

– Are your intentions (internal affect) and your goals (propositionalized desire) aligned?

– Does the theory of change directly address causes/functions/concrete states of affairs and their transformation? (Both causes of problems addressed but the causal connection between an action and its consequences?)

It is clear that there have been major advances in our thinking on philanthropic action. But the majority of the work to date has focused near exclusively on things we’re psychologically much more comfortable dealing with. The Other. Our takes on and evaluations of the objective states of affairs that concern us. A huge elephant that remains unacknowledged in all of these discussions is our subjective intentions, with all of the political and sociological implications these entail for the relation between philanthropic actor and the recipient of philanthropic action.


[i] Peter Frumkin, Strategic Giving: The Art and Science of Philanthropy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006

[ii] Peter Frumkin, The Essence of Strategic Giving: A Practical Guide for Donors and Fundraisers. Chicago, IL : University of Chicago Press, 2010

[iii] Fabrice Midal, Recalling Chögyam Trungpa, Bostom, MA, Shambhala, 2005

[iv] Chogyam Trungpa. “Meditation: The Four Foundations of Mindfulness.” Lions Roar. Lion’s Roar Foundation, 29 Feb. 2000. Web. 21 July 2016.

[v] Pema Chodron, Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion (p.145) Shambhala (December 30, 2003)