Monday, November 19, 2007

"Social return" is not the point...

O swallows, swallows, poems are not
The point. Finding again the world,
That is the point, where loveliness
Adorns intelligible things
Because the mind’s eye lit the sun.
I am not a big poetry reader. But occasionally I run across something that really speaks to me personally. This poem, by Howard Nemerov, called The Blue Swallows, also speaks to me about the nature of philanthropy. There has been much discussion - and some good work - over the past few years about the "social return" on philanthopic funding. But with few exceptions, the abstract idea of social returns does not drive most philanthropy or international aid decisions. Philanthropy and aid funding are ultimately driven by intensely personal considerations - even at many (most?) large foundations and agencies.

In Nemerov's view, abstractions are something that we impose on reality to make sense of our experience. But if we are not careful, these abstractions obscure the underlying phenomena. In this poem, he goes on to say:
Some seven centuries ago.
It’s taken that long for the mind
To waken, yawn and stretch, to see
With opened eyes emptied of speech
The real world where the spelling mind
Imposes with its grammar book
Unreal relations on the blue
Hopefully it will not take seven centuries for us to "waken, yawn, stretch, and see" the underlying nature of philanthropy. In fact, I think we are in the midst of a fundamental transformation right now - something that Peter Drucker referred to as the emergence of an "economy of meaning."

Even if, like me, you don't read much poetry, I strongly urge you to read the full poem here.