What Would Hippocrates Do?

By Henry Berman, Exponent Philanthropy

Each quarter, I write to our member donors to pass along insights I gather in my dual role as Exponent Philanthropy member and CEO, and to provide a special window onto our activities. My most recent communication—sent last month—sparked many positive notes in return. I’m pleased to share it here with our broader community, and I encourage each of you to consider supporting Exponent Philanthropy.

In the wake of January’s inauguration, President Trump has quickly demonstrated his commitment to change. I’ve spoken with people across the political spectrum in the funding and nonprofit communities, and many have been uneasy at best in these early months of 2017. Although every administration and new Congress experience growing pains, business as usual is being redefined this year. Wherever you stand politically, change certainly is in the air. 

Amid this year’s changes, I paused in my doctor’s waiting room recently, reading a brochure about new medical school graduates that referenced the Hippocratic Oath’s most famous line: First, do no harm. This triggered my thinking (and online exploring) to learn more about the oath. 

I discovered first that Hippocrates didn’t include the well-known phrase in his oath, but in another of his works, Of the Epidemics; regardless of the source, the message is one that I believe aptly applies to all of us who make grants, share knowledge, convene stakeholders, and otherwise act in pursuit of our philanthropic missions. 

We too can cause harm by asking for unreasonable reports, setting unrealistic timelines, or urging a grantee to follow our vision rather than their own. We can come to relationships unaware of our biases, or otherwise interfere with a grantee’s health or growth. I dare say most of us have fallen short in our work at one time or another—I know I have—and I challenge us all to be even more mindful of our actions starting today. 

My foray into learning about the Hippocratic Oath also taught me that many medical schools use updated versions, which makes sense given that things have changed since Hippocrates lived in the early Fifth Century. In one version I found two lines that resonated loudly for philanthropy as well as medicine:

  • I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.
  • I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

Substitute “patient” with “grant recipient,” and these too become guiding principles to ground each of us in our work. They certainly help me remember the privilege of philanthropy I’ve been given, as well as the responsibility linked to it, especially in the uncharted waters here in Washington that ripple across our nation. They also make me grateful for the friends and colleagues I have met through Exponent Philanthropy, who I can call on for advice or a listening ear when I am able to say without shame, “I know not.”

Henry Berman

Henry Berman became Exponent Philanthropy’s CEO in 2011, previously serving as acting CEO, board member, and committee member. Through his experience as a foundation co-trustee and Exponent Philanthropy member since 2003, he brings a firsthand understanding of the needs of members to his role. Follow Henry on Twitter @Berman_Henry.

Photo credit: Ferdi de Gier (Flickr)

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