Some members of the Council on Foundations must have thought it was amusing to “put Philanthropy on trial” at the annual CoF meeting. Instead they got caught up in their own cleverness. http://www.cof.org/events/conferences/2011Annual/trial.cfm Unfortunately – the hung jury verdict (10 agreed philanthropy was guilty of mis-use) was misled both by the “prosecution” and the “defense” who seemed to have no true understanding of the deep roots of American Philanthropic traditions. Now a “foundation” or a “charity” or even a particular program can be evaluated as a good use of funds or not — BUT PHILANTHROPY as an institution? The mock-trial was silly. Unfortunately it was also dangerous. Diversity of opinion and decision making is the bedrock of philanthropy – and this country’s rightful distrust of centralized decision making. Philanthropy is social venture capital. Our tax code encourages philanthropy for a reason. Strategic philanthropy, as I have explained in this blog, is not the same as charitable giving. Strategic philanthropy is most effective when it 1) attempts to support the aquisition of new knowledge and its responsible application, 2) attempts to understand the root causes of problems, and 3) challenges common wisdom assumptions and tests alternative models. Philanthropy is a key contributor to scientific and medical research, education, the arts, and parks. Philanthropy is not ONLY AND NECESSARILY about providing support to the poor. At a time when many of our civic institutions are under attack because people are ignorant of their history, purpose, and design, smart people don’t play with fire. Only the arrogant and the ignorant light up what they can not control.
During the month of March I was travelling in 2 parts of Chile: the Atacama desert and Patagonia. The juxtaposition of going first north and then south from desert to a land rich in glacial streams and lakes, was remarkable. In both places the simple beauty of the landscape was inspiring, however, one strange thing is that although both places are fairly remote and difficult to reach – both were full of tourists herded from spot to spot by tour and sightseeing buses. It was actually difficult – at the ends of the earth – to be alone. You often had to try to find a way to look, a perspective, that isolated the scenery from the scenery-peepers. This was true, even is one was willing to hike some distance. Also odd, considering how many tourists there were – is that internet access was relatively poor. It felt off-kilter to be surrounded by people and yet disconnected. Probably akin to traveling to Niagra Falls or to the Grand Canyon before cell phones and video cameras. It reminded me that we now have to try to be in the moment with the people we are with – something that was unavoidable years ago.