"New Frontiers" Exemplify How Our Words and Ideas are Linked
A word, said Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., is not a fixed and unalterable object—it is the very "skin of a living thought" and, as such, bears an intimate relationship with the thoughts and ideas it is meant to express. Private foundations always have been concerned with developing ideas as much as giving money away; the latter, in fact, cannot adequately be accomplished without the former.
Unfortunately, philanthropic ideas have not always been accompanied by careful attention to the words that convey them. This has served as the basis for entertaining critiques like those by Tony Proscio, which poke fun at foundations for overreliance on words such as "initiative" and "best practices." More seriously, however, if little attention is paid to the words-ideas nexus—or if it is neglected altogether—the vocabulary one uses can threaten careful thought. At that point, words become not the skin but the enemy of living thought.
No individual or organization (including for-profit businesses) is immune from falling into such a loose relationship between words and ideas. The Kauffman Foundation takes great care in considering what language to use in expressing certain ideas, as well as in trying to circumscribe the way in which some things are discussed, including philanthropy. We know that we must always be mindful that the words we choose are simultaneously shaping the ideas we are developing. To that point, the "new frontiers" explored in this section exemplify the careful relationship between words and ideas we attempt to cultivate. We don’t promise that we always will succeed, but the process of paying attention to vocabulary is valuable in itself.
... the "new frontiers" explored in this section exemplify the careful relationship between words and ideas we attempt to cultivate.
You will see this play out in the pieces that follow, which present a set of new ideas we are pursuing under the rubric of "Expeditionary Economics." This contains two examples of being mindful of words. The first is the name, Expeditionary Economics: Immediately, it conveys a notion that is different from both conventional economics as well as the economic programs practiced by the United States military and civilian communities in developing countries. Economists do not often see their ideas applied in such an intensely practical manner, let alone in an "expeditionary" context. Likewise, as a signal to on-the-ground practitioners, Expeditionary Economics highlights that there are certain aspects of economic life that cannot be neglected even in military and civilian expeditions. This neglect, sadly, often has characterized international development efforts around the world.
Second, the substance of Expeditionary Economics places heavy emphasis on the idea of economic growth versus economic development. Long ago in the economic literature, there was a semantic hijacking whereupon "development" morphed from its original meaning of dynamic and messy entrepreneur-led activity (renowned economist Joseph Schumpeter’s first groundbreaking book was The Theory of Economic Development), and instead became associated almost exclusively with foreign aid. Consequently, Expeditionary Economics stresses the importance of economic growth in developing and post-conflict countries—growth that comes about through the messy process of firm formation.
You also will read an essay in this section that reports on the state of Michigan’s determination to find new ways to create jobs and growth to overcome its economic devastation. Michigan’s extraordinary efforts give new life to the famous saying, "Nature abhors a vacuum." With virtually every fabric of the state affected by the auto industry meltdown, the need for innovation in Michigan is pervasive—and people and organizations of all stripes are responding.
The final item in this section perhaps best exemplifies the tight relationship between words and ideas—and what happens when that relationship becomes too loose or when words come to dominate ideas. For many years in the world of philanthropy, there has been a steady drift in the application of the word "public." Philanthropic foundations are private organizations that nonetheless operate in pursuit of the public good. This distinction, together with foundations’ tax-exempt status, has steadily become conflated into a claim that private foundations are public institutions. This last essay contends that the original public-private distinction matters enormously, and that the erasure of that distinction constitutes a distortion of philanthropy and a threat to its vitality.
Because the confusion of words and ideas often can have deleterious consequences, and because a disciplined link between them can be so effective, the Kauffman Foundation considers the appropriate vocabulary related to our work nearly as important as the work itself.