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Philanthropy? I’m Going Fishing!

March 31, 2013

(Bradford K. Smith is the president of the Foundation Center. In his last post, he wrote about the linguistic creativity of funders who award general operating support.)

April 1 is the most important day of the year on my calendar, and not because it's April Fools' Day. No, April 1 is the opening day of trout fishing season here in New York State -- and if it's like past opening days, it will be icily cold, wet, and unproductive, with my chances of actually catching one of those wily trout almost zero. Still, I'll be out there -- early -- because trout fishing is my form of meditation, the one thing I do that takes my thoughts as far away from work as possible, to nowhere.

Given that my work is the business of philanthropy, I thought I'd share a list of the things I will NOT be thinking about while I am, as author John Gierach puts it, "standing in a river waving a stick." Here goes:

Is philanthropy effective?
Is philanthropy efficient?
Is philanthropy strategic?
Is philanthropy catalytic?
Is philanthropy innovative?
Is philanthropy transparent enough?
Is philanthropy too transparent?
Does the Foundation Center's data capture the uniqueness of each foundation?
Will the foundation world ever agree on data standards?
What is the difference between an outcome and an output?
Is there too little collaboration among philanthropy "infrastructure" groups?
Is there too little collaboration among foundations?
Is limiting the lifespan of a foundation better than establishing a foundation in perpetuity?
Is perpetuity better than limiting the lifespan of a foundation?
Who will be the next president of the Kellogg Foundation?
Who will be the next president of the Ford Foundation?
Who will be the next president of the (fill in the blank) Foundation?
Is there a viable business model for open source, open data, open anything?
Can philanthropy keep up with technological change?

These concerns and many others will still be percolating on April 2 when I return to the office -- as they are likely to be for months and years to come. So taking a day off from thinking about them won't be the worst thing I've ever done -- in fact, it might even lead to a sudden insight or two, in a Zen sort of way.

Of course, philanthropy itself won't be far away. As I was writing this post, I couldn't resist doing a quick search of Foundation Directory Online, and, lo and behold, I turned up more than 900 grants made by U.S. foundations that in some way involve "trout." The biggest beneficiary was Trout Unlimited, which received awards ranging from a minnow-like $1,000 to a real whopper of a grant, some $4.275 million, from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in support of its "Western Water and Public Lands Program." My favorite, however, was one from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust to Evergreen State College "to study needle-less methods for delivering gene-based vaccines to rainbow trout."

So, though April 1 will officially be a day of "no-mind" for me, I am fully aware that it's foundations and individual donors, working with nonprofits, local communities and advocates, and dedicated state conservation officials, that enable iridescent trout like the one pictured above to survive and thrive in fragile public streams less than two hours from the bustle and grime of New York City. It's also a reminder of the many ways in which the work of foundations contributes to the public good.

-- Brad Smith

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