Engaged Compassion

Last month, we shared reflections from a great summer visit in Los Angeles with the Weingart Foundation staff. Here we’ll offer more detail about the empathetic leaders who have guided the foundation’s transformation from risk-averse check-writer to national leader in effective philanthropic practice.

Fred Ali, the foundation’s CEO, joined the Jesuit Service Corps in 1972 and was assigned to teach in a school for Yupik children in St. Mary’s, Alaska, a village accessible only by plane and boat. Ali stayed in Alaska working with and supporting Native people for the next 19 years. “I loved my time in Alaska, but I learned what it means … to be discriminated against at times because of my race,” Ali says. For good reason, many Yupik people, including his future wife, Liz, disliked that he and other non-natives were there. “In Liz’s mind, I was just another white guy in her region probably there to do no good.”

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Liz and her family eventually came to see in Ali what Weingart grantees see today: an approachable man with a passion for fairness, inclusion, and equity. Fred and Liz got married in 1977 and moved to Los Angeles in the late ’80s, when Fred was recruited to lead Covenant House. He spent the next decade turning that small community-based organization into a large, outcomes-focused, multi-service agency for homeless youth. In 1999, the Weingart board recruited Ali to become the foundation’s first professional staff member.

Ali’s first hire was one that is still paying huge dividends today. Belen Vargas, Weingart’s vice president of programs, was born and raised in East LA, the daughter of laborer who spent his career operating a record-pressing machine after he arrived in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico.

When Vargas was nine, her sister was born with a severe intellectual disability. Vargas was responsible for helping her sister secure medical and social services, because their parents had very little formal education and didn’t read or write English. Vargas went on to attend Cal State Los Angeles, earn a law degree from USC, and work as an advocate for children with disabilities. “I know it sounds corny,” Vargas says. “But I knew that whatever I did in my life it would be to focus on providing access and resources to those that are marginalized and underserved.”

To transform the culture of Weingart, Ali and Vargas knew they had to build a team with first-hand knowledge of the issues facing the diverse populations Weingart aspires to serve. Fifteen of Weingart’s 19 staff members are people of color. Senior Program Officer Rosa Benitez is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who lived without documentation for many years. Vy Nguyen, director of special projects and communications, came to the U.S. as a young refugee of the Vietnam War. And diversity at Weingart means more than just different races and ethnicities. Angela Carr, a grants manager who is white, struggled with homelessness at a young age and food insecurity throughout her childhood.

This diversity can be seen on Weingart’s board, too. Board Chair Monica Lozano is the daughter of first-generation Mexican-Americans. More than half of the board—five of its nine members—are people of color. Best of all, the foundation has sacrificed nothing in the way of expertise as it has added racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity. When asked to provide suggestions on how Weingart could improve, one anonymous grantee said, “Help other foundations to work from the kind of community knowledge and engaged compassion that characterizes … Weingart Foundation.”

Next month, the Leap Ambassadors Community will share more about Weingart’s remarkable people and journey as part of their “Funding Performance” series. Based on the feedback we’re getting about the first three profiles in the series, we’re confident that the Weingart story will provide inspiration to other funders seeking practical advice for how to build an empathetic culture focused on helping grantees thrive.

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

  • In “Filling Essential Gaps in Nonprofit Leadership,” Bill Meehan and Kim Jonker share a nutshell version of their outstanding new book, Engine of Impact. We think so highly of the book that Mario sent copies to more than 200 colleagues. Drawing on new research as well as decades of teaching and advising, Meehan and Jonker offer a blueprint for higher performance which aligns very well with the work of the Leap Ambassadors Community. We applaud Meehan and Jonker’s tough-love message to boards (“Much of the work of building more effective organizations needs to start, in particular, with the board members who oversee nonprofits”) and donors (“avoid funding nonprofits in which board members seem passive or disengaged”).
  • If you’re a funder, see your grantees as partners rather than contractors, and want to understand how to nurture strong relationships with those partners, please check out Relationships Matter: Program Officers, Grantees, and the Keys to Success, the newest report from the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP). The report contains actionable insights from CEP’s analysis of data from 20,000 grantees as well as interviews with “positive outlier” program officers, including Lowell’s former superstar colleague Teresa Rivero. The report shows that “the most powerful ways that funders can strengthen their relationships with grantees are to: 1) focus on understanding grantee organizations and the context in which they work; and 2) be transparent with grantees.”
  • At a time when sexual harassment and assault are producing shocking headlines every single day, it’s great to see the super-rigorous Straight Talk on Evidence initiative giving high marks to a study on the topic. The study in question showed the EAAA Sexual Assault Resistance program, developed and refined by a professor at the University of Windsor, had “sizable effects on an ultimate outcome of clear policy importance—incidence of rape—and not just so-called surrogate outcomes, such as women’s knowledge of resistance strategies or perceived self-efficacy in defending themselves.” In a separate report, Straight Talk on Evidence also gave high marks to a study of the Per Scholas employment and training program, which helped participants earn “an average of $4,829 (or 27 percent) more than control group members.”
  • Congratulations to Dennis Whittle, David Bonbright, Fay Twersky, Jo Wells and other Johnny/Joanna Appleseeds of the “constituent feedback” movement on a very successful Feedback Summit. These leaders are working, in Bonbright’s words, “to seek a social system re-set around three simple questions: What do people want? Are we helping them get it? If not, how can we help them get it?” In the session called “An Ear for High Performance,” Brad Dudding, Bonbright, and Dan Bokar shared and discussed the Leap Ambassadors Community’s Performance Imperative—and showed how the Ambassadors are updating it with insights from the constituent-feedback movement. In a session called “M&E&F,” Twersky shared a new formulation for measurement that makes infinite sense to us—thinking about measurement as a three-legged stool consisting not just of internal monitoring (M) and external evaluation (E) but also constituent feedback (F).
  • In “What’s Standing in the Way of the Spread of Evidence-based Programs?,” Bridgespan’s Alex Neuhoff, Eliza Loomis, and Farhana Ahmed share provocative findings from their analysis of 46 effective child welfare and juvenile justice programs. Most of the programs “remain stuck on the shelf”—and not just for the obvious reason that few funders provide growth capital for proven programs. Another big factor is that those who deliver evidence-based programs aren’t particularly interested in expanding. Why? One key answer is that most evidence-based programs come out of universities, which are structured for developing and testing programs but don’t have the staff or financial incentives to move effective programs into the field.
  • ‘Tis the season to be jolly—and generous. So if you’re thinking about end-of-year giving, please read and share the Center for High Impact Philanthropy’s new High Impact Giving Guide. It’s a great resource for anyone who prefers to give to organizations that have been thoroughly vetted by issue experts rather than those that send fancy marketing materials. We were delighted to see some of our favorite high-performance nonprofits on the list, including Nurse-Family Partnership, Youth Villages, Year Up, BRAC, and VillageReach.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance