When Solutions Aren’t Scientific

Brian Brown

El Pomar Fellows spend two years studying the inner workings of foundations and theories of leadership. By the end of the program, this much is clear: funders love evaluation and so do most effective leaders. They want to know when something is working, and what can be changed to make it work better. As a group, we understand that. But what are we supposed to do when fixing a problem depends on hanging around with a horse, and knowing when it’s fixed is almost impossible?

Welcome to the challenging world of children’s mental health, the focus area of this year’s Ferrand Fund. The Ferrand Fund was left to El Pomar by Dorothy Ferrand, the wife of a Broadmoor hotel chef. Since 2005, El Pomar’s second-year Fellows have guided the selection process in honor of Mrs. Ferrand’s desire to aid “the education, medical, healthcare, dental, housing, and other needs of especially poor children and their parents” in the Pikes Peak region.

Part of the value of the Fund is that it can be directed toward things which, while effective, might not catch the eye of traditional funding sources. So when the 2011 Fellows elected to focus on mental health issues, they were able to solicit applications from organizations that in some cases had little hope of going beyond their anticipated budget. Final recommendations, which will be approved in June, will provide for needy children to get the direction and treatment they need to get (or continue) on the road to becoming productive members of society.

Not all philanthropists have the luxury the Fellows did in pursuing this area of need. Mental health can be a tough door for a funder to walk through. It involves a lot of educated guesses on the part of doctors, and often the solution requires things a medical doctor can’t offer. On top of this, “curing” the problem is often impossible, and knowing when it is sufficiently mitigated is difficult and often subjective.

A girl suffering from autism or OCD, for example, might not be cured by a simple medication—she might need counseling or therapy or a mix of hands-on treatment that isn’t found until the third or fourth try. Worse still, the therapy that finally works might involve methods that are not exactly industry-standard in the medical establishment.  The Pikes Peak Therapeutic Riding Center, for example, uses horses to help clients develop mental processes that had previously been impossible for them. While the picture of the kid on the horse is endearing, let’s face it—it doesn’t carry the same medical weight with most people that a trip to Walgreen’s does.

For these reasons and others, private funders in Colorado have historically left most mental health funding to the government. Pikes Peak region mental health facilities depend heavily on local, state, or federal government dollars; some have only recently begun to seek private funding at all. Sometimes funders need to stick to projects that can demonstrate concrete results. After all, massive well-meaning projects with no scientific support behind them have sometimes done more harm than good. But once in a while, when the nature of the problem demands it, a funder should recognize that not all solutions can be measured in numbers. The Fellowship taught us this, as well.

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One Response to “When Solutions Aren’t Scientific”

  1. Thank you SO much for this posting. It is exciting to see the work of the Fellows and to see you stretching the thinking on evaluation and funding. Pikes Peak Therapeutic Riding Center provides such a creative approach. We do use traditional evaluation tools and yet, at Imagination Celebration, we experience visible, hard-to-evaluate-impacts, as well. Our giant creatity community center, “Imagination Space” (20,000 sq ft) out at The Citadel mall has (among other things) a tinkering area. We have had 7 different occasions (within a few months) when a parent has come up to us to share their astonishment that their autistic son has elected to stay in our space for over an hour engaged in tinkering. Each time, they indicated that their son normally won’t be comfortable in public space. We are intrigued by this. We also have dozens of developmentally-challenged groups come in to “make stuff”. There is a connection here between “creative engagement” and healthy activities for mental health. We don’t have measurements for all of this. We just know that it is worth doing because we see the results of impact everyday.
    How exciting that you are willing to engage in this tough work and that you see that “success” can be challenging to define at times. Kudos to the Fellows for these efforts. This article reminds me that I need to find a previous research paper called “Measuring Joy.”
    One of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite scientists: “Not everything that matters can be measured and not everything that can be measured matters.”— Albert Einstein (and of course, he also said “I believe in intuition and inspiration. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.” Thanks for stretching your imagination about solutions and numbers!

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