Charles Harper knows a thing or two about the life of the mind. He took his undergraduate degree from Princeton University in civil and geological engineering. Later, he earned a Ph.D. from Balliol College, Oxford, for his research on the nature of time in cosmology. Since completing his education, he’s had appointments at NASA Johnson Space Center and at Harvard University, where he was named an associate of the Harvard College Observatory. While at Harvard, he made a number of significant discoveries about the formation some four and a half billion years ago of the Sun and planets.
He also knows a thing or two about theology and living one’s faith. He earned a Diploma in Theology from Oxford University, and spent his first years out of Princeton working in Pakistan and Thailand in disaster relief and refugee affairs, and in Oregon as a counselor at a Youth for Christ home for troubled boys.
In 1996 he was able to blend his interest in science and religion professionally when he was named executive director of the Templeton Foundation. There he has sought to further the vision of Sir John Templeton. Sir John made his fortune by creating some of the world’s largest and most successful international investment funds. He sold his various Templeton funds in 1992 to the Franklin Group for $440 million. Today he’s a philanthropist committed to creating new awareness of the understanding between theology and science by using an empirical methodology, the work for which the foundation is best known. Under Harper’s direction, Templeton Foundation has funded an extraordinary set of research projects in astrophysics, neurobiology, animal behavior, and other disciplines. This research is beginning to have a significant effect on the culture of science because it has encouraged many of the world’s leading scientific minds to ask fundamentally religious questions about the nature of man and the creation of the universe. The foundation is also on the cutting edge of research in spirituality and health, character development, and solutions to poverty based on free enterprise. Recently, the foundation has begun innovative research into venture philanthropy and performance-measurement.
With assets of nearly $300 million in 2000, the Templeton Foundation is now plotting its course for the next 100 years of research. It works in a consortium of three similarly capitalized independent foundations, two of them chartered in offshore domains, with the three together representing assets of approximately $1 billion. Harper talked with Philanthropy about the foundation, the Templeton Prize, and the variety of roles that philanthropy plays in society.
Philanthropy: When people think of Sir John Templeton as a philanthropist, they most often think of the Templeton Prize. What is the relationship of the Prize to the foundation?
Harper: It’s ironic the prize is what the foundation is best known for, because we don’t actually run it. The prize was run for 27 years directly out of Sir John’s offices in the Bahamas with the help of a very able director, Reverend Wilbert Forker. Sir John has directed various changes in the past three years since Wilbert retired.
Philanthropy: The Templeton Foundation has spent much energy learning how to measure success in philanthropy. Tell us about what you hope to accomplish.
Harper: We’re focused on being productive and on the general challenge of taking philanthropy seriously. Philanthropy grows out of charity, and the charitable reflex in philanthropy is precious. But professional philanthropy must also address the questions: What is productivity? What is excellence? and How can we learn from business, where a bottom line drives organizations to innovate?
Sentimentality is an enemy for philanthropy if it just rests on the charitable model. Our benefactor is keen on making decisions that are informed by as much quantitative rigor as possible. We don’t want to be involved in merely wishful thinking. It’s a matter of, “Does Project A work well, badly, or somewhere in the middle?” There’s a rigor in the entrepreneurial business world. We have to learn how to live by that kind of rigor.
Philanthropy: Do you mean to remove sentimentality from philanthropy?
Harper: When I say that sentimentality is the enemy, I’m not saying that matters of the heart should be ignored. What I mean is that philanthropists are tempted to say that performance doesn’t matter, that the effects of a grant don’t matter, that learning from failure and success doesn’t matter. It’s your intention that matters. If philanthropy asks nothing more of you than purity of intention, I would call that sentimentality.
In the case of our foundation, a philanthropist who’s an entrepreneur has asked us to engage in entrepreneurial philanthropy; he has empowered a large group of people like a business, put a lot of capital in the project, and said, “You’re a foundation and I want innovation and responsibility.” We are responding, “Yes, sir. That’s a great challenge, and we’re going to go after it with as much dynamism as we can. We’re going to find good people, search for best practices; we’re going to work very hard on innovating to leverage productivity.”
Philanthropy: The cornerstone of the Templeton Foundation is to bring theologians and scientists together to explore the boundaries between their two disciplines. But, Sir John said he finds “scientists to be more helpful than theologians” in starting the religion and science dialogue. Why aren’t more theologians at the forefront of the foundation’s work?
Harper: The very best people in our arena are people who live in both worlds. The complexity of science dictates that if you’re going to be part of both worlds, you have to become engaged early in life. Being deeply involved in the intellectual side of the religious life is something that can be done when people are more mature. People who are in both worlds in depth are often the most helpful. Theologians are vital as well, but few know science well.
Philanthropy: Has the foundation succeeded in bringing theologians and scientists together?
Harper: I’d say the foundation has reached maybe one-quarter of 1 percent of its potential. We’re only just beginning-we’ve only been doing things to scale for eight or nine years-and the challenges are high and the learning process for a young foundation and the donor who is very involved is a substantial one. The effort is very much against the grain. I’ve made some stark comments to our trustees that we’re not even beginning to be successful, that we must look at the degree to which we haven’t even begun to address the challenges before us. It would be realistic to say that the foundation doesn’t have a lot to brag about. The challenge of constructively transforming intellectual life is very big, and whether you’re talking about a topic like the study of freedom, or the engagement between science and theology, or the question of secularism, the idea of just leaping in and in a few years changing the mind of the academy is somewhat bizarre. A more humble perspective, I think, is appropriate. We certainly do not have the answers. Maybe we are just beginning to generate some of the questions.
