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Losing my faith in philanthropy led me to rediscover its power to change the world for good

Gyorgy Varga/AP
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

On Christmas Eve 2012, I was seriously considering quitting my job at the Gates Foundation. As I confessed to my wife, Emily, while wrapping presents, “I no longer believe in philanthropy.”

I’d been at the foundation since the early days, rising from an entry-level analyst to R&D Lead for Maternal and Child Health, where I led the launch of the Grand Challenges Explorations program and published a number of articles in top journals like Science and The Lancet.

By all professional measures I was “outperforming,” as we would describe successful grants. After one annual review, Bill Gates remarked at the high-degree of “actionable information” in my portfolio. Yet, despite the praise, there I was disillusioned and disconsolate.

My doubts went beyond the usual critiques of rich-country philanthropists imposing foreign values or scientists pursuing unrealistic pipe dreams. My questions were more fundamental and vexing. Am I changing the world for the better? Or am I deceiving myself into thinking I’m changing the world—through the smokescreen of Powerpoint, self-importance, and a brand-name employer?

Surely, the story of global health and development is a happy one, due in no small part to the generosity and intellect of Bill and Melinda Gates. Millions of lives, every one with vast potential, have been saved.  And there is a familiar algorithm at the heart of recent success: Science + innovation + delivery = progress. It’s an elegant formula, but the longer I worked within it, the more I felt something was missing.

So at midnight on Christmas Eve, I e-mailed my resignation letter. I already knew what I wanted to do next. The scientist in me was utterly fascinated by a series of recent discoveries: That we are actually a super-organism made of human, bacterial, and viral parts—a concept known as the microbiome. The entrepreneur in me could smell the dawn of a new industry. After raising venture capital and building a team to found the company, I happily spent almost three years nerding-out to my heart’s content, identifying the keystone species in this dynamic bacterial ecosystem. Symbiosis, anyone?

Life was good. I’d found meaning in an unexpected place: The creation of a new venture. I made more decisions in one day than I’d made in a month of earnest foundation-work. We were attempting to disrupt a trillion-dollar industry using the best that human (and microbial) ingenuity had to offer.

So, nobody was more surprised than me (or Emily) when the ideas of a free-thinking capitalist by the name of Sir John Templeton flipped my world upside down.

Known as one of the top five investors of the 20th century, this clear-eyed financial wizard’s key insight was that something as boring as theology could be completely disrupted by the same tools that have disrupted everything else: Rigorous data, competition, an adventurous spirit, and most importantly the courage to change course when the conventional approach isn’t working.

One line from his obituary in the Economist completely captured my attention:

“… most of all Sir John went long on God. As a lifelong Presbyterian with a devout and curious mind, he reckoned that the market price of the creator of the universe was probably 1% of its actual value…”

Over the course of three months, I devoured the entire Templeton canon. I had fallen under the spell of a man I would never meet, but for on the page. It got so bad that Emily begged me not to bring so many hardbound Sir John books on family vacations. “Kindle, sweetheart,” she begged.

By the end of this immersion, I was not only a bonafide Templetonian student, but I had also, by fate or luck, found myself sitting for a job interview to run the nascent Templeton World Charity Foundation.

As I sat in my rental car, I thought back to the dark night three years earlier, when I’d lost my faith in philanthropy. What could account for this sudden change of direction? Had the world changed, or had I?

To me, Sir John was asking really important questions well outside of the mainstream. He wanted to know if something as seemingly old-fashioned as theology could be revolutionized by the same tools that have disrupted everything else: Rigorous data, competition, and the courage to change course when the conventional approach isn’t working. His brief was unique, optimistic, and fearless. I realized I was drawn to places where conventional wisdom is challenged, and where progress is possible.

I’d also come to appreciate something about philanthropy itself, and its unique role in our world. By stepping out of that sleek conference room in Seattle I now understood that there are ideas, projects, and visions that only philanthropy can pursue. Only philanthropy is free to pursue the Big Questions—purpose, meaning, and truth—in ways that governments or commercial enterprises cannot.

But just like every facet of our world, from the music business to the taxi business, philanthropy is undergoing important—and necessary—changes.

Thanks to a connected world and cognitive surplus, ideas and innovations can materialize in the blink of an eye. Universities no longer have a monopoly on intellectual talent, nor are they the bastions of creative thinking that we have long perceived. For example, the most creative thinkers on artificial intelligence have been vacuumed up by large and small companies. The standing bounty on a top AI Researcher from a top school in Silicon Valley right now is $2 million per year.

So, to maintain relevance in a fast-moving culture and to continue making an impact—that cherished word invoked in every end-of-year glossy report—today’s philanthropy can’t do things the same old way. Being prestigious is no longer a guarantee of being relevant in this new world.

If there’s anything that the first 17 years of this century have taught me, it is that careful, safe, incremental thinking is not where the big ideas hide out. At the Templeton World Charity Foundation, we think that genetics, computer science, and astronomy can teach us just as much as the scripture and tradition, united by a common view that spiritual progress is possible.

We humbly ask: Can we hack the obstacles to meaning and purpose? Can technology be used to increase our moral skill? Can forgiveness go viral?

Recently, I met with a group of ten African scientists who are designing a series of trials to increase forgiveness. I went into the meeting a skeptic and emerged convinced of their rigorous approach—careful controls, independent measures, and testable hypotheses. In point of fact, I learned there have been over 50 trials the majority of which show significant efficacy! But the most exciting thing was the combination of the best of scientific insight and spiritual wisdom in service of human flourishing.

As I recounted the conversation that night to Emily, a smile spread across her face. “What?” I asked. “You’re excited to be at the frontier,” she said, “and that is where you should be.”

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