I saw the power of finitude when working with wealthy foundations, which, like government agencies, rarely feel the risk of failure. At first glance, the job of foundation managers looks easy: Just hand out a pot of money. At closer range, the challenge is harder: how to improve the world without squandering resources or inducing dependencies that do more harm than good.
The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in Flint, Mich., has as one of its objectives the improvement of the city of Flint — a clear goal that nonetheless leaves plenty of latitude for choices by the trustees. After spending millions in the 1980s on what was to be a destination resort called AutoWorld, they watched in horror as people somehow chose Disneyworld for their vacations instead.
In the early 1990s, the managers of the Mott Foundation engaged my colleagues and me to develop a set of scenarios showing different possible futures for Flint — a city that had been badly stung by Michael Moore’s movie Roger and Me. The upshot of the exercise was a commitment to make Flint a better place to raise children — a manageable goal that gave a new focus to the foundation’s finite grant making. Looking out for the kids was both consistent with the original deed of the gift by the Mott family and in keeping with current needs in Flint. The city had been a great place to raise a family back when rust-belt manufacturing produced a living wage. But the new economy had cut many of the old jobs, and now it would take a bold initiative to make the city a better place for kids once again.
If you think your life is not finite, if you think you’re immortal, then you may act as if you’ve got time for everything. If you follow the existentialists in dwelling on death, however, each day of your life will gain both preciousness and a sense of existential urgency.
The National Education Association (NEA), America’s largest labor union — thought by some to be immovable, immortal, and unchangeable — benefited from an imaginative kick in the pants from a scenario entitled “One Flight Up.” That scenario told a story in which the NEA’s building in Washington, D.C., had been sold to Sylvan Learning Systems, which leased back to the NEA a small suite of offices located “one flight up” from the main entrance. After absorbing this scenario, the president of the NEA was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “If we don’t change the way we do business, we’ll be out of business in 10 years.” This statement, his colleagues declared, would have been unthinkable a few years earlier, before he’d looked death in the face.
The union did change. Under its next president, Bob Chase, the NEA adopted “new unionism,” a strategy focused less on wages and terms of employment and more on helping its members meet the challenges they were facing in the classroom.
Asking folks to look death in the eye is not easy. Being-toward-bankruptcy is no fun. Xerox needed a vivid scenario painting a picture of a world where the copier would converge with the scanner and computer printer, and the copier business would go away. We painted such a scenario … but it wasn’t scary enough to motivate change, and their denial of death led to real bankruptcy.
BP, which once stood for British Petroleum, looked down the cellar stairs at a world “Beyond Petroleum,” the new meaning for its initials. Scenarios that mimic being-toward-death can function as a kind of anticipatory disaster relief. A near-death experience lived in imagination can draw forth the passion that exists underneath smug self-satisfaction; that kind of motivation is needed to take the actions necessary to avoid real death. It can make managers care — a relatively weak word. The German equivalent, Sorge, has more urgency to it. It means to really care, to give a damn. It means something close to passion.