You may not know much about an ancient Greek mathematician and inventor named Archimedes. But I bet you know the most famous thing he said.
The king of Syracuse once asked Archimedes to investigate a possible fraud. The king had hired some artisans to make a crown out of an ingot of pure gold. When he received it, the king feared the goldsmiths had swindled him by substituting silver for some of the gold.
Melting it down would have uncovered the truth, of course, but destroyed the crown in the process. Momentarily stumped, Archimedes decided to take a bath. When he got into the water, its level rose. “Eureka!” he exclaimed — “I have found it” in Greek. He realized that comparing the buoyancy of the crown and an equal weight of pure gold would answer the king’s question.
Although Archimedes lived a long time ago, modern-day folks trying to do good would benefit from applying his principles.
In my role as president of the John William Pope Foundation, I’ve learned that while it’s easy to give money, it’s difficult to give money away well. There’s no shortage of promising ideas turned into well-meaning enterprises by well-meaning people. Alas, many have disappointing results.
Evaluating organizations by the number of dollars raised, or workers and volunteers recruited, or programs operated is obviously wrongheaded — like weighing the king’s crown and proclaiming it genuine without a valid means of comparison. On the other hand, when you do find a group that appears to be producing great outcomes, it can be hard to figure out exactly why.
It’s often best to look at intermediate effects, at the program-evaluation counterpart to the water level in Archimedes’ bathtub. Comparing measures across groups engaged in similar work can shed light on the value added, the return the organization gets on every dollar or volunteer hour invested in it.
You can see two other Archimedean principles displayed in the work of The Green Chair Project, one of our foundation’s Joy Pope Memorial Grant winners for 2021. Green Chair serves low-income families with furnishings donated by households and businesses. “Lives change when families and individuals are nurtured and sustained in well-equipped homes,” the Raleigh-based nonprofit observes. We’ve just awarded Green Chair a $50,000 grant to purchase a second, much-larger truck for its pickup and delivery service.
Among other things, Archimedes was a master of mechanics. “Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the earth,” he reportedly said. Leverage is a powerful tool for social enterprises, too. While buying another truck has a significant upfront cost, Green Chair will save money it used to spend on last-minute contract movers. Moreover, the truck’s larger size will allow the organization to carry as many as three households-worth of furniture at a time, making its pickups and deliveries more efficient — all the while boosting community awareness because every trip will be taken by a truck bearing the Green Chair logo.
Now consider the water pump called Archimedes’ screw. Rather than raise water laboriously by hand or a series of sloshy buckets on a paddlewheel, it pumps water ever upward by using a crank or engine to spin a screw fitted tightly inside a cylinder.
When an enterprise starts achieving early success, it is often tempted to expand its work beyond its core competence. After all, no single program is sufficient to fix a massive social problem. But different jobs require different tools. Just because you are good at designing, building, and using one tool doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy comparable success with another.
The Green Chair Project’s clients often need multiple services: food, job training, counseling, substance-abuse treatment, etc. Still, Green Chair sticks to its core competence, providing home furnishings, and then refers clients to other community partners.
Doing good is about more than seeking good. It’s about creating structures and programs that align individual incentives with sustainable results. Supporting The Green Chair Project has been one such “Eureka” moment for us.
John Hood is president of the John William Pope Foundation and author of the forthcoming novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.