Gratitude Isn’t a Platitude

Fair warning: We’re gonna get personal in this post.

That’s because we’re feeling extra reflective this holiday season. We both had milestone birthdays this year (50 for Lowell, 75 for Mario), and we’ve both experienced personal loss. In the past month alone, Mario lost his first business partner and greatest mentor, Bill Witzel, and Lowell lost a dear colleague and mentor, Moe Stein.

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Through these and other big losses, we’ve come to feel that the famous Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief model is incredibly wise, yet incomplete. Yes, we’ve gone through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But we’ve also experienced something above and beyond them all: gratitude.

Gratitude was the dominant theme of Mario’s eulogy for Bill Witzel, which he delivered at a memorial service on November 10. While acknowledging that Bill could be “overbearing, confrontational, challenging, demanding—always in your face!,” Mario focused on the remarkable ways in which Bill helped everyone around him to grow. “Bill was a walking, talking, learning, teaching machine,” Mario said. “He taught you by making you think, by making you capture and codify what you did, by creating a discipline and a process. He taught you by talking through situations to help you think through and be ready for different scenarios.” Mario’s work in the private and social sectors would have been greatly diminished if that crusty former Marine hadn’t marched into his life almost 50 years ago.

A few days before Thanksgiving, the one day of the year when all Americans are encouraged to summon that sense of gratitude, Lowell had a conversation with Stephen Heintz, the president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, about Stephen’s successful battle with MDS, a little-known but very serious form of cancer, as well as Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Stephen’s treatment required destroying his immune system with chemotherapy and then rebooting with a stem-cell transplant, courtesy of an unknown 20-year-old male who donated his healthy bone marrow in the hope of saving a stranger’s life.

Stephen said that he went through all the stages of grief during his year of living dangerously close to the edge, but gratitude was perhaps the most powerful feeling of all. If you read the lovely blog he and his wife kept, you’ll see that theme in the foreground of every post. Gratitude for the generosity of that anonymous marrow donor. Gratitude for the expertise and compassion of dozens of caregivers. Gratitude for having health coverage and a supportive employer. Gratitude for the outpouring of love from family and friends. Gratitude for the simple miracle of being able to take a few steps down a hallway, sleep through the night without pain, or get lost in a beautiful piece of writing or music.

While Stephen was in the midst of treatment, his ability to hold onto gratitude created an opening for resolve—not just to survive his illness but to find even greater purpose in his life and work. “I thought, if I get a second chance, I damn well better use it to best of my ability,” he told Lowell. “Even as my immune system was being destroyed, my motivation got a boost.” Seven years later, Stephen has used his new lease on life to take risks he might never have taken before—including divesting the foundation, which arose out of the Rockefellers’ Big Oil fortune, of all fossil fuel holdings.

Our wish for each of you this holiday season isn’t about avoiding grief. That’s not remotely possible at a time of natural disasters like the hell fires raging in California, unnatural disasters like the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue, and the loss of loved ones we all experience with increasing frequency as we age. Instead, our wish is that you find your way to lift up to Stage Six of the grief cycle—gratitude and resolve—whenever grief strikes and even when it doesn’t. Gratitude and resolve can be even more powerful motivators than fear and anger. So let’s use them to the very best of our abilities to restore civility to our nation, health to our planet, jobs to our communities, and love to our hearts.

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

The Leap Ambassadors Community has just released “Network Effect,” the seventh “profile in courage” in its Funding Performance series. This new profile describes the evolution of Venture Philanthropy Partners (VPP) from an organization that makes big, multiyear bets on individual nonprofits to one that is now seeking even greater impact by weaving together a network of organizations coordinating their services. VPP’s complex, networked investments in Prince George’s County, MD, have required VPP to focus even more time and resources on building trusted relationships with grantees and helping grantees strengthen their organizational performance.

We recommend “How—and Why—to Listen Until Someone Feels Heard,” by Dr. Adrienne Boissy, a neurologist and the chief experience officer at Cleveland Clinic. (Full disclosure: Mario is on the board.) Dr. Boissy makes the case that organizations seriously underinvest in helping caregivers hone their ability to empathize with clients and patients—that is, “communicate a deep understanding of what someone is going through.” In healthcare, greater caregiver empathy can lead to better patient outcomes, fewer malpractice claims, and less caregiver burnout. Dr. Boissy believes that empathy is just as valuable in other helping fields.

We’re grateful to Dennis Whittle for sharing Understanding Data Use, from Development Gateway. The report notes the shocking fact that donors and government agencies report that they make little to no use of monitoring and evaluation reports for their decision-making—despite the fact that $2.5B goes into producing these reports. The report makes a strong case for understanding what data are needed by which people to make which decisions.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy has just released Understanding and Sharing What Works: The State of Foundation Practice, which presents new data based on surveys of foundation CEOs and case studies of four foundations with practices worth emulating. (Full disclosure: Lowell was a contributor.) Key take-homes include: 42 percent of CEOs say their foundation invests too little time and money on learning, only six percent of CEOs say they have quite a bit of knowledge about what’s working at other foundations that are addressing similar goals, and a full third of CEOs say that their foundation faces pressure from the board to withhold information about unsuccessful grants.

Kudos to Ann Mei Chang on her new book, Lean Impact. Her insights are informed by her successful engineering innovations at Google, but she wisely and humbly recognizes that innovation is far more complex in the social sector than in the tech world. So Ann Mei got out into the field to meet positive-outlier social-sector leaders who are doing an outstanding job of listening and learning. She combined their insights with her own to encapsulate a formula for learning and improvement that is tailor-made for social innovation.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance

Nov 29 — Washington, DC
Nine Ways Federal Agencies Are Getting Better Results” presentation; Results for America, McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University

Dec 3 — Online
Understanding and Sharing What Works” webinar; Center for Effective Philanthropy

December 5 — Online
Five Giving Trends for Nonprofits to Watch in 2019” webinar; GuideStar

December 12 — Online
Lessons in Systems Change Through an Equity Lens” webinar; SSIR

May 7-9, 2019 — Minneapolis-St. Paul
Stronger Philanthropy” conference; Center for Effective Philanthropy