John F. RoheCounting Ounces Strategically

By: John F. Rohe In: 2012 Annual Conference| Philanthropy

15 Mar 2012

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:

  1. Existing needs are visible. They arise on the street and they infuse the news.
  2. Present needs require no imagination. In the words of Mark Twain, “It is very difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.”
  3. The benefit of a grant bestowed upon the present is quantifiable. Lives saved through today’s disaster relief can be counted in real time. Meals served in soup kitchens can be tallied. The magnitude of an averted disaster, however, remains indeterminable.
  4. Boundless praise can be expected when alleviating today’s grief. Tomorrow, not so much.

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.

2 Responses to Counting Ounces Strategically

Chip Burke

March 16th, 2012 at 10:42 am

The idea of balancing cure vs. prevention is an excellent analogy. Further, I like the way the questions are framed including the percentage basis. Overall, I believe that what makes philanthropy great as a field is that there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. This includes micro decisions, such as whether to be a perpetual or spend down foundation, whether to fund capital, program, or endowment, etc. or macro issues like what issues to fund.

Philip Johnson

March 19th, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Thank you for this helpful and thoughtful framework.

From my experience in environmental health grant making, the tension between allocating limited funds toward prevention vs. immediate impact mitigation presses decision making. An analogy could compare the work of an ER ward to a health policy agenda. On the one hand, some situations require urgent attention and care. On the other, longer term planning and preventative efforts built into policy-making efforts can reduce the frequency and scale of these situations.

The public health discipline is grounded in the practition of prevention. When it works, the clinical burden of society is reduced and eliminated. Whether this involves outbreaks or chronic disease, whether immediate threats or long-term threats, there are models of interaction that can inform philanthropy where progammatic issues intersect.

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