A Paradoxical Mix of Arrogance and Insecurity

In our continuing series of mini essays unpacking each of the “Five Habits of Highly Effective Funders,” we’re going to drill down on the number-one success factor for foundations that aspire to help grantees become high-performance organizations: having talented, empathetic leaders at the trustee and executive levels.

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Lowell just got an inspiring dose of these kinds of leaders in Minneapolis at the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s every-other-year conference, which attracts a disproportionate share of leaders who not only have great résumés but also the “eulogy virtues” of genuine humility and a heartfelt connection with the people and causes they serve. In other words, they’re talented, empathetic leaders “in a field that has historically been awash in a paradoxical mix of arrogance and insecurity,” to quote the late philanthropic advisor and mensch Peter Karoff.

For example, Lowell was blown away by Anthony Richardson, the executive director of the Nord Family Foundation. Richardson’s desire to build stable communities is driven not just by great academic and professional credentials; it also comes from his lived experience as a child who never knew his father and whose mother left him to fend for himself at age 10. Although Richardson doesn’t include any of these life experiences on his bio, there’s no question they’re powerful qualifications for understanding the complexities of community breakdown. “I know what it’s like to feel isolated, powerless, with no control of your own destiny,” he explained to Lowell after the conference.

Lowell also enjoyed meeting Wade Fauth, the VP of Minnesota’s Blandin Foundation. Fauth was a rare bird at the conference: He’s a rural funder and a lifelong Republican. But he wasn’t an outlier in his understanding that if you want to be an effective funder, you need not just brains but also a good heart and ears. After years of paternalistic grantmaking, Blandin implemented a wide range of efforts to be a better listener, learner, and community member—and surged from abysmal (Fauth’s word) to outstanding in CEP Grantee Perception Reports. One successful approach was to literally open its doors to all members of the community in an effort to become “a welcoming and safe place for our partners to build vibrant rural communities.” This aspiration led the foundation’s leaders to invite Blandin’s building engineer and front desk staff to participate in developing the foundation’s hospitality strategy. “They are integral to how the public experiences the foundation,” Fauth said.

Lowell’s interactions with talented, empathetic leaders wasn’t confined to conversations with professional grantmakers. He also met funders who exemplify these traits, including Rose Letwin, whose Wilburforce Foundation is another star in the GPR constellation. One story that jumped out in their discussion was Letwin’s description of the first philanthropy conference she attended. “I went to the [name removed] conference. One funder told me that he insisted on having grantees submit 14 copies of their proposals! The funders seemed so arrogant, like they knew better than their grantees. I was appalled.”

These philanthropic journeys are similar to the ones the Leap Ambassadors Community has shared in its Funding Performance series. For example, in “Meaning, Purpose, and Joy,” we read about the ways that philanthropist Duncan Campbell‘s childhood experience of abandonment and neglect allows him to understand at a visceral level the struggles of the young people he aims to serve. In “We’ve Walked in Your Shoes,” we read about Weingart Foundation leaders Fred Ali and Belen Vargas‘s early, alienating experiences as “others” in society—and how those experiences supercharged their passion for improving equity in Southern California. In “Network Effect,” Mario shared honest reflections about the hubris he projected in the early years of Venture Philanthropy Partners—and how increased empathy and an influx of diverse leaders helped strengthen the organization’s results.

At the CEP conference, Winners Take All author Anand Giridharadas got a knowing laugh from the audience when he dismissed uber-wealthy philanthropists as “the biggest swinging checkbooks of our time.” But some of Giridharadas’s rapier witticisms fell flat when he was parrying with philanthropist Jeff Raikes. Raikes just doesn’t fit a black-and-white caricature of the self-aggrandizing capitalist turned philanthropist. As the Leap Ambassadors Community shared in “Growth Mindset,” Jeff and Tricia Raikes have worked very hard to examine their own privilege and then use it for reforming the systems that have blocked opportunity for the most-marginalized people in this country. They and the rest of the leadership team of the Raikes Foundation are, to anyone who has spent time with them, the epitome of talented and empathetic leaders.

While Lowell was at CEP, Mario attended the 10th annual Cleveland Clinic Patient Experience: Empathy + Innovation Summit. The summit was led by the Clinic’s chief experience officer, Dr. Adrienne Boissy, and its executive chief nursing officer, Dr. Kelly Hancock—both deeply empathetic leaders. As a member of the Clinic board—as well as a patient and patient advocate for his family and friends—Mario has seen the world-renowned health institution get better and better at living up to its stated commitment to “care for the patient as if they are your own family.” The Clinic has put serious time and money behind evidence-based practices that deliver on this commitment—not simply because they make patients feel respected but also because they produce better patient outcomes, lower costs, and lower rates of burnout among providers. As Drs. Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli conclude in the new book Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference, “Compassion matters … in not only meaningful but measurable ways.”

Based on these examples and many more we’ve seen in our decades of work in this field, we’ve learned that empathetic leadership matters more than pedigree. Whether your empathy comes from difficult personal experiences or from bearing witness to others’ struggles, it’s a core competency for all of us who aspire to use philanthropy to serve, heal, elevate, reform, and repair.

Keep the faith (and reason),

Signatures: Mario and Lowell
Mario and Lowell

Mario Morino is chairman of the Morino Institute, co-founder and founding chair of Venture Philanthropy Partners, and author of the lead essay in Leap of Reason. Lowell Weiss is president of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, co-editor of Leap of Reason, and advisor to the Leap of Reason initiative.

Updates From Around the Leap Community

Speaking of Jeff Raikes, he just launched a new side gig as a contributor to Forbes Online with a post titled “The Power of Equity.” Despite the bland title (probably not his fault), the piece is a beautifully crafted essay on the differences between “equality” (when everyone has the same thing) and “equity” (when everyone has what he or she needs) and why we should “dig a level deeper” to explore the ways in which our society is falling short of the equity ideal. He calls for the social and public sectors to “design the solution to the systemic problem you are trying to solve for the person who is least well-served by the system you are trying to fix. Chances are, if you get it right for those who have suffered the most, others will benefit too.”

If you’re a nonprofit leader interested in improving services through the clever use of client feedback, you may be a good candidate for the next round of Listen 4 Good grants, offered by the Fund for Shared Insight. The application window just opened. Applications are due on September 20.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Bloomberg Philanthropies just announced the seven cities that have achieved 2019 certification as “What Works Cities,” the national standard of excellence for local governments putting data to use for improving the lives of their residents. The seven cities are Arlington, TX; Memphis, TN; Philadelphia, PA; Scottsdale, AZ; Kansas City, MO; Louisville, KY; and Washington, DC. A total of 13 cities have achieved certification to date.

The Arnold Foundation’s Straight Talk on Evidence initiative recently published good news about Project QUEST, a workforce-training program. The Arnold team reviewed QUEST’s randomized controlled trial and found it to be a compelling demonstration that the program produced nine years of earnings gains for low-income workers. Unlike many programs, QUEST’s effects didn’t fade over time. As the Arnold team reported, “QUEST is currently the only U.S. workforce-training program shown in a well-conducted RCT to produce such sizable, enduring effects.”

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance

June 20 — Online
Is Your Advocacy Making a Difference?” webinar; Candid

Sept 10-12 — Stanford, CA
Nonprofit Management Institute: Transforming Anxiety into Active Leadership“; SSIR

Oct 2-4 — St. Louis
2019 Connect” conference; Exponent Philanthropy

Nov 13-15 — Chicago
“Upswell Chicago” annual conference; Independent Sector