Ask Not

Joe Biden is no Jack Kennedy or Ronald Reagan, so we were genuinely surprised that we felt so inspired by his Inaugural Address. At several moments, Biden set aside lofty oratory and stopped trying to emulate the muscular delivery of previous Presidents. In those quieter moments, we felt the true empathy and compassion Biden brings to this high office—core requirements for national healing.

But, of course, now comes the sobering part. President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are dealing with historic challenges that would be daunting even if the Mount Rushmore Presidents sprang back to life and pitched in—from uncivil unrest and a raging pandemic to appalling racial injustice to crushing joblessness.

featured quote Let’s remember that none of these daunting challenges can be solved by one Administration, one government, or indeed all governments across this country. Even more so than in 1961, this is an “ask not” moment. Our sector—the helping and healing sector—must be at the front of the line to answer that call.

It won’t be easy. As a result of funding declines originating with COVID, nonprofits have lost 60,000 jobs, at a time when more than 12 million people are out of work and relying on us to help them get back on their feet. Nonetheless, we’re going to have to give of ourselves like our country depends on it—like Shel Silverstein’s self-sacrificing Giving Tree. That means providing compassionate, high-quality services to those who are hurting more than ever. It means advocating for health, education, workforce, nutrition, policing, justice, and foreign assistance policies built on a common “us.” It means building genuine relationships between public and private leaders of different political stripes who are open to finding common ground.

And it definitely means that institutional foundations and family donors will have to move out of their comfort zones in all the ways that the Ford Foundation spelled out in its 2020 funder pledge: loosening restrictions, reducing dumb reporting requirements, listening better, trusting more.

To build positive peer pressure beyond the 800+ foundations that have already signed the funder pledge, the Leap Ambassadors Community has joined forces with five wonderful partners—Ford, Hewlett, Tipping Point, Bridgespan, and FMA—to publish a monograph called Funding Performance: How Great Donors Invest in Grantee Success. The six partners will launch the monograph in four different electronic forms (PDF, iBook, Kindle, and audio files) next week. We’ll be sure to share links when it goes live.

Funding Performance contains timely essays by Lowell, Hilary Pennington (Ford), Daniel Stid (Hewlett), Sam Cobbs (Tipping Point Community), Jeff Bradach and Jeri Eckhart Queenan (Bridgespan), and Hilda Polanco and Deborah Linnell (FMA), as well as a jointly authored preface that dispenses with all the usual social-sector niceties (“Funders, heal thyself! Your intentions are noble, but your practices are not. The vast majority of you are starving your grantees rather than nourishing them.”).

The monograph is an easy read. Like Jim Collins’s Good to Great for the Social Sector, this new monograph is easy to digest in an afternoon. And it’s neither pie-in-the-sky nor head-in-the clouds. It’s a practical, story-driven, plain-English guide to what the best funders are already doing to supercharge their grantees.

If you’re a nonprofit executive, we suspect the essayists’ points will hit home. And then you might wonder: “How can I share it with my funders without putting grants at risk?”

Based on our experience as funders, we suggest two approaches.

  • If you have a simpatico program officer, we suggest you forward it with a note saying something like, “If you have a quiet afternoon at some point, you might want to look at this new monograph, which highlights funders doing a particularly good job setting their grantees up for success. I have a sense that the positive-outlier practices they highlight are ones that might resonate with you.”
  • If you have to tread even more lightly, you could forward just one essay that resonates deeply with you, with a note that says something like, “I know how busy you are, but if you have 10-15 minutes to spare at some point in the coming weeks, you might want to check out this essay. It’s a funder’s perspective on the value of flexible, trust-based support. I think about these issues often, but I’ve never brought them up with you; I suppose I didn’t want you to think me ungrateful for the generous support you provide.”

We wish nonprofits never had to walk on eggshells, and funders were reflexively open to any suggestion that might help them do more to advance their goals. But until that day comes, the Leap Ambassadors, Ford, Hewlett, Tipping Point, Bridgespan, and FMA will keep working with you to build the case for smart funding practices aligned with the urgency of the times.

Ready to answer the call,

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 Ambassadors Community.

Updates From Around the Leap Community

Speaking of Pennington, we highly recommend her recent CEP blog post “Building the America that Never Was, Yet Still Must Be,” whose title she borrowed from Langston Hughes. She makes a “both/and” argument that “movements of reckoning” and “movements toward bridging divides” are needed in equal measure for ridding systems of racism. “At times, these two schools of thought can feel like they’re guided by binary thinking: either demanding atonement for white supremacy and misogyny before there can be any bonding across difference OR calling for unity by emphasizing what we share in common, even if it means suppressing the pain of a history of oppression,” she writes. “We need to push for both atonement and unity, holding these imperatives in the same frame.”

The Leap Ambassadors have just published the concise guide “Helping Your Team During Crisis.” Although our national cortisol levels have diminished since January 6, all team leaders can benefit from this collective wisdom. Here’s one pearl: “Every day of my tenure at the domestic violence and child abuse organization, I felt that I couldn’t add one more thing to my plate. One day a staff member called me out saying, ’Stop. You’re moving too fast to even listen to what we [the team] are saying. You need to slow down.’” Bridging the topics of racism and stress is ProPublica’s in-depth feature “How COVID-19 Hollowed Out a Generation of Young Black Men,” a great example of why the endangered species known as long-form journalism is so critical for understanding our greatest social challenges and potential solutions. The article explores why Black men previously in their prime have succumbed to COVID at vastly disproportionate rates. Although it will take rigorous longitudinal studies to know for sure, the answer appears to have to do with just how much of their lives Black men spend in fight-or-flight mode as they navigate in a world that often sees them as a threat. “Incidents build up in memories and transform into chronic stressors; ruminating on them can activate the body’s biological stress reaction. This happens over and over again, often many times a day, until the cortisol pump essentially breaks.” We hope to see more research on the intersection between racist experiences and health—not just for men but also of course for women.

Our colleague John Kamensky shared a powerful working paper and video discussion on the use of artificial intelligence to improve the fairness and equity of government decision making. The Princeton researchers focused on the use of AI to detect implicit bias in making prosecutorial decisions, but the research principles and recommendations are applicable in a wide variety of policy areas.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance

Jan 28–Online
Nonprofit Resiliency Through Collaborative Education” webinar; Exponent Philanthropy

Jan 27, Jan 29, Feb 9, Feb 11–Online
Listen4Good information sessions” webinars; Fund for Shared Insight

Feb 17-18–Online
Democracy, Civil Society, and Digital Technology” virtual conference; SSIR

Apr 27-29–Online
Collective Impact Action Summit” virtual summit; Collective Impact Forum