I played an April Fool’s Day prank on the Jewish Funders Network staff last week. I told them a major funder wanted to have Pluto designated a planet once again.

As you may remember, poor Pluto was “downgraded” in 2006 and is now a mere dwarf planet that’s no longer a full-fledged member of the solar system. This imaginary funder was willing to invest significant money in a scientific crusade to redeem Pluto. He also, purportedly, believed the project would engender close collaborations between American and Israeli astrophysicists and make Israel a leader in the field.

The staff fell hook, line and sinker into researching whether any Israeli university was concerned about this or whether other funders would be interested. At a meeting I scheduled about the “Pluto project,” it was apparent no one had looked at the calendar. I soon put the staff out of their misery.

Being the boss gives you a certain impunity with regards to bad jokes, but I felt a little (just a little) bad about the prank. So I consoled myself by saying that maybe it was really more of an experiment that said something not about the staff’s gullibility but Jewish philanthropy. After all, they are intelligent people who know the Jewish philanthropic community better than anybody, and believed it was plausible a “major Jewish funder” would invest in such a project. They are so used to seeing whimsical funding decisions and capricious definitions of priorities that it sounded odd, but not completely out of this world.

Now, is it that good or bad?

Probably a little of both.

Independent philanthropy must navigate a thin line between the fanciful and realistic; the far-fetched and proven; the merely risky and outright foolhardy. It’s about taking risks that communal philanthropy – or the state – can’t and probably shouldn’t, take. For example, should the government invest millions in researching a drug that might cure cancer but for which evidence is flimsy? Or should that money be spent on fighting obesity, which we know has a positive effect on health and life expectancy?

Independent philanthropists don’t have a fiduciary responsibility to donors or taxpayers. So they can, and should, take bigger risks than communal philanthropy–like the Jewish Federations–as they don’t have to maintain a network of services and programs to cover basic needs.

Philanthropy needs to both support the basic network of the community and act as its R&D department. It can back new, seemingly crazy ideas and see if they work. In Israel, for example, there are great instances of collaboration where philanthropists pilot-tested social projects, after which the government took them over once their efficacy was proven.

Now, being more open to creative ideas isn’t a license to be capricious, erratic or impulsive. Philanthropy must use its freedom responsibly. It may be legal for a foundation to invest in bringing back Pluto, but it’s certainly not legitimate, even on April 1.

There are five things funders must do to avoid falling into whimsical funding:

  • Research and know the field. You could mine for gold and hit a vein by blasting random holes in the ground, but you have a better chance if you consult a geologist. Research in the Jewish community is, unfortunately, devalued, but it’s more expensive when not done.
  • Strategic clarity. Many bad funding decisions can be avoided by asking a simple question: what is the problem my funding is trying to solve?
  • Talk to others. Funders must consult and cross-pollinate with peers and partners.
  • Keep a balance between focus and flare. There are moments when funders must allow new ideas to flourish. It is also necessary, however, to stay focused on key initiatives so long-term effects are more apparent.
  • Evaluate the right things. If I’m to assess the “Pluto project” I could say a scholarly paper proves it should be considered a planet. But is that success? Evaluation must ask hard questions about ultimate outcomes.

Funders can effect change by taking large risks and funding untested ideas. They also live with the permanent danger – temptation even – of erratic and whimsical funding. Keeping the balance is critical; it is like walking on a tightrope in space.

We need to do it carefully, for if we fall to one side we fall into the black hole of the status quo; if we fall to the other, we are drifting in space looking for Pluto.