by: Harvey V. Fineberg, M.D., Ph.D.

When traveling at sea, a ship needs a means of propulsion, a way to navigate, and the ability to keep an even keel in rough seas. For society, philanthropy serves analogous purposes. Like a compass, we can point toward a direction that is better for individuals, families and institutions. Like a gyroscope, we can contribute to stability in rough periods with sustained support. And, like an auxiliary engine, we can accelerate forward motion with the right investments at the right time.

Regardless of circumstances, philanthropy can keep a fix on the goal of achieving lasting good for society. When unexpected turbulence arises, philanthropy has the steadiness to persevere. In uncertain times, philanthropy’s flexibility and adaptivity matter more than ever.

The willingness to confront seemingly intractable problems, to take well-considered risks and to partner with government, business, the nonprofit sector and other funders are all hallmarks of contemporary philanthropy. In the last year alone:

  • Breakthrough Energy Ventures, led by Bill Gates, announced it will invest more than $1 billion in clean energy innovations to fight climate change.
  • The MacArthur Foundation launched 100&Change, a global competition for a single $100 million grant to tackle a critical problem of our time.
  • Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan pledged $3 billion to cure, prevent or manage every major disease before the end of the 21st Century.

Philanthropy’s investments need not satisfy any political interest nor are they subject to the press of quarterly financial returns. Philanthropy can tackle big problems and remain focused on long-term solutions. Done well, philanthropy adds direction and stability to society and is a vital engine for social progress.


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