October 20, 2005
by Jamil Zainaldin
The following essay was prepared for a discussion on effectiveness in philanthropy—part of a series of six discussions entitled "The Dialogues on Civic Philanthropy: Perfecting Our Grants" (2005-2006). By clicking the links to the right, you can access more information on this series, learn about the Dialogues project as a whole, read other prepared essays, and download discussion transcripts.
WHEN ASKED by Amy Kass to share my thoughts on “How should philanthropy judge its success?” my first reaction was one of uncertainty. This is because I have wrestled with this question for the past seventeen years in my work, first as president of the national Federation of State Humanities Councils and later as president of the Georgia Humanities Council. What these two organizations have in common is their support for “public humanities” programs.
Public humanities programs engage adults in the discussion of great works of literature or ethics, the study and conversation about history and its meaning for us today, biographies of great persons, reflections on the world’s great spiritual traditions, and so forth—in short, engagement with the human condition in the real world.
I think each, in his or her own way, knows how to judge the success of a good book, or an intriguing idea, or the inspiration of a great life well led. This is in the eye of each beholder; it is a personal assessment and measurement because it emerges out of the personal context of one’s life. On the other hand, judging the effectiveness of grant making that is engaged in this form of education—education of head and heart—can leave one with little to grasp. Certainly one can count heads at events, or as cultural and arts organizations sometimes do, assess the economic impact on the community. One can also solicit written comments about “the effectiveness of the speaker” or the “quality of the readings,” or “what you learned from the program” and so forth, as we often ask grant recipients to do. A great many numbers can even be crunched that present an impressive set of data. The same could be done for other fields of philanthropy and giving. But what do the numbers add up to? How do we judge the success of a grant?
One answer is that philanthropy should tell its stories and ask questions about its stories. The exploration of the stories offers another way to understand, and perhaps even define, what we mean by success.
I would like to suggest a story that reverberates in my mind. Let me be clear that this does not involve a grant. It is more an allegory about the mysterious power of gift, though it may retain some relevance for us.
Desmond Tutu recounts an episode from his childhood when, of a Sunday, he and his mother were walking down an elevated plank sidewalk in Klerksdorp, Transvaal. The street that bordered the walk way was ankle deep in mud. Coming from the opposite direction was a white gentleman. As he approached, Tutu and his mother prepared to do the inevitable: to step off the sidewalk and into the road to make way for his passage, but before they could, the gentleman obliged by stepping off the sidewalk. Tutu recalls holding on to his mother’s hand, and uncertainly walking past the man standing in the mud. Never had they experienced anything like this. It shook them. Tutu asked his mother who that person was, and she replied “an Anglican priest.” From that moment, Tutu believes, he understood his own destiny. He woul
Jamil Zainaldin is president of the Georgia Humanities Council.
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