We Shouldn’t Be Batting 1000

March 9, 2016|Kevin Jennings, Executive Director, Arcus Foundation
I am a sports nut.

In a recent lunch with PNY’s Ronna Brown, a conversation about philanthropic success led me to reflect on my two sporting passions. While the Christmas carol says December is “the most wonderful time of the year,” personally I think it’s March. My favorite sport, hockey, is hurtling towards the play-offs while my second favorite, baseball, is warming up in spring training. It’s the perfect storm of sports fabulousness. My favorite hockey player is New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundquist. A sure Hall of Famer, Lundquist won the Vezina Trophy as the best goalie in the National Hockey League in 2012. He stopped around 92% of the shots fired at him. My favorite baseball player is Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox, mainly because he’s a short little guy like me (we’re both 5’7”). He was baseball’s MVP in 2008, when he got a hit about 1 in 3 times he went to the plate.

Here’s what this has got to do with philanthropy. We aspire to be Henrik Lundquist when we need to be Dustin Pedroia.

Philanthropy should be more willing to take risks but we don’t because our definition of “MVP play” is flawed. We expect a success percentage like that of Henrik Lundquist: of all the proposals we fund, we expect an extraordinary percentage of them (92 %?) to succeed. This causes us to play it safe and fund sure bets – bets that support good work but rarely, if ever, lead to game-changing breakthroughs.

What if, instead, we assumed we were Dustin Pedroia, and a 1 in 3 hit rate was MVP performance? Yes, a lot more grants would fail, but I would argue that a lot more breakthroughs might be achieved as well.

If we were to do so, I would say we were fulfilling the true role of private philanthropy in the larger existent of our society. I have also served in the government (as an Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education), where the pressure to be Henrik Lundquist was infinitely stronger than what I face today. The margin for error is zero. Witness the furor over the failure of the renewable energy manufacturer Solyndra, despite generous government support.

As a result our colleagues in government adopt extremely narrow definitions of success – definitions so narrow, in fact, that failure is impossible. One of the programs I ran was the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling program. When I took office, I reviewed our measures of success and discovered that, for this program, the measure was to lower the counselor to student ratio in each school that got a grant. I was confused: Wouldn’t hiring a new counselor automatically lead to a reduction in the student to counselor ratio in a school, I asked the program director? He beamed and said “Exactly.”

I understand why this is the case in the public sector: its taxpayer money and we shouldn’t fool around with it. But in the philanthropic sector we can be more like venture capitalists, taking risks on new ideas that the government cannot fund. If we play like Dustin Pedroia, we might get some hits that win games.

Another great athlete, Michael Jordan, inspired a whole ad campaign called “Be like Mike” in the mid-90’s. He is the greatest basketball player of all time. For the record, this athletic genius made less than 50% of the shots he took. So Let’s Be Like Mike. Or even better Be Like Dustin, and get away from a counterproductive model where we “save” over 90% of our grants. We are making a difference as a sector, but we could be making a much bigger one if we were more willing to miss a few shots now and then.

This piece originally appeared March 7, 2016, in Philanthropy New York.