Home Philanthropy Failure of Imagination?

Failure of Imagination?

Published on August 6, 2012 by in Philanthropy, Stories

Foundation folks can be full of themselves at times.

Well, ok, most of the time…  And it’s a great risk for a grantee to point it out, especially when their grant is up for review.

But one such brave soul taught me an invaluable lesson.

A major conference was is town, and we took the opportunity to host a dinner for several of the Joyce Foundation’s major environmental policy grantees at my favorite local restaurant.  We were proud how consistently forward-thinking and innovative our grantees were, and wanted to thank them for their often under-appreciated work.

As the dinner progressed, the discussion became more and more animated, with people floating new ideas about how stumbling blocks to progress might be removed.  Some notions were more intriguing than others, of course.  And some seemed likely to succeed while others seemed little more than wishful thinking.

An idea on how major polluters might be convinced to self-report accidental discharges struck me as especially optimistic, and I noted that I couldn’t imagine them doing so without significant carrots or sticks.  Another on a research project intended to convince legislators to strengthen a lax new law prompted a similar response, having watched strong scientific evidence be discounted in the name of expediency or compromise on many occasions.

I was feeling particularly good about my contribution to the discussion — both where I was encouraging and where I brought people back down to earth a bit.  I was doing my job well.

As our desserts were placed before us, a grantee who had been unusually quiet for a few minutes said, “Joel, I couldn’t help but notice that over dinner you must have said ‘I can’t imagine…’ at least four or five times.  Do you think that is because those things are truly impossible?  Or is it just a failure of your imagination?”

Wham.  It was like a gut punch.  Of course, he was right.

Dancing on the edge of possibility is where innovation starts.  Not everything imaginable is possible.  But shutting down imagination is the surest path to obsolescence and failure.

I now try to ask myself this question every time that I am quick to judge the potential of a new idea.

Oh, and he got his grant…

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