Impulse 75: Board Notes


Mark Laskow

If we are open to it, a minor administrative detail can give insight into an important issue. Just such a detail nudged me into thinking more carefully just what it is that the Carnegie Hero Fund does for the heroes. Fundamentally, the Hero Fund marches to the beat of the instructions laid down by Andrew Carnegie in 1904. We award heroic acts with a medal and monetary hero grant and provide financial support to injured heroes and survivors of deceased heroes. But is that all, or is there something else here? Yes, emphatically yes.

The detail that set me thinking is a widely used measure of good governance by nonprofit organizations: the total spending that goes toward beneficiaries, such as Carnegie heroes and their families, compared to the cost to run the organization.

Our direct spending on medals and grants is not especially high in a relative sense. We spend much more investigating the cases to select the heroes and administering the fund to allow for case investigation, award consideration, and medal presentation. The Hero Fund does not fundraise, but members of the Commission do discuss this metric to assess our efficiency, and the discussion that follows begs the question: is case investigation “overhead,” or do the heroes benefit from it in any way? In my judgment, if there is no investigation there is no medal, or at least no medal that means as much. It certainly would not be the Carnegie Medal we award to our heroes today.

The honor due a hero derives solely from his or her own courageous act. They would be due this honor regardless of Andrew Carnegie’s creation of the Hero Fund. The Hero Fund stands as a witness to the world that each hero’s act fell within the standards developed by Carnegie and his fund.

There are two separate ideas packed inside that last sentence. First, we independently confirm the facts of what happened. It is no criticism of the news media to say that the Hero Fund does that in a more thorough and reliable way. We regularly spend months on our investigations and produce files that are many, many times more voluminous than any media report. Second, the staff applies standards to the facts they have gathered and judge whether those facts meet our criteria for an award. If staff agree they produce a case report to the Hero Fund Commission that is thorough and disciplined. When the Commission meets to vote the members have read the case reports. Staff members are present to answer questions, and they have the full case file on hand. Members of the Hero Fund Commission are curious and typically ask a lot of questions. They then take the final vote, adding another layer of judgment to the staff’s careful work. And, yes, there are cases that are not approved.

You can see that this process is nothing like the evening news, and that is as it should be. Why? Why not just rely on a news report and be done with the time and expense of investigation and evaluation? Because our job is to find, confirm, and recognize the very best of the best. In our culture we use the word “hero” very loosely, to recognize the “salesman of the month” to a sports figure who had a good game. That’s all great, but it is our challenge to make sure that a “Carnegie hero” is well recognized for the special human being that he or she is.

And about that word “recognized.” It is part of our mission to tell the stories of the Carnegie heroes to our society at large. We don’t do it to convince you or anyone else to step in front of a speeding train to rescue someone in a wheelchair – Andrew Carnegie recognized that heroism is instinctual many years ago.

We do, however, want to make recognition available to the Carnegie heroes. Often our heroes have to act alone, with no crowd to cheer them on or they’re humble and say that they did what anyone else in that position would have done. But we at the Commission – with our nearly 120 years of hero data – know that’s not the case: Not everyone acts when faced with danger. And while we are careful to respect the modesty of our rescuers, we want them, their families, and communities to know that what they did was truly remarkable. A wee bit of cheering afterward can’t be too bad. And as for the families of Carnegie heroes who did perish in the rescue, we hope public honor for their dead helps a little bit. It can mean a lot to a family for an outside organization to come in and agree that yes, their loved one was a hero.