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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Walker

ISTR Day 3: How Past is Prelude

queen in period garment

Today was a mash-up of topics. However, at least one paper in each session I attended ended up touching on how the past, sometimes irrationally, sometimes inaccurately, informs our present decisions and impacts our future outcomes.

Anyone who knew me in grad school knew that I was obsessed with the concept of perpetuity, dead hand, and the social and legal origins of those concepts that could lead to something like what happened at The Barnes Foundation, about which I ended up writing on in almost every class I took. Perhaps to the detriment of my scholarly productivity I don't stop searching for literature even when a paper is already "done". That's how I found Willard's 1894 Harvard Law Review article on the origins of cy pres and read Sir Arthur Hobson's book Dead Hand from 1880.

Naturally I was intrigued by Hagai Katz's presentation on a Monte Carlo simulation of 3 fictitious foundations with common limitations and attributes to test whether perpetuity is feasible financially. In addition to the fact that his team's simulations find that perpetuity is not rational or feasible, they make excellent points about how often recommendations about future choices is corrupted by survival bias and that benchmarks favor reductive successes rather than the heterogeneity of foundations and their work. I also see some philosophical parallels with a paper I just read by Linda Sugin on Competitive Philanthropy as a social norm to guard against the not negligible problems of perpetuity.

I enjoyed Dana Reiser's presentation on the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and how this form is not really new or disruptive. Instead, it is a return of the privacy and control that we have seen come and go throughout the history of philanthropy, particularly in the modern era. Her paper was juxtaposed by a historical look at whether there was trickle down effect by major donors in the Golden Age of the Netherlands. The team for that project presented a very interesting perspective on social status and religious affiliation as predictors for lifetime and/or bequest giving.

Finally, David Berlan presented an interesting paper on how the people within a nonprofit identify and speak the mission of the organization. He and his team were looking to test a new theory on personal interpretation of mission as it relates to the actual stated mission and work of the organization. Their results bear out that there are variances within the organization, but that clusters of people within the same organization more closely align on the language that they use to give their "elevator speech". Berlan and his team suggest that normative isomorphism, as described by DiMaggio and Powell, seems the strongest force.

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