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Philanthropy is the Go-To Partner for Risk

Each week, in the lead up to the Rockefeller Foundation’s Centennial anniversary on May 14th, Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin will reflect on the unique strengths and enduring lessons of 100 years of strategic philanthropy.

When we look back over the Rockefeller Foundation’s history and pinpoint the moments when philanthropy is at its best, it’s almost always at those moments when the work is the hardest, and the risk of failure is greatest—from spraying down an entire island to eliminate mosquitoes and ward off malaria, to mapping cultural monuments and artifacts across Europe to prevent Allied forces from bombing them during World War II. These weren’t projects governments or businesses could do alone. Rather, they were projects best carried out by a philanthropy.

Indeed, risk is philanthropy’s calling card—it’s what our philanthropic dollars, at least in the United States, are now tax-advantaged to do. And because of this, we can take the risks others cannot—unlike governments, we don’t live or die by the polls or the next election. Unlike businesses, we don’t measure success in quarterly earnings.

In fact, risk-taking is one of the ways philanthropic organizations do hold themselves accountable to our stakeholders. I tell my board that if we succeed at everything we do, we’re not taking enough risk, and if we’re not taking enough risk, we’re clearly not doing everything in our power to maximize impact for the poor or vulnerable.

There is no innovation without risk. And there is no risk without the possibility of failure.

Reason being—there is no innovation without risk. And there is no risk without the possibility of failure.

For example, in 1928, George E. Hale, an astronomer and inventor, approached the Rockefeller Foundation about the possibility of funding the construction of a 200-inch telescope.

If successful, the telescope would be four-times as powerful as the next largest telescope in the world and expand our knowledge of the universe. And it would only cost $6 million dollars.

Might sound like a steal now, but at the time $6 million was more than a Rockefeller organization had ever awarded in a single grant. And there was no promise that the fused quartz Hale planned to construct the glass would work.

So there was a fair amount of risk. But the reward?

Quite literally in some ways, the universe.

The grant was approved in the fall of 1928 and awarded to the California Institute of Technology.

But years of work and already $600,000 spent, the fused quartz proved infeasible.

Even after Corning Glass in New York was called in to apply their new form of Pyrex glass, there were problems mounting the huge mirror. And then there was the matter of transport, which took 16 days in a slow moving train. Even then the work was not finished—the mirror had to be polished, which took several more years, and then World War II brought all work to a halt.

The Hale telescope at the Palomar Observatory would not be fully operational until 1948—20 years after the initial proposal was received, but it opened the heavens to discovery and exploration.

Would we have the same patience today to continue funding a project such as this? Perhaps not.

But that appetite for risk—that impulse for experimentation—lives in the boldness of the MacArthur Foundation in reforming our juvenile justice system, the California Endowment’s campaign to support the successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act in California to meet their goals of quality health care for everyone in this state, or the boldness of the Grameen Foundation to empower the world’s poor to save more of what they earn.

Risk comes in different forms—with different rewards and implications for failure.

But it must always be a part of strategic philanthropy’s approach, as it has been for the past 100 years.

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