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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Philanthropy?

Last month, The Wall Street Journal featured the Laura and John Arnold Foundation in Houston, Texas in an article entitled “The New Science of Giving”.   The piece highlighted an operational approach to philanthropy that may be unconventional, although its ideology is not: use data to guide giving.  John Arnold is a man of tremendous wealth (about $4 billion) and practically incomparable success (he’s 39 years old) against the odds (a large part of his fortune came in when he correctly predicted how the price of gas would change in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina amidst erroneous calculations by peers).  His success was rooted in the same principles that guide his foundation today: statistics.  Nate Silver did it with the 2012 presidential election, and as WSJ points out, the household terms of “moneyball” and “freakonomics” are ones we’ve come to trust.  So relying on data isn’t new; but employing it in philanthropy – really using it rather than just putting the words “evidence-based” in the president’s note of the annual report – sort of is.  Well, it’s had to be.  It just costs too much to do it right.

Enter the billionaire.

What struck me as so simultaneously inspiring and disheartening about the Arnold Foundation is how unique it is.  Tackling behemoth complex societal problems rooted in public policy like criminal justice, public education, and obesity begs an equally complex research imperative in order to give the people and theories behind the solutions a fair shot.  I think most of us could agree to the gravity of this task.  And the Arnold Foundation is giving it a very fair shot, with a network of partners representing white and blue collars alike, an ivy league approach to metrics, and a deep-rooted belief that this is all going to take a very long time.  I have to believe that talking about “ROI” in the Arnold boardroom is a very different discussion than the ones some of us might be accustomed to.

Most of us in philanthropy can’t build multi-million dollar facilities, hire some of the smartest lawyers and researchers in the country, and wait decades to see results.  Even if we had the money, our consciences wouldn’t let us: the communities in need around us every day demand attention and “good enough” solutions now.  And we should feel good about addressing injustices and providing services that impact individuals and families in truly positive ways.  But it can only get us so far.

The level of process and excellence necessary to address the big problems in ways that actually eradicates them really would demand a workforce of sophistication, talent, and resources that we simply don’t see every day.  I like to consider myself as intelligent as the next guy, but I’m not sure I’d ever correctly predict the change in natural gas prices in 2005, and I’m certain I’ll never be a billionaire.  In short, this kind of ideology, with both the brains and dollars to back it, simply isn’t common.  This is the work of the elite.

I’m sorry to end on a discouraged note on this summer Friday, but these ideas are never comfortable, regardless of season.  That we can come together to discuss solutions is a good start and that we make grants every day to directly impact the lives of the people we serve is better than good.  And the fact that people like John and Laura Arnold are investing so practically in the solutions is game-changing.  Bill and Melinda Gates would agree.  So would Oprah, I think.  So we’ll rely on the rich, and the patient, until our public sector leadership can really get on board, but that is a behemoth complex societal problem for another blog…

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