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It’s the Thought That Counts, Right?

Reindeer socks or snowman jumper? It’s the eternal Christmas dilemma.

It's a tough decision.

For the last week I have been desperately searching for gifts that my family won’t just throw straight in the trash. The only thing that keeps me going is knowing that they are having the same problem too. Plus, even if I fail it doesn’t matter. The purpose of giving presents (once you’re all grown up of course) is to show people that you care. It’s the thought that counts right?

Somehow this sentiment doesn’t seem to translate to politicians. We don’t get a warm glow every time healthcare is debated. No one has ever told me how cherished they feel due to the energy spent drafting job creation policies. When it comes to policy, what we care about is what works.

Or do we?

The last six months has seen a huge increase in civil unrest across the West from teenagers stealing trainers in London to principled ‘occupations’ in the US. This fits with patterns that have been observed for decades, that steep budget cuts lead to unrest. If teenagers stop receiving the services that are supposed to keep them gainfully occupied then they will go out and cause trouble. Who is surprised?

But not quite. The thing is, most of these cuts haven’t happened yet and most of us don’t really know what the effect on our lives will be. Youth services will be cut, but it hasn’t happened yet. And we don’t know how well they worked in the first place. According to Hans-Joachim Voth at the Centre for Economic Policy Research, this is quite common. Unrest often occurs before cuts, rather than after them, almost as a method of negotiation between the people and the government. People turn violent when they think their interests are not being considered, when they feel neglected.

My entire career I have been focused on the idea that simply intending to do good is not good enough. I have been frustrated by a non-profit sector that overflows with the sentiment that charitable actions are valuable for their own sake. But I am starting to think these do-gooders may have a point.

Don’t get me wrong, pushing for evidence that what you do works is critical (I would say that, it’s my job), but maybe result-obsessives like me need to spend a bit more time making sure that those we are trying to help know that that is exactly what we’re trying to do. Letting someone know you care about making her life better can sometimes be more powerful than what you do about it. Or at least that’s my excuse for giving up and getting everyone reindeer socks for Christmas.

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1 Comment

  1. Hmm… you raise a good point. I also tend to value results and efficiency above all else, and can be very impatient with the perspective that good intentions are valuable in and of themselves (we all know the saying about good intentions…).

    However, I’m starting to see that trust is an important factor in achieving results, and too strong of a results orientation without demonstrating that you truly are trying to help can breed cynicism or suspicion, which obviously will hamper achieving results.

    Your line, “Letting someone know you care about making her life better can sometimes be more powerful than what you do about it,” is powerful, and a good reminder for another results-obsessive.

    However, all that said, should I receive reindeer socks for Christmas, I won’t be consoled by the fact that it’s the thought that counts, as reindeer socks are a fairly clear indication the giver doesn’t think too highly of me.


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