Notes from the President: Excellence (Winter 2004 Trust Magazine article)

Notes from the President: Excellence (Winter 2004 Trust Magazine article)

In Search of Excellence, the Peters and Waterman book that appeared in 1982, must have hit a national nerve, because it enjoyed more than two years on the top of The New York Times best-seller list, with more than 5 million copies sold. And one thing is certain: We are still in search of excellence. Obviously that book, as fine as it was, did not exhaust the possibilities.

And for good reason--because excellence refers to reaching a level that exceeds expectations, and it seems to be human nature to constantly want to raise the bar. 

Experience has taught us at the Trusts that, by supporting innovative thinking and risk-taking, our talented partners will set--and achieve--goals that yesterday scarcely seemed possible. 

This issue of Trust tells of three examples of recognized excellence. One is our Religion program's Centers of Excellence, based at major research universities that have deservedly earned enviable reputations for scholarship. These institutions have long and distinguished histories of investing in the scientific method--detached, analytical--and it has served them well across the spectrum of studies from the basic and social sciences to the humanities. 

This approach has made the American research university second to none in the world, but it has not provided a nurturing climate for religious studies, a field that did not seem to fit secular-oriented, fact-based methods of scholarship. Yet religious belief is no stranger to Americans, who hold and have always held strong religious convictions. 

For the Trusts, which supported religious projects from our earliest years, it was simply unacceptable for such an important aspect of American life to receive so little scholarly attention in such important American institutions as our universities. And so, starting in the late 1990s, the Trusts established Centers of Excellence at 10 universities to help make religious studies a rigorous scholarly topic. 

Investigators based in a wide variety of fields have now come together in interdisciplinary activities that describe religion's place in political, social and cultural affairs and improve our understanding of the undeniably powerful, motivating force religion plays all over the world. It awakens the “better angels of our nature” (to quote Abraham Lincoln)--yet unleashes divisiveness, intolerance and even war. Unflinchingly, in the scholarly spirit, these Centers are giving us a deep sense of religion's enormous impact in our public life. 

Business excellence is customarily thought to be a goal of for-profit companies, rather than nonprofit organizations, but it would be shortsighted to assume that nonprofits are different. They too have deliverables, are responsible for measurable results and should be adding value for their stakeholders--the citizens they serve. 

The fact is that well-run organizations, regardless of the sector, achieve excellence for exactly the same reasons. They have strong, outcomes-driven leadership, a focused strategic vision and the means to reach it. Their business plans are accountable and achievable. They encourage and reward creativity, entrepreneurship, results and--the most valuable resource of all--talented people. 

These are the principles underlying the Partnership on Nonprofit Ventures, supported by the Yale University School of Management, the Goldman Sachs Foundation and the Trusts. The Partnership rewards excellence through an annual competition for profit-generating enterprises of nonprofit organizations. Nonprofits with promising but under-developed ventures receive advice on improving their business plans, and the best plans receive start-up capital and professional guidance. Their experience demonstrates that excellence depends not on a business plan's point of origin but on the caliber, integrity and spirit of the organization and its ability to learn, absorb and adapt good ideas. 

Excellence is also a goal of the Pew Biomedical Scholars Program, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. We knew from the beginning that we were investing in the early careers of the best and brightest--after all, proven success is a criterion of selection. Over the years, many Scholars have made seminal discoveries, advancing their fields, opening new avenues of investigation and even establishing new sub-disciplines, all the while winning recognition for their important contributions. Their excellence is evident in achievements and also in the vision and the courage to take informed risks that have culminated in their accomplishments. 

Last fall, Roderick MacKinnon, a Pew Scholar from 1992 to 1996, won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discoveries about ion channels. He took to heart the boldness that the Program encourages: Twice in his still-evolving career (he is only 48 years old), he left the traditional path. And he conducted his remarkable studies despite the doubts of some scientists that they were even possible to perform. The Trusts congratulate Dr. MacKinnon on his achievements and the possibilities his work holds for the future. 

All of our partners' striving for excellence reinforces our commitment to add encouragement and resources to the high expectations that true leaders bring to their work--and to foster excellence, however it might be exemplified, in the public interest.

Rebecca Rimel is the President and CEO of the Pew Charitable Trusts.