More Than Money
Issue #34

The Art of Giving

Table of Contents

“Science Vs. Art”

Based on an interview with Pamela Gerloff

In the scientific world, you make calculations to determine the probable results of an experiment; however, when you make a donation to a person or organization, there is no way to calculate what's going to happen-because you're dealing with human beings, with all of their individual differences. When I fund a scholarship, I make the assumption that the quality of the recipient's life will be improved by education. However, as far as I know, there is no objective way to measure that. You could measure it by the accumulation of money, I suppose, but I think that's a poor index of the quality of life.

When I funded a full graduate fellowship in engineering at Harvard, I wrote a letter to the dean indicating my desires for how the money should be spent. For example, I preferred that the recipient be a declared candidate for a doctorate, an electrical engineering student, and a person of Japanese lineage (if not Japanese, then Asian; if not that, then anything would do). I gave the dean a list of ten desires-not rules, but preferences. The last item on the list said that because I recognized that conditions might change, the dean could use the funds for anything he or she felt was important, while staying within the spirit of the gift.

I did that because when I was a student at the Graduate School of Engineering at Harvard, a big dispute arose over the Gordon McKay legacy. McKay had left a lot of money to Harvard, to be used to advance the design of shoe machinery. Of course, by the time I got there, everybody had figured out how to design shoe machinery! Harvard went to court and said that McKay must not have meant to constrain the use of money in that way. Harvard won the lawsuit.

The reason I fund fellowships is to improve the capability and the life of a student and the ability of that person to make a contribution to society, thereby enhancing not only the student's life but society as well. As a scientist, I might say, "Gee, you ought to be able to measure that," and it's true that psychologists can measure a lot of different things. But I always remember something that happened years ago, when I was working at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory. There was to be an evaluation of all the staff members and I tried to figure out what everyone's raise ought to be. I came up with an elaborate scheme and took it to my boss. I thought I had it all figured out. He looked at it and said, "That's pretty good, but you're trying to turn an art into a science."

To me, giving is the same. Instead of trying to turn it into a science, we may as well accept that it's an art.


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