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When Solutions Aren’t Scientific

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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.