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A Lesson in Humility

When FSDB made the request to use JSF funds for a playground I remember thinking that a new playground would certainly be a nice thing for FSDB, but it didn’t seem very high on the priority scale for educating deaf and blind children. It was a close call, but we ultimately deferred to our grantee’s good judgment. And when Tanya suggested during our site visit that we see the playground I almost told her that it really wasn’t necessary. We only had a few hours and it was cold, but I didn’t say anything.

The playgroublind child climbing a playground rocknd was quite the site. Imagine an interesting, safe place for blind children to experience the physical world. Imagine a place where children can learn the consequences of a misstep or a failure to properly interpret a physical cue. This is a place where a child can stumble or fall and not suffer serious hurt or injury. It is ingenious. We watched the children play. They were in a small tactile laboratory. It was completely different from what we expected.

James, orientation and mobility instructor, hosted our tour and explained the playground. He is a former classroom teacher and is obviously a very bright penny. In order to explain the importance of the playground for the education of blind students he told us about something that happened years ago when he was teaching grade 10.

James is a baseball fan and he had a blind student that year who was absolutely nuts about the game. This kid knew every team, every player and where he came from, batting averages, on base percentages, win-loss records of every pitcher and on and on. This student made James look like a baseball novice.

One day James was sitting at his desk when the student came into the classroom to see him. James was busy and, while he waited, the student indulged his curiosity by feeling around the top of James’ desk. There was a baseball glove and a ball. After extensively and carefully feeling each of the objects the student asked James, “What are these?”

At first James could not believe that the student didn’t recognize a baseball and glove and he urged him to identify them. When he finally understood that the student really didn’t know, James was stunned. He explained the items in detail and the next day he took his student to a baseball diamond, around all of the bases, let him feel each one and took him to the infield and outfield. He is still amazed (and touched) that his grade 10 student, who seemingly knew everything about baseball, could not recognize the basic tools of the game.group photo of parents and children at a playground

This is a poignant story and instructive for us. How much do we really understand of our grantees experience? Are we like James, surprised that a blind student can’t recognize a baseball and glove? Are we like the blind student, knowing everything about baseball but not comprehending the basics of what it is to play the game?

The Intersection of Ideas and Pragmatism

Albert Whitaker’s review of the philanthropic tome, Strategic Giving: The Art and Science of Philanthropy, identifies the conundrum of professional grant making. He describes the book as a “powerful attack on professionalism, written in the most professional terms and style.”

Professionalism is attacked because it robs philanthropy of its passion and innovation: “While grant making professionals may have the best of intentions… something is still lost when the delicate balance of public purposes and private values is tipped in the direction of the former to the detriment of the latter.” According to the author, what is lost is “idiosyncratic” and “provocative” giving. The process becomes so dry and bureaucratic that it loses its passion (and its real value).

Dr. Susan Raymond, a senior managing director of Changing Our World, Inc. makes a similar point when she lamentsillustration of a light bulb the unintended side effects of greater transparency and accountability in our industry and decision making that is increasingly process oriented. She compares many modern philanthropists to mortgage brokers, who make grants solely on the basis of probability of success. This leads them away from the most pressing and difficult issues of the day, which they are uniquely suited to address. Foundations should look up from the safety and comfort of their usual work and “come back to the world of ideas, even though there will be no immediate proof of impact.”

But transparency and accountability are necessary. Anyone who has had even a fleeting glimpse of sloth and self-indulgence in our industry knows that we need to be more than “idiosyncratic” and “provocative” in our grant making. We must have “the faith of fools” without being foolish. We must be disciplined without being conventional. We must strive to accomplish big things and not worry too much about immediate results. This is the essential art of philanthropy and it is more easily described than practiced.

Like our peers, the Johnson Scholarship Foundation must grope for it as we develop new programs and evaluate old ones. One of our Core Values is the power of entrepreneurship. This has been an inspiration for us in the past and we should continue to be guided by it. Entrepreneurship is similar to good philanthropy. It values creativity and risk taking and requires realism and hard work. The entrepreneur must find the intersection between ideas and pragmatism or perish in the market place. If we are to remain relevant, philanthropists and nonprofits must also do so.

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