Hedgehogs & Foxes

Years ago I first saw the idea of the “hedgehog concept” in a business book, Good to Great. The authors had borrowed it from Isaiah Berlin’s essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.”

The idea is that the world can be divided into two types of people, hedgehogs and foxes. The fox is graceful, cunning and fleet. The hedgehog is slow and should be easy prey for the fox. But this is not the case. Despite its advantages, the fox cannot overcome the hedgehog. This is because the hedgehog knows that, no matter what happens, all that he has to do in order to defeat the fox is to curl himself into a ball and he becomes an impregnable “sphere of sharp spikes”.

hfCheckmate fox.

The lesson for the rest of us is that we must, like the hedgehog, ignore life’s many distractions and see the world for what it is. Like the hedgehog, we must know and understand ourselves. What is it that we have or know that makes us unique? What can we do better than anyone else? If we can understand what we do best (our hedgehog concept), then our program decisions should naturally flow fro
m that understanding.

The UCF Direct Connect project is an excellent illustration. The University of Central Florida (UCF), together with Valencia, Seminole, Eastern Florida State and Lake-Sumter colleges, has worked to build scholarship endowments for students to go to state college and then on to UCF to obtain a bachelor’s degree. Investors, including the Foundation, supported the program through our ideas, experience, money and reputation. This instance of joint philanthropy displays the unique qualifications and endeavors of each participant doing their best work. It is our hope that fundraising for these scholarship programs – and others like them – will continue long after the Foundation’s involvement has ended as others recognize their hedgehog concept and step up in support of the Direct Connect project’s purpose.

A few years ago, the 5 Presidents of the schools each spoke to the value and importance of this project. The most telling evidence of its importance, however, came from an incident occurring before the final agreement date. About a week before the signing was to take place, the foundation board of one of the partner colleges voted not to participate. When this message got back to the college president, she simply overruled the foundation board and signed the agreement. Opting out of this agreement was not an option for this partner college.

Grantee projects may not be dazzling feats of innovative philanthropy. Like the hedgehog, however, they should capture the essence of what we each do well in our area of philanthropy. As a result of following the hedgehog concept, philanthropic programs can make a compelling impact in their unique niche.  We should continue our efforts to nurture and improve this model.


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