Billionaires Club

The news that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are challenging their fellow billionaires to give generously is getting a lot of media attention. Much like the prior landmarks of the expansion of organized philanthropy (e.g. Rockefeller, Carnegie, and others at the transition from the 19th to the 20th century) the transition from the 20th to the 21st Century will witness another HUGE expansion of philanthropic giving. Are we ready for it? Philanthropy can do much good. But it can also be opportunity squandered if the funds are not 1) seen as social capital invested for the common good, 2) aimed at identifying and solving root causes of problems, and 3) monitored carefully with respect to what can truly be accomplished. The infusion of large sums of philanthropic dollars can have a dramatic effect – skewing the interests and missions of the recipients of this largesse in ways that could take decades to recover. There are vast problems we need to be solving – and the funds can be extremely effective – or not. It will take bold leadership and it will take thoughtful, humble, leadership — these characteristics are actually not incompatible. Philanthropic leadership need to be bold enough to challenge the status quo and question deeply cherished assumptions. ANd, at the same time, philanthropic leadership must be humble enough to question its OWN cherished assumptions and deeply help beliefs. I wish the Billionaires CLub much success.

Summing local to global

Recently I attended a small conference primarily focusing on issues at the intersections of science, science policy, and society. One aspect of the meeting that struck me as unrealistic is that much of the discussion focussed on how “we” could best solve some of the HUGE problems facing us such as global climate change, disparities between rich and poor nations, and governance of global resources.

In reality, each of us – even if the “us” are US foundations with resources to expend – can only work on small pieces of some big problem. Most of us only have the ability to control our own decision making or, maybe, influence the decision-making of those close to us.

So rather than trying to devise things we want some other large and often unidentified “them” to do because that will solve the big problems (‘everyone’ must stop putting CO2 into the atmosphere) we should each try to contribute locally or within the small spheres in which our decisions matter. If every individual at a foundation decided
1) not to be swayed by group think but rather to question assertions and caarefully consider whether the current framing of a problem is correct before jumping on the bandwagon,
2) to carefully match goals to resources recognizing one can not cure cancer or solve the problems of world hunger for $100,000 – but that there are aspects of problems that can yield to modest investments,
3) to chose outcomes reflective of where an intervention is actually aimed – if your goal is to help farmers produce more locally consumed products don’t extrapolate the outcome to improving public health, and
4) beware of unintended consequences of even the best intentions.

If enough small things can be done well – maybe they can sum to alter the big things.

The roots of philanthropic giving are deep

A letter to editor by me appeared last week in the WSJ. It is pasted below:
Anthony Paletta’s commentary on the left-leaning politicization of philanthropy and the focus on influencing policy is astute, but his observations do not cast light on something new but describe a staple feature of Council on Foundation meetings. Thankfully, there are many private foundations that apolitically adhere to the great traditions of American philanthropic giving, traditions that date back to the founding of this country.

Foundations provide an important source of a decentralized and diverse decision-making and, when effective, philanthropic giving can provide the much-needed funding required to question dogma, challenge common-wisdom assumptions and test alternative models. Without philanthropy, the primary source of such funds would not exist. Philanthropy is most successful when it remains an independent “third sector” and recognizes that it is neither business nor government. Philanthropy has an important role in advancing the common good by providing social venture capital for the purposes of knowledge acquisition and its responsible application. In many spheres such as science, education, global health and social services, it does just that for the benefit of many.

Susan M. Fitzpatrick,

James S. McDonnell Foundation

St. Louis

leading by example

The Perpsective appearing in the current PLoS by Paul Ehrlich has me scratching my head a bit.

I very much admire Paul. And I am particularly supportive of his efforts to make us take the issue of overpopulation seriously. But I do not understand these rants written by scientists and directed at some monolithic, intellectually underpowered “the public” failing to act on global climate change because we don’t understand (or believe) the science. I don’t see it. In my travels – I see great sensitivity to environmental concerns. Local farmer’s markets are mushrooming. More people are communting in energy efficient ways. I see people dialing down the thermostat in winter and opening windows more on warm days. Most people are willing to accept that the value of goods should reflect true prices – including the costs to the environment. Maybe they are not doing these things for the exact reason of global climate change – maybe their concerns are more local. But so what?
I can tell you that what “the public” is not seeing is scientists walking their talk. Scientists burn just as much carbon as they please – most senior scientists will tell you that they fly 100,000 + miles a year. They are happy to have houses in water- strapped areas like California or fragile ocean environments like Cape Cod. They have homes full of art, fine furniture, and energy-thirsty electronics. They live very comfortable upper-class lives. Many scientists have families – and most probably have a pet or two — all consuming what could be helping struggling families in the 3rd world. AND ALL SCIENTISTS DEPEND ON $ from the federal gov’t – often from taxes paid by the dreaded capitalist corporations (in fact many biomedical scientists would enjoy taking intellectual product to market and become dreaded capitalist company owners). Most scientists are also more than willing to take funds from Foundations – funds derived in large part by capitalist endeavors.
So we the public are waiting. When I see the international scientific community leading by example – and giving up travel, energy, and wealth – I will be more willing to listen to their hectoring. I often wonder what behavior it is exactly that they think needs to change? Doesn’t seem to be the behavior they have immediate control over – their own.

Greed – it’s catching

While the discussion over greed in financial institutions rages on – it might be worth it for grantmakers and grantseekers to take some time for introspection about our own tendency to be “greedy.”
For funders it often manifests as wanting too much for too little. In return for a relatively small investment we often want a return of measurable, tangible, meaningful progress on problems that have dogged mankind for centuries.
For grantseekers is manifests as promising alot for a little. I am both amused and annoyed when I read the grandiose claims in a proposal and then flip to the budget. Who knew that the reason we haven’t cured homelessness, cancer, or international warfare was the lack of 2 postdocs and a laptop?
Funders can improve the situation by cleaning up our rhetoric – everything does not have to be novel, innovative, or ground-breaking. Sometimes validating the findings of others, revisiting questions where the common wisdom is actually rather shakily supported, or filling in the small gaps of our knowledge so we have a more seamless and complete understanding of something is enough.
For propspective grantees it might mean admiting that others are working on this same question (LOTS of others) but that your contribution will help – and the postdocs will get a valuable learning exeprience about how to shape and pursue a question – and a new laptop!
We can be less greedy in our expectations and in our promises – and maybe incrementally create a more honest, transparent, authentic style of communication.

When it’s time it’s time…

Foundations often take a hit for investing in programs for limited periods of time and then moving on to “the next new thing.” In some ways this criticism is valid and in some ways not. Foundations can launch funding initiatives with the implicit, or even explicit, notion that their funds will launch new initiatives that will then be sustained by others. For foundations that support scientific research the “others” are usually federal science funders. Of course there is no guarantee that what any one private funder thinks is a great idea will gain widespread acceptance and generous federal support. On the other hand – if it does, that the foundation, usually with limited resources, has little choice but to look for new opportunities. After a period of time, and the rule of thumb decade turns out to not be a terribly bad estimate, the day comes when you re-evaluate the program and its objectives. If there has been little growth or outside interest in the are of scholarship one is trying to stimulate — it might be time to take a hard look at why and decide what continued investment will yield. If the ideas have caught on and funding from multiple sources is available it is not uncommon to see the proposals submitted to a program RFA become more numerous, more duplicative, and more iterative. And when that happens it is time to move on.

Recognizing resilience

While listening to NPR on my work commute recently I heard the most astounding report. A young man had gone to visit some of the residential camps for earthquake victims in Haiti and mentioned that he had expected that individuals living in such camps spend most of their time waiting in lines for provisions or “lying around.” I almost put the brake pedal through the floor! What he said next may have come as a huge surprise to him – but not to anyone who has witnessed human resilience. Turns out, the camps were alive with entreprenurial economic activity! Camp residents had, in many cases used their prior skills to create shops selling needed goods, beauty salons , there was even a guy with the clever idea to create a place where people could charge cell phones while watching a DVD movie. The Haitians did not find this unusual – there is a strong urge among resilient people to get on with life. I do not want to minimize the terrible tragedy the people of Haiti have suffered – but life in Haiti has never been easy and the people who live there have learned to be resilient and to find a joy in living despite hardship. This isn’t the first time I have heard such reporting on NPR – it seems the correspondents who work there are continually amazed by people who can grow their own food, sweep their own sidewalks, recover from bad luck. Why is it that there seems to be a subset of Americans, particularly well-educated, well paid Americans whose reaction to resilience is AMAZEMENT? One has to wonder – what do these individuals do during temporary crisis like the recent heavy snowfalls, or wildfires? What would they do if they ever had to live somewhere with seasonal floods? I get the sense that these are the people – who finding themselves in any kind of a difficult situation – think the cell phone is the solution. Call someone and whine. You can almost hear them in the midst of a disaster: the power is out and I can’t get a latte. Somebody (some anonymous less important somebody) has to do something. But they wouldn’t know what do do themselves – because the people who make up this group, particularly the blabb-erati, do not know how to do anything but blab. There is a message here for those of us who work for foundations and charitable organizations. We tend to be under the sway of the blabbocrats. Those with keyboards and microphones tend to cast blame and get us riled up and we rush to respond in our self-righteousness. We are all increasingly ready to believe that humans are fragile, not resilient. We should be careful as we swoop in with money, and cameras, and outrage at the slowness of the responses by the “somebodies” that we do not undermine the most important attribute we humans have to help us recover from whatever life and nature bring to bear – resilience. The ability to go on, to continue to see the good in the world, and to hope for the future. By all means, we should be responsive, we who have been lucky this time should do all we can to help. BUT we should not turn resilient survivors into victims because it might suit our own agendas. We should not be surprised that individuals are willing to pick up, dust off, and go on – we should not expect to see people “lying around” — and whatever assistance we provide should be offered in the spirit of helping – not furthering helplessness.

Legacies: The present’s responsibilities to past and future

In my own family we have been having deep conversations about inter-generational legacies. We have some family land that was assembled at great costs to prior generations. How do we, the present stewards, respect the past and plan for the future?

Perhaps my personal situation has made the issue of inter-generational transfer more salient, but it seems like everywhere I go the conversation gradually turns to the questions of legacies. Institutions reaching mature stability in part because of the vision and dedication of what, in many cases, may be the founders are now realizing they have no succession plan. Without a plan going forward what happens to all the hard work? How do you sustain what has been wrought? Should you?

Family businesses have struggled with the legacy question more explicitly than have research institutions, university departments, foundations, or other non-profits.

Certainly there are case studies we could learn from – the Rockefeller Foundation, the Salk Institute, Bell Labs. Each had to weather transitions from founding leadership to new leadership. How successful were they? What if your legacy is something smaller – maybe just a program at your college or university, maybe just your own lab? In some cases your legacy may be a position you created within an institution. What do you think will happen when you are no longer there?

The real issue is whether you want to think in terms of legacies. A legacy implys that the present owes something to the past as well as something to the future. If you have built something from the ground up – chances are it involved the sacrifices and hard work of not just yourself but others. There may be individuals who consider themselves “alumnae” – whose identity is tightly coupled with their past or present affiliation with the institution. The reputation, the prestige, the good works – the value of many of these things depend on the sustainability of the legacy institution.

For foundations in particular the legacy question can be a thorny one. Many foundations are established by founders with the explicit goal of existing “in perpetuity.” And yet – there is also the natural concern of the dead-hand — what precisely to the future generations owe to the original intententions of founders now temporally, and maybe even spatially, distant? How does the present generation look back while looking forward?

To me, the most important thing NOT to do is shrug. Not thinking explicitly about your legacy – what it means to you to honor the past while planning for the future – is not insouciance, it is negligence.

What a relief! It was not just me.

I rarely watch televised sports but I did see part of the recent Superbowl. For a while, I watched the ads in silent horror. Finally I asked my spouse if it was just me or were the ads a systematic mix of portraying women as bimbos and men as stupid slobs? Your wife or your tires? And the tires win? Luckily for the future – he agreed.

The next day I anticipated a firestorm of criticism from womens groups and non-profits interested in advocating for women’s social and professional advancement. To be completely honest I anticipated a firestorm from anyone with more than 2 teeth and a handful of neurons. And mainly what I heard about was the Tebow ad (which I didn’t see but probably would not have had much reaction to considering the onslaught of what were to me less subtly offending images).

What a relief to read Joe Queenan’s piece in the Feb 10 WSJ. I do not necessarily mean his comments on the Tebow ad. I do not want to get into defending an ad I didn’t see — but I am in complete agreement with his overall assessment. I am shocked that few people seem to be talking about the sum total of the ads and the sad portrayal of men and women and how they relate to one another. The ads were NOT amusing or clever – but they do re-inforce gender sterotypes that continue to hurt women’s role in society. As many foundations and charities pour money into programs aimed at improving the lives of women and girls – I would say the insidious drumbeat of ads like the ones I saw during the superbowl do serious damage – and we should be more vocal about what really matters. Otherwise we are just wasting resources we can not afford to waste.

Getting to first principles

I am very lucky to split my time between 2 almost non-overlapping worlds. One of the worlds I live in is primarily urban, at the intersection of academic science and professional philanthropy (mostly comprised of ex-academics), and financially comfortable. The other world I am fortunate to inhabit part time is rural, made up of farmers and small business owners, and not quite as financially comfortable. In the cartoon world view of the editorial pages the people in the former world are characterized as thoughtful, open to ambuigity amd complexity, and willing to engage in spirited conversations. The people in the latter world, well, not so much. This is what accounts for modern social discourse. You are either one of us or you are one of them. And anyone who is one of them has to be reduced to a one dimensional cartoon. I am tired of the cartoons. One example: a friend (from world 1) talking over dinner about wanting to live with people of like minded politics – by which she meant people who do not ride snowmobiles, shoot guns, or hold personal prejudices she does not hold. Is this a political identity? And here I had the mistaken understanding that a political identity derived from a political philosophy based on fundamental principles of individual rights and responsibilities and the role of govenment in furthering or protecting such rights. I do not presuppose to know the political philosophy of someone based on superficial characteristics. I do not presuppose that Democrats are for education, conservation, and kindness while Republicans are happy to keep everyone ignorant, destroy every resource on the planet, and are usually mean. I have been rudely cut off by large SUVs with Obama bumper stickers and I have seen a weathered farmer carrying his re-usable grocery bags to the store. I believe there are legitimate reasons to carefully weigh the benefits of investing more and more of the budget on scientific research – without it meaning that you are anti science. I do not want to live surrounded by only like-thinking people. I want to argue, and learn, and disagree, and puzzle, and work it out! I want to be free to change my mind. And I want to have my views be internally consistent because they derive from a set of first principles.