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Investing in Meaningful Change: A Metaphor for Your Consideration

July 29, 2010

(Mitchell Sakofs is dean of the School of Education and Professional Studies at Central Connecticut State University. This is his first post for PhilanTopic.)

Skull_clip_th Even as predatory carnivorous dinosaurs terrorized their plant-eating kin on the Mesozoic plain, hiding in small caves and tunnels were mammals; diminutive creatures, always on guard and rarely bold, they went about their days guided by the simple reality that they were prey. To an observer, these nervous creatures would have appeared ill-equipped to survive and thus a poor bet for the future. But the future they were.

With the above in mind, how would a philanthropic organization review grant applications from these mammalian grant-seekers? I suspect after a review of their application for support to pursue various morphological and educational initiatives, they would have received the following letter:

Dear mammals:

Thank you for the grant application entitled "The Future Is Ours -- Changing to Meet the Demands of Tomorrow."

The board of directors of the Future Fund reviewed your grant request. Given our limited resources, I regret to inform you we cannot support your enterprise. While board members found your goals to grow and thrive ambitious, your small size and unconventional approach to life were seen as limiting factors to the success of your project.

With respect for your ambition and enterprise, and on behalf of the board, might we suggest you build on proven models of growth and adaptation -- and perhaps consider replacing hair with scales and start laying eggs.

We wish you every success.


T. Rex, Ph.D.

As many futurists point out, expressions of the dominant future exist in the present, though they are often hidden or small in size, while aspects of the present that appear as dominant structures will fade and/or disappear as they are replaced. In other words, while the conventional wisdom suggests that the most likely future is a continuation of the present, the bigger truth is this: while the future is tied to the past and present, change is inevitable and expressions of the future exist as small things, hidden on the landscape of activity, and these small expressions usually grow to dominate the future.

To illustrate the point, recall the change sequence for various media. For example, vinyl records to reel-to-reel tapes to 8-track and cassette tapes to CDs and, now, MP3s. Recall as well transitions in data storage technology: reel-to-reel analogue tape, small DAT tapes, 8-inch, 5¼-inch, 3½-inch floppies, CDs, DVDs, memory sticks, and "the cloud." In each case, as one technology dominated the landscape, the emergent technology started small and grew in acceptance until it (virtually) replaced the old. To be sure, these examples simply illustrate the thesis of change I'm proposing, though examples of things that have persisted over time (sharks, crocodiles, pens and pencils) exist and stand in contradiction. What's more, it is also clear that not all small expressions of innovation will have utilitarian durability or define the future. And therein lies the challenge for scholars who try to predict the future or philanthropists who look to nurture it. More often than not, we do not know what it will be.

The aforementioned metaphors and examples suggest, I hope, a new perspective with respect to philanthropic giving for school change efforts. More specifically, it suggests that forward-thinking philanthropies do two things: 1) look under rocks to find the ideas with the potential to transform the world; and 2) rethink the lens through which grants are evaluated so that small expressions of brilliance are not overshadowed by larger efforts and entities that are already successful. Metaphorically speaking, do the policies and practices of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top represent dinosaur or mammal?

While philanthropies must constantly work to ensure that their resources are invested wisely, if evolution teaches us anything, it teaches this: You never know what will succeed and what will not. That's why nature is forever "experimenting" with new designs. It knows that some will succeed and some will fail, that some will show promise but fade quickly while others get off to a fitful start, sputter and nearly flame out, but eventually rise from the ashes, phoenix-like, with vigor.

With these metaphors in mind, I end with this final thought: Invest in projects large and small; invest in things that appear familiar and in things you don't understand. Invest, knowing that some will fail -- and that that's the point. The process of breathing life into ideas always involves failure. Some ideas will fall by the wayside while others will survive, thrive, and, eventually, transform the world. That's nature's way.

-- Mitchell Sakofs

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