Philanthropy, Higher Education and the Arts
Ambiguity and Failure in Philanthropy


December 4, 2012
By John McDonald

“Philanthropy is just like sex.  If you worry about it too much, it won’t work and it probably won’t be any fun either” Don Randel, President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation told a standing room only audience at a recent session of the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy’s Conversations in Philanthropy series.  In a wide-ranging conversation with Ken Brecher, President of the Los Angeles Library Foundation, Randel, a long time advocate and supporter of the arts and humanities, went on to plumb the themes of ambiguity and failure as he discussed his perspective and approach to philanthropy.

“I think we need to remind ourselves that it’s not always about the value proposition as defined in the world of business, but it’s about the values proposition.  It’s what values do you have and do you want to bring to the world, and what values do you want your sources to support?  And, many of those things will not be the subject of quantitative measurement.  I think that’s particularly true in the arts, and in education.”

“I can enable the Los Angeles Philharmonic to give concerts that it might not otherwise be able to give.  I can’t prove to you something about its contribution to the gross domestic product or to the National Defense, or that all the people who heard those concerts turn out to be better citizens and more responsible citizens of the country.  I can’t prove it, but nevertheless it’s still something that I believe in that it makes the world a better place to have great music by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and I’m going to support that.“

Brecher noted previous comments by Randel as saying that as a grantmaker “he only funded money-losing businesses,” and added that many philanthropists often worry about failure.  “We’re very worried about being perceived as having failed and we’re very worried about ambiguity.  We want the clarity,” he said.

“It’s as in life. What it comes down to is trying to figure out who you can trust, and then actually trusting them,” responded Randel. “The Mellon Foundation has quite a different style from most and you should understand your hearing from somebody who is a sort of radical in this business.  We work with a limited number of institutions that we try to get to know extremely well over long periods.  We want desperately not to be the kind of organization that gives you a million bucks to do something that you never knew you wanted to do and then three years later, goes away and says, ‘now you pay for it’. So yes, we support only money losing businesses and I’m not embarrassed to say that but we support the money losing businesses of people that we hope we can trust, done good work over time, and we trust them to keep doing good work with our help.  The question is about who you can trust, whose values you share, and then put $2.00 on the nose of that one and let them run, and, if in fact they don’t sometimes lose, you’re probably not trying quite hard enough.”

In addition to its support of the arts and humanities, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation also supports higher education.  Brecher, noting the needs of Los Angeles and other communities to strengthen k-12 education, particularly for low-income children, queried Randel about the foundation’s focus.

“The question I have to ask myself is, how can I devote the resources of this foundation to higher education when there are so many desperately poor kids who need that kind of help,” said Randel.  “Well, there has to be something for those kids to get to and ultimately the country needs an investment at that end of the pipeline.  We have to find the way to invest in the earlier stages of the pipeline while simultaneously investing in the end of the educational pipeline.  The State of California has what is arguably or was the greatest system of public higher education the world has ever known and it’s no accident that the economy in the State of California has flourished the way it has at some periods because it had this ability to educate people. To see it being steadily whittled-away at or worse is a great, great tragedy for the country.  What’s required here is a kind of national commitment to education at all levels.”

“Every child comes into the world a born scientist and a born humanist, and a born artist, everyone!  And, the problem is we find a way to beat it out of them if we’re not careful.  Our responsibility to kids is to keep alive that thing that makes them turn over rocks, that makes them like to hear stories and tell stories, that makes them interested in — at first scribbling, but then those scribbles get to be more and more interesting.  We have to keep that alive throughout a person’s life.  It doesn’t just end with public schools and so a responsibility, I think of the Mellon Foundation and of this society in general, is to attend to some of those things that make life worth living.

Don Randel is a musicologist whose scholarly specialty is the music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Spain and France.  A noted academic leader, he served for 32 years as a member of Cornell’s faculty, where he was also department chair, vice-provost, and associate dean and then dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.  He became provost of Cornell and later served as president of the University of Chicago. He joined the Andrew W. Mellon foundation in 2000, serving as President. He will retire this spring but plans to read and write about music and other things that interest him.  He will also likely, as moderator Ken Brecher so aptly put it, “say things about philanthropy that have just been different than anyone else – anything I’ve ever read before.”