Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Intervention: first stop on the road to philanthropic strategy

Denise Caruso's book, Intervention, is the Silent Spring of the 21st Century. If we are lucky, Caruso's analysis of the risks of bioengineering will kick off a broad movement to protect the natural diversity of living species the way Rachel Carson's 1962 manifesto set off the environmental movement.

The book has profound relevance for philanthropists, regardless of your specific funding area of interest. That's because, despite its focus on genetic engineering, Intervention is really about how we make choices. How do we define problems, identify solutions, calibrate risks, choose strategies and make funding decisions? Philanthropists do this all day long - allocate limited resources where they think they can have an impact. To choose correctly, we must know all of our options, as well as consider the longer-term consequences of today's actions. Caruso's book artfully, and with no small amount of terrifying truth, shows how we tend to ignore the risks inherent in today's decisions because they may be slow to manifest, difficult to measure, and come long after what are recognized instead as short-term benefits. It is for precisely these reasons, she argues, that we need a new way to think about risk - not to step away from it, but to consider it, strategize about, and create strategies that can succeed.

What Caruso offers us is a practical way to better understand the implications of our choices. Given the complexity of issues that engage philanthropists, from health care to alternative energy to learning to creating accessible and sustainable food supplies, the need is great for navigational tools. Much attention is given to the need for more strategic philanthropy; we are, after all, making critical decisions with limited resources. But the truth is, we haven't many methods for really doing this now.

Caruso provides several important guides to developing effective philanthropic strategies. First, the book's discussion of feral bacteria and purposively invasive species should make every intelligent reader squeamish and considerably more aware (and, ideally, more active) about the risks of genetically modified foods, plants, and animals. Second, Caruso puts her finger right on the troublesome results that occur when self-interested experts (in any field) are allowed to dominate funding decisions to the exclusion of the self-interested voices of the broader public. And, finally, Intervention provides specific ideas on how to think more comprehensively and inclusively at the design stage of philanthropic strategy so that the choices being made - between benefit and risk - are understood and incorporated into actions.

The message here is not that risk should be avoided. In fact, what Caruso points out is that avoiding risk is not possible. Simply ignoring it is tantamount to failing from the starting line. What she provides is a way of thinking about risk that will lead to more informed choices, better decisions, and - just possibly - successful philanthropic strategies.

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