I’m proud to be a volunteer and Trustee for the Mensa Foundation. I’m also proud to be a Life Member of American Mensa. The reasons overlap some, but they aren’t all the same. The work of the Mensa Foundation is profoundly different from that of American Mensa. However, there is a symbiosis between the two organizations.
My motivation to be in both organizations came from the same place in my head and my heart, shaped by the same life experiences. Before I go further into that symbiotic relationship, bear with me as I share some backstory.
In early 2020, the Mensa Foundation Board of Trustees held our second Board retreat. The goal was to define our mission, vision, and values. But we didn’t start by wordsmithing our existing work. We began by exploring ourselves. We wanted to understand our purpose and what fueled our passion for the Foundation.
In that journey of self-discovery, we came to the retreat with a personal item packaged in a bag. The instructions were simple: Bring something for show and tell that helps you describe why the mission of the Mensa Foundation is important to you.
Each item demonstrated our passion and our clear personal connection to the mission. As we each spoke about our item, the room became filled with emotion. There wasn’t a dry eye in there.
My item? The American Heritage Dictionary. I told how my father kept a copy at work and learned a new word every single day. See, Dad didn’t get that expansive of a vocabulary growing up. He quit school after third grade to help feed his family during the Depression. That was the extent of his formal education until he was pushing 30 and recovering from stomach cancer surgery they thought would kill him. (As World War II had demonstrated, my father was a hard man to kill.)
Through basic literacy classes taught at the hospital, Dad decided to get some “book learning.” And once he did, he absolutely blew the doors off it. When he met my mother about five years later, Dad was a college graduate. As a result, my three siblings and I grew up surrounded by books in an environment centered around a genuine love of learning. It must have worked: Mom and Dad raised four kids — all National Merit Scholars and (eventually) Mensa members.
But that’s just one story. All the Trustees and staff present had their own moving stories on why they, too, are passionate about the Foundation’s mission. That transformational retreat has guided our work for the past three years and continues to shape the road ahead.
Now, let’s get back to that symbiosis thing….
Although the Mensa Foundation and American Mensa are separate charitable organizations, they share an important symbiosis.
Every Mensa organization, nationally and internationally, shares these purposes:
American Mensa primarily helps its members engage in various social and educational activities focusing on social interaction. There’s deep value in that type of connection; it’s an important part of what makes us human and keeps us healthy. And it’s why, after my sister finally got me to attend a Mensa event, I decided to stick around.
The role of the Mensa Foundation, however, exists beyond that of American Mensa. Our mission is to “Unleash intelligence for the benefit of humanity.” To that end, Foundation programs and services are outward facing, designed for a broader audience. With rare donor-designated exceptions, all our offerings — scholarships, awards, online materials, Excellence in Reading program, Mensa Research Journal, and Colloquiums — are available to the general public, regardless of whether they join or even qualify for Mensa.
The Mensa Foundation was started by Mensans 53 years ago, with the blessing of American Mensa, as a complementary organization to put greater emphasis on activating intelligence, not as a status symbol, but as a way for intelligent, gifted, and divergent thinkers to use their abilities for good.
As a critical part of the Foundation’s Strategic Plan, we’re expanding our scope to better understand, support, and celebrate intelligence and giftedness across the lifespan. Experts have told us there’s a pressing need to support highly intelligent people at various stages and transition points of life. There are thirsty minds out there — like my late father’s — looking for education and mental stimulation in a world that can’t make up its mind whether or not those are good things. And the math tells us that most of those thirsty minds are not Mensans, or at least not yet.
To that end, we’re striving to reach a wider audience of the gifted, the intelligent, and the highly curious. (Personally, I don’t like to say just “gifted” because many brilliant people I’ve met never thought of themselves as gifted. We don’t want people to filter themselves out of the discussion based on preconceived notions.) To better serve that audience, we’ve commissioned a Foundation first: an original academic research study to determine the greatest needs of intelligent people at different ages and transition points within their lives. If you’re contacted for this study, we highly encourage you to take the opportunity to share your own lived experiences and challenges. Those findings will drive the next phase of our Strategic Plan, developing programs and materials designed to support individuals’ unmet needs while breaking down stereotypes related to intelligence in all its forms.
Meanwhile, we want to make the Mensa Foundation’s existing programs more impactful. For example, we’re working to increase the dollar amount of each scholarship. Starting in 2022, we offered a streaming option for our annual Colloquium, making it accessible globally. This month, we’ve just launched a new online speaker series to broaden society’s understanding of intelligence; I highly recommend that you check it out if you haven’t already (visit MensaFoundation.ticketspice.com/mfss2024). And to extend our reach even further, we’ve also begun steps to establish an online community of researchers, educators, and other experts who share our vision and want to help us understand, nurture, and celebrate intelligence.
“So,” you might ask, “does that mean you’re moving away from Mensa itself?” In a word: No! Hey, I’m a Life Member with a quarter century of memorable Mensa experiences. Mensa and Mensans are dear to my heart.
The Foundation’s scope as a charitable organization extends beyond Mensa members, but “beyond” is not the same as “away from.” Also, we know that so far, Mensa members comprise the vast majority of our donors and volunteers. After all, it was my own volunteer role as local Scholarship Chair for Chattanooga Mensa that led me to discover and embrace the Mensa Foundation. We’re very grateful for everything Mensans’ support has made possible so far. Trust me, I really want to see American Mensa thrive and grow. And here’s how you can help.
You have an opportunity to activate your gifts to unleash intelligence. Through the Mensa Foundation, you can convey a positive impression of the overall Mensa community — American and international — by highlighting what we offer to others. Every scholarship recipient is a potential Mensa member or at least an advocate. Every researcher whose work the Foundation supports hears about Mensa in a positive context. And the kids, parents, and teachers who found the free online educational resources that the Foundation made possible during the pandemic might never have heard of Mensa before that unexpected need was met.
I believe the Foundation paints the name Mensa in a positive light while we’re fulfilling our broader mission. That means we can introduce bright new individuals to the broader Mensa environment in a friendly context and vice versa.
Think about this: How many people have you met through Mensa who, at some point in their lives, thought — or were flat-out told — they weren’t all that smart? Or what about those who did get support and enrichment during their school years, only to see all that evaporate once they left the educational system? Have you ever heard someone say, “I used to be gifted”?
With our existing and future offerings, the Foundation wants to reach people who are filled with a sense of wonder, even if they don’t think they are Mensa material. If people like that find the Foundation’s programs and services, I believe they’ll be more likely to recognize their own potential and want to be part of the Mensa community. Do you want to attract more moths? We’ll turn on a porch light.
Maybe our future offerings would benefit you or your loved ones directly. But even if they don’t, they can attract the kind of people we’d love to see become Mensa members someday. We certainly hope they’ll give you even more reason to be proud of your association with Mensa.
I’ve seen member surveys over the years that raise an issue: Other than providing a social outlet and a really cool magazine, what does my membership in Mensa actually get me? If your personal Mensa experience includes support for the Foundation, we hope you can point pridefully to its accomplishments.
As we embark on this transformative journey, we extend an invitation to you to join us, or if you’re already a supporter, to expand your participation. Feel free to visit our website, MensaFoundation.org, and contact us. Your involvement, as a donor, volunteer, Mensa Research Journal subscriber, program attendee, or advocate, is invaluable. Working together, we have the power to reshape the world’s perception of intelligence and help talented individuals find fulfillment and empowerment while making a better world.
Thank you for your support. Together, let’s make a profound difference in how the world understands, embraces, and — yes — unleashes intelligence.
Support the Mensa Foundation by visiting MensaFoundation.org/Donate.