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