I spend a lot of time thinking about and working on ways to make our foundation and the field of philanthropy a place for “changemakers,” not just grantmakers. Our staff here at Gordon and Betty Moore—and I’d guess almost everyone working in the field of philanthropy—shares a deep commitment to honoring our founders’ values, and we feel a profound obligation to realize their vision and achieve results in the most effective ways we can.
As a foundation, our potential for creating lasting, meaningful impact derives in part from a unique ability to:
- Take risks by supporting bold projects and ideas that public or other private investors can’t fund as easily.
- Stay with a given issue over the long run, which can be critical to addressing some of the biggest, most complex social challenges.
- Act fast, and in doing so garner more attention for a given issue and motivate others to take action.
All three of those abilities speak to the power of an adaptive giving strategy. Here are a few examples of how we’ve successfully adapted our giving strategy at Moore.
My first example highlights both the value of funding projects that others can’t fund as easily, and monitoring and adapting to external circumstances. We’ve tried to do just that with a major new $90 million-over-five-years Emergent Properties in Quantum Systems initiative to fund research in condensed matter physics, a reflection of our belief in the inherent value of science and discovery-driven research. The field of condensed matter physics made great advances thanks to significant funding from big industrial labs. These labs gave scientists freedom and tremendous resources to ask and explore important questions. But now, with the reorientation of many of those labs, resources needed to go about asking and answering those questions have become scarce, leaving a large gap. So we’re targeting our funding by establishing an integrated research program of experiment, materials synthesis, and theory to look into quantum materials and their “emergent phenomena”—such as superconductivity, forms of magnetism, and other electronic qualities—when subjected to extreme temperature and pressure. It promises to be a fascinating journey in discovery-driven research.
Video: Where it’s worth taking risks.
As for staying with—while adapting—a strategy over the long run, one of the earliest initiatives we launched was in the Andes-Amazon region. Recognizing the global importance of the extended watershed for global biodiversity and climatic function, the foundation, from the outset, established a goal of conserving at least 70 percent of the whole basin through the establishment of protected areas. Over the years, we learned that the protected areas weren’t sufficient and that they didn’t exist in a vacuum. We had to shift our measures of success from hectares conserved to efficacy in reducing rates of deforestation, which was on the rise at the edges of many of the protected areas we helped establish. We expanded our focus to include governance, policy, and sustainable land practices, particularly in these frontier regions, where population pressures were resulting in vast conversion of forest to cattle, soy, and other potentially destructive agricultural uses.
Video: Assessing whether you’re actually accomplishing something.
When it comes to acting fast, a good example is our funding for the first international expedition to gauge the impact of radiation released into the Pacific from Japan’s Fukushima plant in 2011. We believed the project would enhance global collaboration and sharing of scientific data, and greatly increase our understanding of how radioactivity can impact ocean life and health around the world. The situation required immediate response: The window for assessing the impacts on ocean biota was short-lived. We made the decision to proceed based on our confidence in the institution we were supporting—Woods Hole Institute—and the principal investigator, Ken Buesseler. There really was no need to conduct extensive due diligence; we believed in the judgment and competence of the people involved, because we had worked closely with them before. I think this is a key point. Foundations often engage in rigorous, time-consuming analysis on issues that, frankly, don’t really matter, when what is most meaningful is the development of relationships of trust and respect.
Foundations need to be willing to adapt. At a time when public institutions have diminishing resources and capacity, the burgeoning philanthropy field is positioned to step up and play a greater leadership role. Durable solutions to complex problems won’t come from traditional actors alone, and they won’t emerge through incremental change. For philanthropy to assume a leadership role successfully, those of us working in the field need to push ourselves, collectively, to “be the change we want to be” and to challenge some of our longest held conventions. It is a propitious time in the history of philanthropy, and we have the independence to try new things and test well-conceived but risky ideas. Nothing is holding us back except our own hesitation—we need to believe in, and act on, the powerful role philanthropy can play in turning bold ideas into enduring impact.