Philanthropic Philosophy

2016-06-12

One of the few investment writers I still read is John Hussman. His deeply rational, evidence-based approach to the markets is something I very much appreciate in this world of breathless hype and cynical salesmanship.

Today, reading his latest missive, I learned that he also runs a non-profit foundation dedicated to "life-changing assistance through medical research, education, and direct aid to vulnerable populations having urgent needs or significant disabilities". I'm especially interested in his grant-funding principles; consider the following snippets:

To achieve the greatest impact, the Foundation emphasizes projects having the capacity to save or significantly improve lives, at a small financial commitment per person affected. These projects are often on the margin that divides a modest amount of help from nothing at all.
Consistent with the mission of the Foundation, alleviation of suffering or distress and low cost per beneficiary are essential criteria in evaluating grant proposals.
Proposed projects should have a reasonable expectation of having a life‐changing or life‐saving impact on project beneficiaries, at a small cost per person affected.
Except where we have a strong predisposition toward a given line of exploratory research, we generally restrict funding to proposals where prospective benefits are clearly described, where the transmission of project outcomes to the described beneficiaries is likely to be direct, and where the cost per likely beneficiary is quantifiable.
In short, the Foundation attempts to operate at the margin “between nothing and something,” where the intervention is life‐saving or life‐altering, at a low cost per person affected...

It strikes me that the foregoing are excellent criteria for philanthropic giving: by focusing on projects that have a significant impact at a relatively low cost, the giving organization gets the most bang for its buck. (I suppose other criteria are also important: transparency regarding expenses, measurement of outcomes, sustainability after the initiative receives seed funding from the giving organization, etc.)

Hussman writes as follows: "I honestly believe that life should be in service to others ... family and shareholder responsibilities always come first, but most of my limited time outside of those is spent in charitable work".

Looking at things this way has given me a new perspective on my lifelong philosophy project, and has spurred me to reflecting on whether I can clearly define the direct benefits that my books might have on those who read them. Although I have always tended to think of my philosophical work as something that might have only a long-term impact, perhaps I can produce writings that can help people improve their lives in a more direct, immediate way. Indeed, I feel that I benefit from my books in precisely this way, which is why I write them in the first place!

Along these lines, over 2,000 years ago Epicurus said:

A philosopher's words are empty if they do not heal the suffering of mankind. For just as medicine is useless if it does not remove sickness from the body, so philosophy is useless if it does not remove suffering from the soul.

Amen to that.


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