Hubris or Humility:
Four Lessons in Philanthropy

[Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma Now, a curated monthly conversation on Jewish Sensibilities. These articles, examining the differences between philanthropy and tzedakah, originally appeared in October 2001.]

By Richard A. Marker

It was during my interview with Edgar M. Bronfman when I learned philanthropy’s first lesson. ”We need someone who will know how to say no to all of these wonderful causes in a gracious manner” he told me. There are so many worthy and deserving causes, caring and thoughtful people, genuine unmet needs and powerful but untested ideas. Many more than any philanthropist or foundation can possibly fund. Indeed it is clearly important to say no graciously And it was gratifying when, in my third week, I received a call from someone who told me that he had never received a rejection that made him feel so good.

Faced with so many requests, I appreciate that our foundation has priorities and policies to determine which projects are eligible for consideration. In the case of most requests, it is intellectually easy to say no, since they simply don’t fit. Emotionally, it is much harder. Individuals’ destinies and dreams are in the hands of a foundation. Institutions’ missions are on the line. Social welfare and the social weal can be influenced by a nod or a no. Cutting-edge thinking can be legitimated by an endorsement, or relegated to triviality by a rejection. There is a power in the role of the funder that I experience on a daily basis. That power reinforces lesson #1: Our answer has an impact on the lives of so many; the more one must say no, the more humility one must have.

If it is hard to say no graciously it is even harder to say yes wisely. In reviewing eligible proposals, the decisions become even harder. In my career I have been an executive in Jewish communal service, taught at the university level, consulted in the for-profit sector, and served on a wide variety of boards. Yet, as a foundation executive, I am continually struck by how little I know. There are seemingly wonderful projects that we cannot adequately evaluate because we lack the expertise, and whose worth cannot be proven unless a funder takes a chance. Some ideas and projects might change the world, or at least some small part of it; others will be failures, glorious or otherwise. Some are prestigious and safe; others might become the next pat thing. With limited funds and more limited prophecy at our disposal, each approved grant is a well-placed bet. With all of the analytic abilities that trustees, program officers, and evaluators bring to bear; it is always human judgment that is the final arbiter. Thus, lesson #2: Every grant reminds me that nothing is guaranteed. With humility, we rely on our best judgment to decide and on others to implement what only the future will demonstrate to be true.

If I am aware of my limited expertise, others are always telling me how wise, insightful, thoughtful, helpful, and unique I am. When I first moved to this side of the table, I was convinced that they must be correct. I felt wonderful that all of my fine attributes were finally being recognized. Fortunately for our foundation, flattery didn’t guarantee a grant. And I quickly learned that my much-heralded attributes were less appreciated when a grant was not forthcoming. Ah, humbling lesson #3: Don’t confuse who you are with what [or whom] you represent.

The last lesson is the most important and transcendent of all. It is an extraordinary blessing to be in a position to make a difference. It is all too easy, with so many wanting so much to take our good fortune for granted, to become insensitive to real need, or worst of all, to become haughty with the power in our hands. That would be both sad and wrong. It is important never to forget, as the ones on whom luck, skill, or destiny bestowed the bounty of this world, or as their professional representatives, that it is a rare privilege to engage in philanthropy. Its very meaning, the love of humankind, must inform all of our actions. Our vision, therefore, must be dictated by the mandate to make the world a better place through the resources we dispense.

History will judge us by how well we respond to this unique challenge and gift. And that, lesson #4, is the most humbling lesson of all.

Richard A. Marker is Executive Vice President of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation.