We’ve all heard the proverb: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It is ascribed to a French saint from the 12th century, St. Bernard. So it’s been around a while. Having spent most of my career in the nonprofit sector I learned early on that good intentions and desires are admirable qualities. However, good intentions are only helpful if refracted into reasonable action which effectively meets a human need.
In my role as a nonprofit consultant I’ve met many wonderful well intention people dedicated to doing good. All of these nonprofit staff and volunteers operate with a sentimental assumption that because they were doing good the public should unequivocally support them in their effort. This passion and personal commitment is to be commended. However, the assumption behind this notion of doing good can limit the capacity to actually do good. This is because the desire and the act involves two distinct human qualities. One comes from the emotional and passionate part of our humanity (pathos). The other from the rational part of our humanity (logos). The two must come together in a careful balance for effective action. The passion to do good must use logic and reason to craft workable action and effective results. To paraphrase Ben Franklin “let passion drive you and reason hold the reins.” Indeed one of the many barriers to increasing the effectiveness of nonprofit organizations and many for-profit businesses is passion alone without reason is holding the reins.
Wanting to do good, whether it is feeding a homeless person or opening a great French restaurant, requires more than good intentions or passionate desire. It requires innovative questioning and analysis of the need to be met. It requires determining what is needed to meet this need. And if this analysis leads to success the satisfaction from achieving this effort will far outweigh the emotions from the intent. So the desire to do good is actually really not what only matters. Rather what also matters is building a workable process which effectively meets the need which the good intention hopes to address. Otherwise the result will be failure or a host of negative unintended consequences creating a road to hell paved with good intentions.