Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Low Hanging Fruit

I began my career in higher education advancement on February 4, 1980. Now, some thirty years later, I end that phase of my career and begin a new one. Rather than represent a single institution, I am creating a company, Langley Innovations, to represent the interests of advancement professionals everywhere, to help them realize opportunities through strategic insight and the creative engagement of their constituencies, and to preserve and enhance the highest purposes of philanthropy itself.

William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet, once likened life to ascending a spiral staircase whereby we pass over the same point again and again but each time from a higher and therefore broader perspective. Having made my way more than a few flights of that staircase, I can't help but see philanthropy in much broader terms than I did decades ago. I now see with great clarity the utter futility of short-term approaches to building philanthropic support, of treating that challenge as if it were only about the quick and easy harvesting of low-hanging fruit and the not the growing of an orchard. Yet, rather than rail, I have written a story that I hope will help others see what life has taught me. I will share it with you in segments in the coming weeks. Please enjoy Part One:

The Parable of the Low Hanging Fruit

There once was a great scholar named Omniscio who was known far and wide for his vast knowledge and searching intellect. All the great institutions of learning of the time vied for his attention and courted him for it was widely held that the center of scholarly universe was wherever Omniscio chose to be. And no one knew this, or anything else for that matter, better than Omniscio. He traveled from institution to institution and, if any fell short of his astronomic expectations, he quickly moved on to the next. Finally, after moving many times, Omniscio announced that the only academy that could ever meet his towering standards would be one of his own creation.

And, no sooner had he announced the formation of his plans did towns offer him handsome tracts of land, and no sooner did he accept the most perfect parcel did applications come pouring in from the most promising students and the children of the most prominent families. The subsequent payments from these wealthy families made it possible for Omniscio to attract the most accomplished scholars and highly regarded teachers. In short order he found himself presiding over the most prestigious academy in the land.

The Academy d’Omniscio was run with mathematical precision. Everything that could be measured was – whether it was the number of treatises produced by the faculty or the amount of mutton consumed in any given month, the scores on exams according to the time of day they were administered or the burn rate of candles in various rooms during various weather conditions. Enormous amounts of information were gathered and analyzed for Omniscio wanted to understand every conceivable variable that might affect the learning process and the production of scholarship. He produced detailed month-by-month charts, taking great pride when measures of productivity were on the rise but becoming very cross when they crested and began to decline. And, at the earliest indication of decline, Omniscio immersed himself in a sea of details searching for any telltale clue or potential culprit. But, to his growing consternation, answers could not always be found to explain either the rise or loss of productivity – and Omniscio was not accustomed to not having answers. The longer the mystery remained, the more miserable he became despite the fact that his school was, by all accounts and all objective measures, an unparalleled success.

“But I don’t know why,” brooded the great scholar. “And, if don’t know why, I can’t replicate and sustain the successes nor can I predict or prevent the declines?”

Omniscio became obsessed with the question “why” and grew grimmer and gaunter with each passing week. He thrust the incisive prongs of his pronounced intellect into stacks of information as a peasant with a pitchfork attacks a great field of hay when winter grows near. But it was all to no avail. Then, just as he seemed teetering on the edge of madness, his eye brought together a set of facts that he had dismissed as disparate many times before. “Could it be more than a coincidence,” he wondered, “that our most remarkable periods of productivity occur when the academy’s compost heap is particularly large?” And, since school was enjoying such a peak at that very moment, the great scholar asked that a bucket of compost be brought to his study not thinking of the many wisecracks his students would make upon learning of this request. But it must be remembered that the pursuit of knowledge does not always take one over the smoothest roads or through the most sweetly-scented meadows.

As Omniscio analyzed the compost to determine what was adding to its bulk and, perhaps, slowing its rate of decay, he was struck most immediately by the large number of fruit pits it contained. He called his provisioner, Schiavo, who kept the academy supplied with the necessities of life, to his study and bade him bring every record pertaining to every bit of food that had been purchased since the Academy had opened. Once those accounts were in hand, the scholar, his mind now racing with the prospect of discovery, soon saw a stunning pattern emerge. The greatest periods of scholarly productivity occurred when the largest quantities of fruit were in supply. He double and triple-checked his information and carefully plotted the chart before calling his provisioner back.

“Look!” said the scholar with a hopeful croak, holding out his chart with a trembling hand. All Schiavo could see was a listing of fruit purchases but he knew it was somehow very important to his master.

“Ah, fruit!” he exclaimed.

“Yes, exactly!” chirped the scholar. “You see it, too.”

“I see fruit, yes, I do, as plain as the nose on my face.”

“So plain, so plain,” sang the scholar. “I can only wonder why I didn’t see it before.”

At this point, Schiavo wasn’t certain if the subject was the fruit or his nose.

“Well, it’s always been there,” he offered.

“You mean you knew?” gasped the scholar.

“Knew what?”

“This,” he said, stabbing his bony finger into the chart. “The potency of fruit.”

Schiavo had never thought about it that way but thought it best to agree with a man who knew far more than he. “Well, yes I did. Truth be known, I did know about the fruit – seeing as I was the one to purchase it.”

“Then what is this?” asked the scholar, pointing to a section of the chart, his voice now taking on a sudden edge. After all, how was it possible that this simple provisioner knew something, anything, before him?

“What is what?” Schiavo queried not understanding what the scholar was pointing at.

“Don’t you see?” pressed the scholar, now finding it important to show this man who knew more. Schiavo continued to look bewildered. “This, this!” scolded the scholar stabbing his finger at the same spot on the chart. “Our very highest peak of productivity, significantly higher than all others yet the amount of fruit purchased is no different.”

Schiavo remembered being in the forest with his father as a boy. His father, with a seasoned hunter’s discerning eye, was always the first to pick up the faintest movement of a fawn amid the foliage. He would point and whisper in his son’s tender ear, “There! Don’t you see?” But he could not. He could not see what his father saw then. He could not see what Omniscio saw now.

“What was it about this particular supply of fruit?” screeched the scholar, still jabbing with his forefinger.

Schiavo looked at the date of purchase and thought perhaps he could now distinguish the deer from the thicket.

“I remember a special lot, a … a … lot of … plums, very large plums” Schiavo stammered while trying to squeeze more pith from his past by clamping his large hand on his forehead. “The fruit monger made a fuss over them … yes, yes .. and said I was fortunate to be able to buy them.”

“Where?” quoth his icy inquisitor.

“Why, it was Sentana … or Grantini .. perhaps Forfuna,” the provisior postulated while trying to remember the mien of the fruit monger and the market where he met him.

“You don’t know?” cross-examined the scholar, heavily mortaring the stones of his building indictment with contempt.

“I go from market to market buying what I can here and there. It’s never the same,” the defendant demurely demurred.

“But this had to be superior fruit,” Omniscio upbraided. “Don’t you know superior fruit when you see it? Don’t you make some note of it?

The provisioner tried to explain that he could record only so much because different fruits had different seasons and different yields from season to season so that he had to buy from many different sources to ensure that the Academy always had an adequate supply on hand.

“Just find the fruit,” uttered Omniscio menacingly, lest the provisioner not understand the urgency of his ultimatum.

“I will go in the morrow,” promised Schiavo.

“At first light,” insisted Omniscio. “Those plums may be all that stand between this academy and immortality.”

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