Gearing Up Your Giving: Exploring the Unknown and Expanding Human Knowledge

Uncategorized Mar 14, 2022

 Outsize Impact Idea #2:. Explore the Unknown and Expand the Base of Human Knowledge

A second big idea for having outsize impact with your giving is explore the unknown--to expand the base of human knowledge,  Once a discovery is made it's a permanent expansion to the stock of human knowledge.  That's a potential benefit for everyone, and great leverage for philanthropists who back these discoveries. 

Some of the clearest examples involve medical research on curable diseases. 

 Take the "ice bucket challenge," for example.

This  was a crowd sourced craze in 2014 on the internet.  It raised $115 million to support ALS research in only 6 weeks. Those resources funded two breakthrough discoveries on previously unknown sources of the disease.


Another example is the  Gates Foundation's support to develop a vaccine against malaria. It has been a long haul since Gates first announced $168m to support this effort in 2008. A billion dollars later, a vaccine that is over 70% effective in preventing childhood malaria is making its way through clinical trials. 


A few ideas for amplifying your impact  when funding research:

  1. Find overlooked areas.  Take global security and conflict resolution.  Less than 1% of philanthropy goes to this arena, creating the potential for outsize impact.  Consider the Hewlett Foundation's $500,000 grant in 1984 to help found the Harvard Negotiation Program.  This program and its faculty have since pioneered many  advances in the art and science of negotiation and conflict resolution.  Along the way,  they have trained thousand of practitioners  and helped resolve conflicts in some of the world's most troubled regions.
  2.  Focus some of your research funding on "black swan" events.  Black swans are situations where the chance of a breakthrough discovery is small, but  the payoff is huge.  Research to identify meteors on a potential collision course with earth, for example.
  3. When it comes to understanding the impact of research you support, don't insist on sole attribution.  Be OK with knowing that you were one of many who made a contribution to a breakthrough.  Sometimes the most consequential discoveries are bigger than any one donor, or any single research team.
  4. Take an expeditionary approach with your research partners.  You are making a voyage of co-discovery that requires patience and trust.   Sometimes research is like a phase transition.  Much energy and effort has to be put in before the water boils—before there is a breakthrough.

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