Donors have often told me that their north star is impact.

But my experience, during nearly three decades on the “doer” side and now more than four years as a donor representative, has indicated otherwise.

Often, what donors actually want is impact delivered on a quarterly basis, preferably to coincide with their reporting deadlines; impact that is easily quantifiable; impact that is directly attributed to their funding; and impact that can be packaged as simple before and after vignettes demonstrating quick and direct transformation of individuals’ lives.

Achieving such impact requires a predilection for direct service-delivery interventions such as feeding the homeless, supporting educational scholarships, or building a health clinic — worthwhile efforts that ameliorate symptoms of failing systems.

While the desires of donors to quantify their ROI and their interest in seeing progress relatively quickly and directly attributable are understandable, they can undermine our collective interest in more durable, strategic, and long-term work to fix failing systems.

I saw the impact of this first-hand as a co-founder and long-time CEO of a pioneering organization strengthening land rights for women and men around the world. The organization, Landesa, seeks to make land property rights systems more just, inclusive, and efficient and thus strengthen, enforce, and protect the land rights of poor women and men. By helping government leaders change laws and policies, strengthening the capacity of government and civil society stakeholders, and helping to accelerate shifts in mindsets and social norms, we recognized that we could help millions of women and men who had unclear rights to inherit, control, and manage the land they relied on. In places like sub-Saharan Africa, where only 10 percent of rural land is formally documented, we knew that clarifying land rights through laws and policies could spark catalytic transformations in households, communities, and nations.

Partnering with governments to achieve impact at scale in this way has tremendous advantages. But it is long-term work with no guarantee of success, and has causal connections that can better be described in terms of “contribution” rather than “attribution.” For these reasons, most retail philanthropists and funders were not interested in supporting these efforts at equitable systems change.

Read the full article about how we think about impact by Tim Hanstad at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.