Let’s have a conversation about how to allocate a philanthropic dollar between the ounce of prevention and the pound of cure. Philanthropy must respond to existing needs. Hunger, homelessness, disease, and disasters cannot be ignored. When, however, should present needs yield to the future?
Current urgencies vie for funding alongside efforts to avert similar adversities in the future. Today and tomorrow assert competing claims. The contest between the here and the hereafter affects every philanthropic decision, yet the race for funding is seldom discussed.
In practicing the art of philanthropy, should the present and future be honored on a 50/50 basis? Perhaps 60/40? Maybe 25/75? What’s a reasonable percentage? What degree of certainty should philanthropy demand to earmark an ounce of prevention? How might we know whether a future disaster will have been averted?
Are the present and the future equally represented in the current contest for funding? Is it a fair race? Today seems to enjoy a head start for at least four reasons:
Yesterday’s farsighted philanthropists enhanced today’s quality of life. We are the living beneficiaries of their foresight. Yet we seldom express gratitude for their ounce of prevention. Tomorrow will be no better informed. Grantmakers awaiting a pat on the back from the future could be disappointed.
At the starting gate, the reactive pound of cure seems to hold a commanding lead over the proactive ounce of prevention.
Uncertainty clouds our window to the future. Does that mean we should shrink from it? If this becomes a reason to ignore the future, then uncertainty will become an operational determination. Philanthropic judgment on how to balance tomorrow with today will preferably be shaped more by deliberation than by default.
By what criteria should strategic philanthropy allocate its response between today and tomorrow? Ideally, these decisions will be mediated by foresight, compassion, and imagination.
Let’s start this conversation here and let’s plan to continue the dialogue at the Annual Conference in L.A. on issues such as combating gang violence through education and how, in times of crisis, a community’s response can have an impact on the future.
John F. Rohe is vice president of philanthropy for Colcom Foundation, a member of the Council on Foundations.