|Lowell Observatory |
Discovery Channel Telescope
Photo: Dr. Michael West
--Dr. Deirdre Hunter, Astronomer
I had the privilege of spending the majority of two days at Lowell Observatory as they unveiled the conceptual vision of the "next frontier," so to speak, of their research, learning and community engagement. As a former director of development for the Observatory (where they discovered Pluto), and a current donor, I'm very proud of Lowell. They have made groundbreaking discoveries for over a century, but even with that pedigree, the project that was discussed was thrilling.
You may wonder, is it a new telescope? No, they did that already with the Discovery Channel Telescope.
Is it a new building? Well, that might be part of the project, but not yet.
This project is about conducting transformational research to inspire people to change their view of science, the world and the universe.
This has been the unchanging mission of Lowell Observatory for 123 years. While it's not the stereotypical nonprofit cause of "children and puppies," it is inspiring to many amateur astronomers, scientists, educators, history buffs, and families who are curious about our little blue dot's place.
While there are still questions about the project, I can already see that this vision is capturing people's imagination. I can also see this project capturing the imagination and passion of current and future donors in a big and inspiring way.
This proposed new project is big. (Like "brontosaurus big," according to Dr. Jeffrey Hall, Director of Lowell Observatory.) And it will require a lot of money. But the thing is, we didn't talk that much about money.
Mission always comes first.
Dr. Hall aptly noted to the board, "We have made the error in the past of putting money first." That approach shook the core of Lowell Observatory's culture and even threatened the financial viability of the organization. "If you want to know why we do what we do, go speak to a high school class, and connect with a young person who wants your card afterward to follow up [about scientific study]," Dr. Hall added. "That's why we do what we do." By refocusing on their mission over the last several years, Lowell Observatory is poised to be the most successful in its history.
There are some people, however, who would argue that this approach is flawed. You've heard the old saying, "No money, no mission." But now there is an organization that believes that money should be the prime focus.
In an article published by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, "New Nonprofit Puts Money Over Mission and Ethics," the National Association of Nonprofit Organizations and Executives claims that they are for "nonprofit executives who know money is more important than mission." The founder is also quoted as saying, "they’ll say: ‘Jimmy, if we do what Nanoe is saying, we’ll have to stop serving kids.’ And you know what I say? I say, ‘Stop serving kids.’"
That approach is wrong.
James Langley, founder and principal of Langley Innovations, and consultant to Lowell Observatory, astutely said, "Philanthropists are those who live below their means for the good of others." This applies to any philanthropist, regardless of their capacity to give. Whether the person is donating $10 or $10 million, they have made decisions to give up something to support your mission.
Do you think those philanthropists are interested in living below their means just to contribute to your coffers? If you "stop serving kids," why do you even exist?
This is a guess, but I think if you map out the difficult times for Lowell Observatory over a 123 year span, you'll discover that the times when the institution was most threatened was when money took precedence over mission. And the times when it has thrived was when its mission was a singular focus.
W. Lowell Putnam IV, the Observatory's current trustee, also said this: "Whatever we do, we cannot violate people's trust and the integrity of the institution." Lowell Observatory is clearly united in the belief that existing as a nonprofit organization is a privilege. It is their responsibility to be accountable to the donors--the investors--who give.
So do you want your organization to focus on ethics, accountability and your mission, or is money more important to you?
Disclosure: Jim Anderson was interviewed for the article by Timothy Sandoval with the Chronicle of Philanthropy. I was not. I thank Lowell Observatory and Langley Innovations for letting me participate in their meetings; these are my opinions and not theirs.