Philanthropic capital has a unique characteristic: It is aimed solely at improving the world. It need not generate a return, or help win an election. This freedom has two implications: philanthropy should be aimed at big problems and those who steer philanthropy should be willing to tolerate risk.
What are the big issues? At the Hewlett foundation, we focus on culture, on the health and well-being of the world’s population; on the opportunity for everyone to make something of him or herself.
Modern civilization has advanced a long way, but there is no guarantee this will continue. With the world’s resources being consumed at a rate faster than they can be replenished, and with a fragile, thin atmosphere—which if severely disrupted could take hundreds of years to fix—the prospects for our future are uncertain indeed. The world also lives under the unprecedented threat of terrorism and nuclear meltdown.
So I see the Hewlett foundation’s responsibility to help make progress on solving those problems. That explains our commitment to work on issues in population and global development, our work on the environment, our interest in nuclear security, and our investment in the institutions of education. The places where we make our grants tend to be in those areas that increase the likelihood that we and our children will live in a society that continues to improve, develop and thrive.
Tackling big issues is risky, but we believe it should be a role of foundations to try things that haven’t been tried. Who else will? Of course, if you try things that haven’t been tried, sometimes your efforts will fall short. At the Hewlett foundation, our grant making is based on the potential impact we think we can have, not on the risk of success or failure.
You don’t want to make the same mistake twice, but you also don’t want to become overly concerned with how you appear to others. The important thing is to focus on the problem you’re trying to solve and give that your best effort.
These two characteristics—focus on big problems, and be willing to take risks—have spurred our investment in energy policy and climate change. The prospects for society, especially for those living at the margins, will be enormously worsened if climate change becomes a runaway phenomenon. Conversely, making clean energy a core of a development strategy can at once reduce economic insecurity, protect the environment, and reduce international tensions.
Naturally, this focus has us working with partners in China, India, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia—where the world’s future is being shaped. We are intrigued with the possibility and the promise of a truly clean, sustainable approach to development. And we are delighted that so much leadership on this front comes from India and other countries in the midst of a remarkable transition.