“What’s past is prologue.” –Shakespeare
“History is more or less bunk.” –Henry Ford
Sunday’s Opening Plenary Session at the Council on Foundations Annual Conference in Los Angeles explores the “realization, rethinking, and reinvention” of: (1) the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots, (2) Hurricane Katrina’s revelations of social inequity, and (3) the social experiments in Detroit amid social despair. While this session will address urgent needs, it may also illuminate opportunities to advance a brighter future.
At the intersection of grief and goodwill, philanthropy practices the art of remediation. The philanthropist need not, however, be confined to the present. Charitable impulses may also strive to bend today’s old realities into tomorrow’s more hopeful prospects.
Philanthropy confronts today’s needs in real time. Meanwhile, the root cause of tomorrow’s hardship discreetly stalks the future. Understanding how to emasculate this stalker before he strikes requires uncanny foresight and uncommon tenacity.
Learning to remediate a wound today might be little help in preventing a wound tomorrow. Today’s pound of cure is reactive. Tomorrow’s ounce of prevention is proactive. Strategies to avert future harm bristle with uncertainty and improbability. Bring your imagination and an extra dose of humility when enrolling for this mission.
Philanthropy cautiously invests the ounce of prevention with contemplation and intuition. Sometimes it works. Pittsburgh, the rustbelt’s Steel Town, was once known as “hell with the lid off.” Today it is regularly recognized as the nation’s “Most Livable City.” President Obama hosted the G-20 there, and earlier this year it was listed among the world’s top 20 “must-see places to visit” in National Geographic Traveler.
Philanthropy’s ounce of prevention had a hand in sculpting the city’s rebirth. Historic wealth generated in the region sequentially purchased, renovated, and transformed Pittsburgh’s discarded and disregarded urban center. A thriving cultural district now fills the space. Hopefully these daring episodes in philanthropy will never slip from our collective memory. Long-range charitable aspirations represent the venture capital of goodwill.
The philanthropist inhabiting a future domain thrives on novel questions. For example, how can context-sensitivity and the art of placemaking create a civic realm to foster innovation, civility, and a pride of place? When confronting population attrition in a rustbelt city, the futurist might ponder whether growth and prosperity are inversely related. Is it better to fret over population attrition or to explore how the quality of life might be improved with less congestion and sprawl? Can social capital be optimized?
In light of our impending challenges, does looking back at the last 20 years still offer a meaningful glimpse into the next 20? Or is past no longer prologue? The rules of engagement with the future may change if we’re entering an unprecedented era of global warming, water scarcity, resource shortages, toxins, congestion, biodiversity losses, education, and unemployment.
Today, which long-range strategies would most effectively leverage an ounce of prevention for each of the three case studies being discussed during Sunday’s plenary session? How might we frame today’s most poignant questions?
John F. Rohe is vice president of philanthropy for Colcom Foundation.