Needs Assessment TIG Week: Benjamin Franklin’s Advice in Decision Making by Maurya West Meiers

I’m Maurya West Meiers. I work at the World Bank Independent Evaluation Group as a Senior Evaluation Officer working on the Global Evaluation Initiative.  I’m also coauthor of A Guide to Assessing Needs: Essential Tools for Collecting Information, Making Decisions, and Achieving Development Results (free World Bank book).

Last year I wrote an AEA365 post on decision-making resources for your needs assessments.  Decision-making is an essential element in needs assessment efforts, and I’m always on the look-out for decision-making tools for my personal decisions or group facilitation activities. 

It turns out that I share this appreciation of decision-making tools with none other than Benjamin Franklin a founding member of American democracy.  Franklin used a type of pro-con list – which could be considered a precursor to today’s multi-criteria approach – that he called Prudential Algebra, as described in a 1772 letter and cited in this article.

Dear Sir,

In the affair of so much importance to you, wherein you ask my advice, I cannot, for want of sufficient premises advise you what to determine, but if you please I will tell you how.

When those difficult cases occur, they are difficult, chiefly because while we have them under consideration, all the reasons pro and con are not present to the mind at the same time; but sometimes some set present themselves, and at other times another, the first being out of sight. Hence the various purposes or inclinations that alternately prevail, and the uncertainty that perplexes us.

To get over this, my way is to divide half a sheet of paper by a line into two columns; writing over the one pro, and over the other con. Then during three or four days consideration, I put down under the different heads short hits of the different motives, that at different times occur to me, for or against the measure.

When I have thus got them all together in one view, I endeavor to estimate their respective weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out. If I find a reason pro equal to two reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two reasons con, equal to some three reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the balance lies, and if, after a day or two of further consideration, nothing new that is of importance occurs on either side, I come to a determination accordingly.

Rad Resources:

Though the language is a bit dated, the Franklin’s overall logic resonates today.   Check out these additional resources to help you and to advise others on approaches to making decisions.


The American Evaluation Association is hosting Needs Assessment (NA) TIG Week with our colleagues in the Needs Assessment Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our NA TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365@eval.org. AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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