Philanthropy: You said “a more humble perspective.” The foundation focuses sharply on something it calls the “humble approach.” What is it?
Harper: The motto of the “humble approach” is “how little we know, how eager to learn.” It is a good antidote to a common mode of religious close-mindedness which says, “We know it all, why bother to learn more?” The humble approach is also an antidote to scientific hubris, which yearns to capture the genie of reality within a little on-the-shelf “nothing but” bottle.
Humility says that maybe we have strong limits on what we can know. Try teaching algebra or astronomy to a squirrel, for example. You won’t get very far. In the same way that a squirrel’s reality has limits, so too our view of reality comes with limits. Maybe we live on a little tiny island within an infinite ocean of wonder? If we are eager to learn, what might we find? So you can see the “humble approach” is not really a method. It is an attitude. More to the point it is a sense of hope about the possibility of investing boldly and expecting that maybe, just maybe, the richness of reality is deep enough to allow us to expect big surprises.
Philanthropy: The foundation’s willingness to take risks and do cutting-edge research sets Templeton apart. What projects are on the horizon?
Harper: We have a big program that is about to distribute some $2 million on the topic of spiritual transformation. It’s attracting all sorts of people interested in the study of drastic life change, ranging from neuroscientists to social scientists-such as those interested in John DiIulio’s world of faith-based social services-to people who want to study meditation. We’ve also funded another roughly $10 million program that just made its first set of competitive research awards: $1.8 million to study “unlimited” love-altruistic and spiritual love, or what the Greeks called agape. The program received over 400 serious applications. The quality of the scholars involved is quite high. In these kinds of projects a major challenge is to provide attractive ways to bring talented scholars together from science and theology and religious studies. We are just beginning, we hope, to build the foundations for an evolving academic culture that knows how to do this, enjoys it, benefits from its dynamism, and learns how to navigate its unavoidable pitfalls.
Philanthropy: What type of things is Sir John doing to ensure that donor intent is followed at the foundation? Will the foundation sunset, or continue in perpetuity?
Harper: As long as I’ve been with him, he’s been working with his lawyers to develop a set of chartered bylaws that are carefully designed to ensure donor intent. He’s pioneering in this regard. There is a kind of accounting procedure related to donor intent, where expert reviewers are commissioned to assess the foundation’s record of grantmaking in relation to the charter. Lawyers adjudicate these reports, and there are serious consequences involved, it’s quite innovative and complex and serious. He’s also been careful to work with us over the years to make sure his intent is clearly understood. It’s written up in books and discussed on video so we all understand it and work with it. It’s liberating to have a focus.
Philanthropy: Character-building programs are an important part of what the foundation does. Who was important in developing your character?
Harper: I had a great character-building experience in high school with a football coach named Chick Chikowski, who was a Chicago mean-streets SOB. He didn’t care about problems of overstress. He was like a Parris Island Marine Corps sergeant. I’m so glad he was a part of my life instead of some soft, thoughtful, humane fellow concerned about our feelings and relationships. This is a “guy thing” for sure, but one that taught me success means a lot of extra effort, pain-be-damned, and the willingness to address an approaching challenge head on and tackle it-as he would say-“right in the numbers.”
I was also shaped profoundly by a number of salt-of-the-earth religious leaders, including stirring Calvinist fundamentalists: principled oaks of the forests of Middle America who taught me about the holiness of God and the crooked timber of humanity, including principally myself. Along the way, I was molded and shaped especially by two extraordinary Christian leaders. The first was the great Scotsman and Christian humanist Ernst Gordon, the chaplain of Princeton and the focus of the new film To End All Wars. The second was the English scholar-evangelist John Stott. Both were men of vision who showed me how to take what is good from fundamentalism while leaving the problematic baggage behind in order to make further adventure possible.
Lastly, working with Sir John has been an excellent experience. It has greatly enhanced my respect for the practical and entrepreneurial aspects of character that lead to long-term success in the business world. I have come to understand that those of us who live mostly in the intellectual arena too often contemptuously ignore the wisdom of the best business leaders at the peril of our success in life.
Philanthropy:What is philanthropy’s greatest weakness today?
Harper: There are many weaknesses. A lot of philanthropy is clearly counterproductive. The Philanthropy Roundtable’s associates tend to the center-right, and I’m part of that world. From that viewpoint one can see all sorts of mischief perpetrated on American culture through philanthropic sources. There also is a tendency among wealthy people to do a kind of “our crowd” philanthropy. That is, philanthropy largely encompassed by cocktail parties, wine and cheese get-togethers, fancy celebratory dinners, and supporting the opera. While I enjoy the opera and recognize it is often a worthy cause, I think wealthy communities of people do have a tendency toward frivolous philanthropy that is essentially self-serving. And frivolous philanthropy is just not bold enough and innovative enough in my book for the kind of world we live in.
I tread with some trepidation in this area, because philanthropy is a free activity, and if some people love, say, the opera, I see no reason why they should be criticized as if there is one standard of what’s worthy and productive in philanthropy. It’s part of the dynamic of a free society and one of the glories of philanthropy that it goes in many, indeed often eccentric, directions. Nonetheless, those of us commissioned to work hard on entrepreneurial philanthropy-to adopt business-like models and goals, and count the costs of achieving them-necessarily would look at some forms of philanthropy as frivolous. Real innovation is not possible if we do not take seriously the horizon for massive future improvement in the effectiveness of philanthropic investing.