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Fool Me Ten Times, Shame on Me

This week, Lowell will conduct the first of a series of learning sessions for an entrepreneur at the very beginning of his philanthropic journey. He’ll ground the session in borrowed wisdom from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Tom Reis: “All new philanthropists get a black eye. That’s fine—and can actually be a good learning experience. But if they get ten black eyes, they’ll say, ‘To hell with it!’ So help them avoid repeated black eyes. Help them learn from others’ mistakes.”

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This simple insight is surprisingly powerful. That’s because steering clear of pitfalls turns out to be a “fast idea,” in the parlance of the brilliant surgeon and author Atul Gawande. That is, it’s easy for donors to perceive direct value in learning how to prevent squandering their time and money. In contrast, the message of “high performance” is a slow idea—as we’ve learned through our own mistakes. In other words, the benefits of high performance feel more academic, abstract, and removed.

That’s why we labeled the briefing for the learning session “Want to Avoid Squandering Your Time and Money?: Learning from others’ unforced errors.” Here are a few of the errors we highlighted…

  1. Assuming that philanthropy is easy. Cutting checks is easy. But accomplishing meaningful, lasting change isn’t. Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was right on the money when he concluded that “it is more difficult to give money away intelligently than to earn it in the first place.” Why does this misperception matter? Because it causes donors to underinvest their time in learning. It also creates enervating cognitive dissonance when they come up against thorny, complex issues: “I care about this issue. I’m smart. And this was supposed to be simple. So why isn’t this more intuitive?!”
  2. Jumping too quickly to grants. When you have greater resources than you ever imagined and dozens of people (including good friends) asking for donations, it’s natural to take out the charitable checkbook right away. But it’s much better to invest in serious learning before you start investing serious dollars. When Mario started out, he dedicated 18 months to listening and learning, engaging 700 people from all walks of life in conversation. He was new to philanthropy and a “babe in the woods.” He was often surprised, even at times bewildered by what he discovered. Had he started cutting checks before this journey, he would have given to the wrong organizations and wouldn’t have given his time to support the grant beyond the money.
  3. Failing to listen to those closest to the problem. Yes, of course it’s important to listen to and learn from academics, peer funders, prospective grantees, and other experts. But listening to intended beneficiaries is just as important. Two classic cautionary tales are Bill and Melinda Gates‘s $650 million push for “small schools” and Mark Zuckerberg‘s $100 million “big bet” on reforming the Newark public schools. In the case of the Gateses, they relied on academic research showing that the most successful schools, on average, are small. But these studies were deeply flawed. As the Nobelist Daniel Kahneman reported in Thinking Fast and Slow, “If the statisticians who reported to the Gates Foundation had asked about the characteristics of the worst schools, they would have found that bad schools also tend to be smaller than average. The truth is that small schools are not better on average; they are simply more variable.” In the case of Zuckerberg’s Newark effort, “The reformers never really tried to have a conversation with the people of Newark. Two hundred million dollars and almost five years later, there was at least as much rancor as reform,” in the words of reporter Dale Russakoff‘s definitive post mortem, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?
  4. Believing that nonprofits should run “more like a business.” We’ll come clean: Years ago, we fell into this trap. But we soon found this an invalid premise. Through years of working hand in hand with grantees, we came to understand that the ecosystems in which nonprofits function are fundamentally different from those in the business world. Just after co-founding Venture Philanthropy Partners, Mario moved away from the business analogy and gravitated instead toward two excellent points from Jim Collins’s Good to Great and the Social Sector: Why Business Thinking Is Not the Answer: 1) all organizations, for profit and nonprofit alike, can benefit from being disciplined, and 2) social complexity just makes getting things done much harder. In Giving Done Right, Phil Buchanan does a great job of making the case that succeeding in philanthropy requires a different set of skills from succeeding in business. “It necessitates a different level of collaboration and relationship-building, deep humility, and a recognition of how difficult it is to chart cause and effect.”
  5. Demanding “results”—while making it hard to achieve them. In Leap of Reason, we were unsparing in our criticism of the many funders who pester grantees for more information on results when they’re not willing to help those grantees invest in strengthening the core organizational muscles that produce results—such as leadership, continuous learning, and external evaluation. In Working Hard—and Working Well, David Hunter was even tougher on these funders: “I intend this document to be an admonishment to those funders who demand performance in which they don’t invest, results for which they don’t pay, and accountability from which they exempt themselves. Stop the madness!”

