When asked for an example of philanthropy at its most effective, Tom Tierney, author of “Give Smart: Philanthropy that Gets Results,” likes to talk about a (largely-forgotten) metallurgist named John Dorr, who changed the way we drive.
In the early 1950s, highways only had one set of lines, that ran down the middle of the road. At night, or in bad weather, drivers clung to the center line, dangerously close to each other. Dorr’s wife suggested to him that painting lines on the outside of the road, effectively creating driving lanes, might reduce accidents.
Dorr pitched the idea to highway commissioners in New York and Connecticut, and initial tests showed that the lanes did indeed reduce accidents. However, the process of the painting lines was expensive, and state authorities needed to be convinced. Dorr, who was wealthy, used money from his own philanthropic foundation to conduct more tests, and to advocate for adoption of the lines, and, in time he made his case, leading to the near-universal presence of driving lanes.
“There’s a kind of philanthropy we’re all familiar with, and most Americans participate in, and that’s charity,” said Tierney, who is co-founder of the non-profit Bridgespan Group, which helps philanthropists get better results for their money. “There’s another kind of philanthropy, however, that’s not addressing the consequences of problems, but working to solve those problems.”
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