Serendipity and the Genius of Cause-Related Marketing Monies

I caught a lecture yesterday delivered by the new Dean of the College of Science at the University of Utah, Dr. Pierre Sokolsky, a physicist, that was strangely relevant to cause-related marketing.

Although there were faculty members in the audience, the audience could be described as more as science boosters rather than scientists. (I was there after all).

Dean Sokolsky talked about funding, as deans will, and he said that while the college has done just fine attracting Federal and private research dollars, he lamented the degree to which research proposals these days require proof in advance of efficacy. Grant applications require not only that you describe the problem, but the expected answer, too.

He wasn’t just talking about having a hypothesis before you start, which of course is central to the scientific method. He was saying that modern research grant applications are funded in part on how clearly you can predict the results.

But of course science doesn’t always work this way. Everywhere you look there is evidence of scientific accidents. The discovery of penicillin comes to mind. But also discoveries and developments being used in ways never intended or dreamed of.

If you’re reading this through a browser it’s because the US Department of Defense built the Internet for exchanging information. If you’re reading this on the World Wide Web, it’s because CERN, the scientific agency in Switzerland, built the web to smooth the exchange of information between particle physicists worldwide.

There countless other examples.

Causes seeking the world over have the same complaint as Dean Sokolsky. Funders expect accountability and results, as they should. But what’s been lost in all this is serendipity, which is by nature unpredictable, expensive and fortunate. Remember DuPont researchers stumbled upon Teflon while trying to develop a better refrigerant.

The beauty of cause-related marketing funds is that while ethical accountability is certainly expected as the money is raised and spent, there is not the same expectation of how the money will be used as when you apply for a grant. Nonprofit professionals can typically spend cause-related marketing funds the way that makes the most sense to them, not the way that is most likely to attract flavor-of-the-month research funds.

In short, cause-related marketing monies can fund serendipity.

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