In future updates, we’ll outline more of these common errors. Sadly, the list is long. But happily, every single one is easily avoidable if you approach philanthropy with what Zen practitioners call Shoshin or “the beginner’s mind”—a spirit of openness, curiosity, and humility.


Happy end of summer,

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

On the topic of funders demanding results but not being willing to help, please check out Kelly Fitzsimmons‘s Giving Compass post “Five Tips for Supporting Social Sector R&D.” Fitzsimmons, who leads the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation spinoff Project Evident, described her earlier years working for a large antipoverty organization. “We were eager to evaluate our programs so that we could measure what was working and improve what wasn’t. However, persuading foundations to fund this evaluation proved challenging. While foundations wanted to see evidence of impact when asked for program funding, they were often hesitant to provide the funding necessary to do that work.”

Kudos to Billy Shore for debunking the myth that nonprofits “can’t and shouldn’t get political” in his SSIR column “Getting Political Is Good for Everyone.” Billy knows what he’s talking about—not only because he was a top aide to two U.S. Senators but also because his organization and its allies in fighting hunger have achieved big wins for food-insecure families, despite the big headwinds they face in our current era. “Conventional wisdom holds that a nonprofit’s role is to manage private efforts to fill the gaps where government or the economy has failed,” he wrote. “It is an impossible and self-defeating notion. In fact, many successful nonprofits have proved that avoiding partisanship but embracing political activity to the full extent allowed by law (which is considerable) can bring about profound change.”

Speaking of momentum in the midst of political headwinds, we’re excited to see that Republican Rep. Ron Wright (TX) and Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams (UT) recently introduced the Fund for Innovation and Success in Higher Education (FINISH) Act. The legislation includes several provisions aimed at using evidence to improve access to higher education and to ensure better outcomes once students matriculate. In addition, Rep. McAdams and Republican Rep. Jackie Walorski (IN) just launched the Congressional What Works Caucus, to develop and promote results-driven, evidence-based federal legislation. Behind the scenes, Michele Jolin and her team at Results for America have been working hard on both of these positive developments.

We’ve been super impressed by philanthropist Jeff Raikes‘s soul-searching essays in Forbes.com, most of them owning and unpacking the implicit biases that undermine good philanthropy. His latest piece, “America’s Legacy of White Supremacy,” written before the mass shooting in El Paso, is particularly powerful. “I had to confront in myself that some of my discomfort with the term white supremacy isn’t just that I think it breaks down the chance at dialogue,” he wrote. “It’s that once I started to think deeply about the systemic barriers facing people of color in this country, I recognized that they continue to exist because people like me fail to notice them.”

We don’t know if Raikes has read Jill Lepore‘s new book These Truths: A History of the United States, but he should. It’s long (800+ pages!), but it provides a definitive look at the historical origins of white supremacy, which greatly bolsters Raikes’s case that “The United States was built on the belief in the superiority of white men white supremacy culture still rules.” With a great eye for memorable details (e.g., George Washington replaced his rotten teeth not with wooden dentures but with actual teeth pulled from the mouths of his slaves), Lepore documents all the ways in which America has struggled but failed to live up to its founding creed that all men are created equal.


Events/Webinars for Raising Performance

Aug 28 — Online
Addressing Marginalization: Redirecting Strategies of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace” webinar; SSIR

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

Sept 23-27 — Philadelphia, PA
Funder Education Program” conference; Center for High-Impact Philanthropy

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

Oct 11 — New York, NY
Feedback+New York: The Case for Listening” summit; Feedback Labs

Oct 23-25 — St. Louis, MO
Facing Power and Privilege in Capacity Building” conference; Alliance for Nonprofit Management

Oct 28-30 — St. Petersburg, FL
Bringing Leaders Together: A Retreat for Nonprofit Chief Executives” conference; BoardSource

Nov 13-15 — Chicago, IL
Upswell Chicago” conference; Independent Sector