Let’s be honest: foundation presidents’ annual letters tend to be pro forma at best. But this month we found a lovely and rare exception, by F.B. Heron Foundation President Clara Miller. Hidden behind bland design and a boilerplate title, you’ll find a sharp indictment of typical foundation thinking and a bold prescription for “this messier, less compartmentalized, and more urgent world.”
Nearly 20 years ago, when Mario was a naive newbie in the world of philanthropy, he was invited to speak on a panel focused on nonprofit finance. One of the other panelists was Miller, who then led (and had founded) the outstanding Nonprofit Finance Fund. She impressed the hell out of Mario! To this day, both of us look up to Miller as one of the very best minds and bravest truth-tellers in the field.
In her most recent president’s letter, Miller fires a shot across the bow to make leaders rethink their core assumptions about what it really takes to produce meaningful change. But she starts by calling out multiple areas where she and her colleagues at Heron have fallen short of their aspirations. She openly admits, for example, that she underestimated how hard it would be to operationalize her promise to leverage 100% of the foundation’s assets–grants and investments–in pursuit of its anti-poverty mission.
Changing strategy and systems is never easy, but mindset and culture have been the real challenges for Heron. “As the saying goes, culture eats strategy for breakfast, and we have found that to be true on our journey,” Miller writes. “This has not been a straightforward process of restructuring or reorientation. We have been remodeling the plane while flying it, and the degree of uncertainty sometimes takes its toll. And all of us have had moments where the unconscious takes over.”
To fulfill her pledge to move all of Heron’s $300 million endowment into “impact investing,” Miller had to work hard to tear down the wall between the giving side and investing side of the foundation. “Talk about culture change!,” she admits. It’s been difficult to find “people who are willing to question their own expertise on the way to create a new set of assumptions, practices, routines, and measures while testing them in real time.”
After looking in the mirror, she then turns her gaze to practices by other foundations that undermine their own effectiveness and that of the organizations they support. She is blunt about her disappointment “that so few of my fellow philanthropoids embrace basic financial practices that can help all players become more effective (and candid) about using money as a tool for good.” She notes that “even the idea that finance is important at all seems to elicit discomfort or even hostility among some program officers.” And she is highly critical of the typical foundation’s go-it-alone approach. “In the philanthropic world, it seems almost axiomatic that the traditional practice of direct grant making and direct social investing yields the best mission results…. To the contrary, we believe that relying solely on direct investing has, in the end, less influence and narrower impact in most cases than investing through high-quality funds and intermediaries.”
We encourage you to grab a nice cup of coffee, sit down in a comfy chair, and give Miller’s cri de coeur the attention it deserves. You’ll understand why “platform” and “network” approaches are the wave of the future for givers who truly want to support performance and achieve impact. You’ll see a great example of a foundation of modest size lighting the way for the world’s largest institutions. And most of all, you’ll see courageous, adaptive executive and board leadership in action.
And now some brief updates from around the Leap of Reason community:
- Last week on the “Marketplace Morning Report” we heard an amazing example of how the U.S. military is harnessing artificial intelligence to educate recruits in skills they need to succeed on the job–an example that is relevant for any nonprofit whose mission is to improve educational or workplace outcomes. Our colleague Tom Kalil, a former science and technology advisor in the Clinton and Obama Administrations, shared stunning evaluation results on a program that helped train new Navy recruits using artificial intelligence-based tutoring to supplement human instructors. “After four or five months, these new Navy recruits were outperforming people who had been with the Navy seven to 10 years,” Kalil reported. The key was leveraging technology to tailor the lessons–meeting individuals where they are and challenging them at just the right pace.
- In February, Lowell attended TEDxPennsylvaniaAvenue, which featured elected officials, nonprofit executives, and foundation CEOs focused on creative solutions to big social challenges. The organizers have now posted visionary talks by Edna McConnell Clark Foundation CEO Nancy Roob (who hits some of the same themes as Clara Miller does in her letter), Laura and John Arnold Foundation Co-Chair Laura Arnold, Roca CEO Molly Baldwin, Civic Enterprises CEO John Bridgeland, and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Ballmer’s talk was a clever teaser for his three-year stealth project called USAFacts, which looks at how all of our tax money is spent. In the words of The New York Times‘s Andrew Ross Sorkin, “In an age of fake news and questions about how politicians and others manipulate data to fit their biases, Mr. Ballmer’s project may serve as a powerful antidote…. A person could look up just about anything: How much revenue do airports take in and spend? What percentage of overall tax revenue is paid by corporations?”
- The Fund for Shared Insight, a smart collaboration among 39 funders, has just issued a national request for proposals for its signature initiative, Listen for Good, which helps funders and nonprofits advance high-quality feedback loops. This year’s grantees will receive $45,000 over two years ($30,000 from Fund for Shared Insight and $15,000 from a nominating co-funder), as well as access to technical assistance to guide their implementation efforts. Applications are due May 26.
- The Packard Foundation recently released the Emerging Leaders Playbook, which offers a new, virtual approach to developing leaders in a learning organization. In the words of the playbook’s lead author, the wonderful Beth Kanter, “It isn’t enough to read an article about a leadership skill. It is also important to practice it as part of doing your work. The nature of today’s nonprofit workplace–fast paced and heavy workloads–makes it nearly impossible to find the reflective time to put together a learning plan and implement it. That’s why we’ve included a highly practical toolkit that consists of facilitator agendas and worksheets for nonprofits to apply the ideas and frameworks.”
- We’re excited to pass along the news that the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (EMCF) will spin out yet another path-breaking initiative this spring. Under the leadership of longtime EMCF executive Kelly Fitzsimmons, Project Evident will help nonprofits and their funders use data, learning, and evaluations more effectively and efficiently. In the words of Fitzsimmons, “By offering services and aggregating tools through a shared-services platform, Project Evident hopes to help nonprofit leaders and their funders advance their evidence-building agendas, and ultimately increase the supply of solutions that work.” The initiative already has an impressive group of funders, including EMCF, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Barr Foundation. We’ll keep you posted as more details emerge in the coming weeks.
- We’re also pleased to preview a new section on the Leap Ambassadors Community website. The Performance in Practice section features stories about organizations on the path to high performance. We’re kicking off with stories about the Center for Violence-Free Relationships and Southview Community Church. If YOU have a story to tell about your own journey, please contact our colleague Ingvild Bjornvold (firstname.lastname@example.org) and help us spread the word about these stories by using sample tweets/posts on the pages.
Events/Webinars for Raising Performance:
- “Creating an Impact Culture” seminar; April 26; London, England; New Philanthropy Capital
- “How to Solve Social Problems with Science: The Promise of Using Behavioral Science” webinar; May 10; SSIR
- “How to Solve Social Problems with Science: Impact Evaluation in Designing Programs” webinar; May 17; SSIR
- “BoardSource Leadership Forum“; October 19-20; Seattle; BoardSource
- “Our Common Future” conference; October 25-27; Detroit; Independent Sector
- “Feedback Summit“; November 2-3; Washington, DC; Feedback Labs, Fund for Shared Insight
- “From Learning to Action” conference; November 6-11; Washington, DC; American Evaluation Association