John Lennon’s carol has become a Christmas standard. As the end of the year approaches, it hauntingly asks us what we have done to make the world a better place. It has universal appeal because it speaks to our highest aspirations.
Lennon’s carol is short on strategy, however, and philanthropic literature is replete with examples of unfocused grant making. At the Johnson Scholarship Foundation we spend much of our time discussing Foundation strategy. We know that strategy is vital to success and we have learned the importance of asking grantees what they need. We have also learned the value of humility and that we must always strive to improve.
Stephen Leacock’s short story Mr. Plumter, B.A. Revisits the Old Shop is a light-hearted lesson on the best and worst of philanthropy.
Leacock’s story is set in the late 1800s, in a small town in Ontario, Canada. Archie Plumter is a kindly businessman, who owns and operates the family mill. As the title suggests, he is a college graduate. Over the years Archie has become more prosperous and memories of his Alma Mater have grown fonder and more distorted.
After 20 years, Archie is moved to make a gift to the “Old Shop.” He will donate $25,000 for the acquisition of a large clock and tower. The clock will have chimes just like the one that he and Mrs. Plumter saw last summer when they visited San Francisco. He imagines the students regarding his clock from all parts of the campus and thrilling to its melodious chimes: Bing! Bong! Bong! Bong! Bing! Bing!
When Archie makes the pilgrimage back to his college, reality begins to intrude on his memories. He encounters Professor Dim, who appears “just as young at 70 as he was old at 50,” and suffers through a reprise of Dim’s excruciating lecture on the Crusades.
Archie is undeterred, however, and he makes his way to the Office of the President to announce his grand gift. Just as he is about to do so, he is interrupted by the loud chimes of the college’s new clock. It seems that another alumnus has beaten Archie to the punch and donated a large new clock and tower. What a disappointment!
Archie is resilient and determined, if not strategic. He quickly decides that his $25,000 should endow a series of annual lectures on the Crusades, to be delivered by Professor Dim for the first 10 years and thereafter “thrown open to all the scholars of the world.”
When reflecting on the Foundation’s accomplishments this year and our plans for 2018, Archie Plumter’s generosity, enthusiasm and folly should be instructive.
Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!