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The Blind Men & the Elephant

By Naomi Orensten

While we rarely think about it as an evaluation or planning tool, poetry can open space for broader thinking and understanding to inform more strategic action. The poem below serves as a powerful and humble reminder that seldom do we see the full picture. What we see with our own eyes is in fact an interpretation of our own limited experience.

The Blind Men & the Elephant

by John Godfrey Saxe

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind)
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to brawl:
“God bless me but the Elephant
Is very like a wall.”

The Second, feeling of the tusk, Cried,
“Ho! What have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “The Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt around the knee,
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long, Each of his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Our blind spots offer lessons to all of us and carry implications for evaluation and planning efforts.

As illustration, strategic planning processes often collect data from internal and external stakeholders across a range of vantage points. This informs a more complete base from which to build an organizational strategy. Truly listening to others can both remove potential stumbling blocks and build support that is critical to implementing change processes.

Another example is program evaluation. At their best, evaluations include multiple types of informants—grantees, funders, decision makers, program professionals and beneficiaries—with different points of reference to a program. This collective group offers a range of perspectives on the same program or issue that, when complied, piece together a more representative and complete understanding of the whole. Additionally this can help evaluations avoid a common pitfall: speaking with the usual suspects rather than listening to the full organizational orchestra, particularly those voices heard less frequently.

For those of us in the nonprofit community—practitioners, funders, planners and evaluators—let’s not fall into the trap that caught the poem’s six protagonists. Rather, perhaps this poem can inspire us to strive for the bigger picture through deeper inquiry, open-minded thinking and engagement with different perspectives.