Up and Down the Elevator Five Times

Two decades ago, Fred Ali, the leader of a nonprofit serving homeless youth, walked into the lobby of an imposing downtown Los Angeles office tower and pressed the button for the 30th floor. He got out of the elevator and headed toward the office suite of the Weingart Foundation. Although Weingart was founded in the 1950s by a humble, self-described “anonymous orphan,” it had become an intimidating place for grantseekers. The Weingart board consisted entirely of powerful business leaders, and its decisions had huge stakes for hundreds of nonprofits throughout Southern California.

Before Ali entered Weingart’s office suite, he turned around and headed back down the elevator. “I was so nervous,” he recalls. “I went up and down the elevator five times before I got up the courage to walk in.”

featured quote

Today, Weingart is a very different place. And that has a lot to do with the fact that Ali now runs the foundation and has built a remarkably diverse team of professionals who’ve sat on the grantee side of the table.

In August, Lowell had a chance to spend a day in Los Angeles with Ali and his team. He wanted to understand why so many Leap Ambassadors have touted Weingart as an example of a funder that is deeply and empathetically invested in the performance of its grantees.

During his visit, Lowell heard a great story of a foundation’s slow, patient transformation—from a generous corporate citizen to a cutting-edge leader in social equity and effective philanthropic practice. In the coming months, this story will be the latest profile in the Leap Ambassadors Community’s “Funding Performance” series. As a teaser, here’s a brief glimpse at some of Weingart’s high-performance practices.

First, Weingart advocates for and provides the kind of grants that allow organizations to pursue high performance. Ali and his team use their voices to call on other private funders as well as governments to provide grants that reflect the full cost of delivering services. And the foundation practices what it preaches by giving the bulk of its resources in the form of multi-year unrestricted operating support. “Our theory of change is that if you give a reasonably managed, well-governed, strategically focused nonprofit organization flexible, unrestricted dollars, good outcomes will follow,” Ali told Philanthropy News Digest.

Second, Weingart has created and implemented a Learning and Assessment Framework that reflects Weingart’s commitment to helping its grantees build nine core areas of organizational effectiveness. (And yes, Weingart’s nine core areas map very well to the Performance Imperative’s seven pillars of high performance.)

Third, Weingart invests heavily in building strong, trusting relationships with its grantees. “The Weingart Way” begins with smart, empathetic team members who truly understand the unique challenges of running a nonprofit. Ali says that in his days leading nonprofits, he often encountered program officers who didn’t really understand what it was like to lead a nonprofit. As a result, he has a rule that everyone who comes to work for Weingart must have prior nonprofit experience.

In addition to hiring a team with experience on the grantseeker side of the table, Weingart takes a variety of other steps to address the power imbalance that kept Ali going up and down the elevator 20 years ago. For example, the foundation regularly invites grantees into board meetings, conducts listening tours and focus groups to encourage grantees to share their perspectives, and is careful to avoid asking grantees for busywork and paperwork that is of little use to them or the foundation.

The full profile will provide much more detail on these practices and reveal much more about how they evolved from the professional and life experiences of Weingart’s team. We hope it will provide inspiration for other funders who are motivated to help their grantees pivot to high performance.

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

  • We’re proud to share a wonderful companion to the Performance Imperative (PI) that emerged organically from leaders in the Leap Ambassadors Community: Small but Mighty: The PI for Small Nonprofits. The PI was designed for larger nonprofits—those with budgets over $3 million. But of course smaller nonprofits fill important niches in our communities. That’s why key Leap Ambassadors wanted to offer an introduction to the PI that would inspire small nonprofits to undertake the journey to high performance as well. A huge thank you to Karen Walker and Debra Natenshon, who led this effort, and to Ellen Bass, Ken Berger, Sam Cobbs, Matt Huckabay, Susan Karas, Mari Kuraishi, John Read, Nan Stone, Lester Strong, and Mary Winkler for their contributions.
  • Speaking of small but mighty, in last month’s Leap Update we promised a link to the Leap Ambassadors’ profile of the UK’s Blagrave Trust, a relatively small foundation that is punching way above its weight. “Heart + Brains + Ears” is now hot off the electronic presses. We know from our education and evaluation colleagues that we don’t get to grade our own homework, but we think this profile makes great reading for boards of foundations without enormous endowments but with outsized ambitions for fostering grantee effectiveness.
  • We were delighted to read “The Link Uniting Donors and Doers for Social Change,” which gives national attention to the remarkable model Nancy Roob and Stan Druckenmiller are building at Blue Meridian Partners. Last year, American foundations and individuals gave nearly $400 billion to charities, but nearly all of those donations were given in small bites. Blue Meridian is showing us all a different path for philanthropy—bringing together very wealthy foundations and individuals (including former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his wife, Connie) to make massive, game-changing investments to solve the big challenges children and families face in our vastly inequitable society. We’re huge fans of this approach and look forward to watching how Blue Meridian encourages similar approaches in other fields.
  • Lest you think we’re seeing only sunshine and rainbows, we got a big dose of reality in late September, when a House Committee held a hearing ostensibly about supporting evidence-based policymaking across the federal government. The hearing conveners intended to focus attention on the final report of the bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. But, in the words of our colleague Patrick Lester, “The central bipartisan point, that evidence could enable federal agencies to achieve better outcomes at lower cost, seemed lost on most of the members of Congress who were present.” Lester retains hope that the champions of the commission, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), will still be able to advance “some form of ‘downpayment’ legislation in the weeks ahead.”
  • We recommend New Philanthropy Capital’s newest report, Towards an Evidence-Led Social Sector, which lays out a compelling vision of a future in which high-quality data helps all nonprofits understand what works, where, why, and for whom. The report is not a wordy manifesto. It’s a strong, simple case statement that lays out all the key steps charities, funders, public officials, academics, and think tanks can take to produce the mindset, behavior, and infrastructure changes that would be needed to reach this vision. It caps the case by highlighting pockets of good practice that demonstrate that NPC’s vision isn’t just pie in the sky.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance