Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill

Why philanthropy needs fewer mission statements

Sunday’s astonishing headlines that Richard III’s remains had been identified announced a truly remarkable discovery -- a sudden reconnection with one of history’s most shocking stories of treachery and political intrigue.

Little noted in the reporting on the discovery was the role of private philanthropy. It was noted in passing by the Washington Post:

Earlier this year, screenwriter and Richard III aficionado Philippa Langley cobbled together $52,000 to finance what become a single-minded ambition: finding his remains.

Wow -- a mere $52,000 to set this terrific discovery in motion! Ms. Langley, secretary of the Richard III Society and a screenwriter, gave the greatest portion of this sum and recruited other donors.

I couldn’t find details on the other donors, but you can bet they weren’t government agencies or big-money foundations (if it were, they’d be sending out press releases to take credit!).

No, this was a project of a small society and of one donor in particular who believed Richard’s remains might be found under a parking lot and were willing to expend their own resources. It was a quixotic project -- the sort big foundations take a pass on -- that had a fantastic outcome.

That we have small, private donors to thank for the discovery of Richard III’s remains is no accident. Large foundations and government agencies too often hamstring themselves with “mission statements” and narrowly delimited “funding priorities” that aim at “measureable outcomes” and “social change.”

Now let’s consider the opportunity to find Richard’s remains from such a viewpoint:

Opportunity for social change? Nope: the Plantagenets will never again rule England.

Measurable outcomes? Hmmm . . . a funeral when the remains are reinterred?

And, what funding priority might the quest to find Richard’s remains have fit under? “Rehabilitation of Maligned Kings”? “Investigation of Fifteenth-Century Battle Injuries”? Would any of our big foundations’ mission statements have encompassed this project? And how many program officers would risk recommending a project with such uncertain prospects of success to their board?

It’s this sort of very special, unexpected, and uncertain project that requires philanthropists who are freed from the strictures of “mission statements” and tightly defined “funding priorities.”

A project in a similar vein is the wonderful restoration of the Archimedes Palimpsest at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, which has revealed new aspects of Archimedes’ third-century B.C. mathematical discoveries and was exhibited to the public in late 2011 -- a project made possible by an anonymous donor’s willingness to spend two million dollars to purchase a palimpsest so tattered that its value was doubtful and to spend additional funds on its restoration.

For all the faddishness of metrics- and mission-driven philanthropy, we’d all be missing out on these terrific discoveries if there weren’t small philanthropists willing to seize these unexpected opportunities.

 

© Capital Research Center 2014

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