The flight was delayed due to bad weather in Washington, and I found myself bumped to standby. Boarding the shuttle flight late out of Logan, coach looked full. A stewardess saw me floundering and gestured toward first class. “There’s an open seat up there,” she whispered. “Consider this your lucky day!”

Ambling up to the third row, I immediately recognized the profile of the man sitting by the empty seat that was now mine. We struck up a conversation, and 30 minutes into sharing snapshots of our professional lives, I said, “You seem to have a lot of touchpoints with Harvard University. Were you an adjunct there or something?”

He paused, smiled slowly and then asked, “Would it mean anything to you if I told you my name was Larry Summers?”

I wanted the airplane to swallow me up. Yes, I’d guessed that. I just didn’t quite believe it.

We continued talking, and as he learned that I was canvassing the “character landscape” to give philanthropists guidance around what they should give to, he said, “Interesting. Well, your task is obvious. You’ll just need to find the McDonald’s of Character and evangelize it.”

It didn’t seem appropriate to correct the former Secretary of the Treasury, but something in me balked. To pair the work of influencing character formation with the automated logic of a global food chain got at the heart of a challenge I was already sensing in this work. How do you apply dollars and cents to such a deep and integrated human faculty? Is it really possible for matters of the will, mind, and heart to be formulized and multiplied, the way you can parse a dessert into its ingredient proportions, guaranteeing the same result every time?

Summers’s impulse was understandable. Frankly he was thinking like the economist he is, presuming that philanthropic “impact” had to mean large-scale reach. But what if the McDonald’s metaphor was fatally flawed, not only for philanthropists interested in restocking our society’s moral capital, but for any funder’s work aimed at improving lives and communities?

It turns out my hesitation wasn’t unique. Every practitioner I met who led an organization that was effectively shifting people’s orientation of value and changing communities for the better testified that, while of course they wanted to amplify the good they were discovering to help more people in more places, today’s philanthropic idolization of scale was too often missing the point — and even damaging organizations’ ability to fulfill their founding missions.  In short, donors were asking their grantees the wrong questions — all in the name of Bentham.

“We think in terms of relationships; donors think in terms of ROI,” leaders of many of the most transformative organizations told me, in different terms.

Read the full article about scaling philanthropy by Anne Snyder at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.