Light After Dark

We cannot in good conscience jump into this newsletter without acknowledging what we’re feeling in the aftermath of Charlottesville: Can this really be happening in America?! Can history really be marching, in jackboots and loafers, in reverse?

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As an Italian-American whose father and uncles were looked down upon as immigrant trash and a Jewish American whose family tree was chain-sawed by the Holocaust, we’re not naïve about the dark side of human nature. Of course we know nativist fear and loathing are as much a part of America’s story as baseball and apple pie. And yet we’re still shocked that Nazis and Klansmen are goose-stepping out of the shadows with their tiki torches and semi-automatic weapons in 2017. We’re appalled that a relatively small body has managed to eclipse the light from our “shining city on a hill,” in Ronald Reagan’s famous phrase.

Most of all, we’re crushed by the lack of moral leadership from the White House. Forget tone-deaf tweets and deniable dog whistles. Words that give aid and comfort to white supremacists are now being broadcast, loud and clear, from the most prominent pulpit in the world.

What comes next? Perhaps we’re in for more path-of-totality darkness. But that’s not a foregone conclusion. In fact, it may be the opposite. Neither of us is a Buddhist scholar, but we’ve always found practical wisdom in a Zen koan about an old farmer.

There was once an old farmer whose horse ran away. Upon hearing this, his neighbors came to visit.
“Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it two other wild horses.
“Such good luck!” the neighbors exclaimed.
“Maybe,” replied the farmer.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown off, and broke his leg. Again, the neighbors came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.
“Such bad luck,” they said.
“Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after that, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army to fight in a war. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by.
“Such good luck!” cried the neighbors.
“Maybe,” said the farmer.

Yes, of course, Charlottesville was an unspeakable tragedy for murder victim Heather Heyer, her parents, and many others. But maybe Charlottesville will shock us out of our armchair outrage and motivate us to act on our core American values of decency, equality, and unity—just as Heyer did.

Every single one of us in the helping and healing fields has a special role to play in dousing, rather than fanning, the flames of hatred and summoning, rather than belittling, the better angels of our nature. This is an inflection moment. Those of us in the social sector must put our broad shoulders to the wheel to start that march of history moving forward again. Let’s roll!

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

Kudos to Bridgespan’s Michael Etzel and the Ford Foundation’s Hilary Pennington for their SSIR commentary “Time to Reboot Grantmaking,” which blows the lid off one of the most destructive practices in the philanthropic world: funding program growth while neglecting the organizational disciplines needed to manage that growth and produce high performance. “It’s time to end Potemkin philanthropy that builds the façade of successful organizations that, in fact, teeter on the brink of collapse,” they write. “We believe there is a better way—one that supports strong programs and strong organizations.” The article presents eye-opening research on the extent of the problem and shares a new tool, the Grantmaking Pyramid, which “reframes how funders and their grantees should think about building successful, resilient organizations.”
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We encourage you to check out David Bornstein‘s New York Times blog post “When Families Lead Themselves Out of Poverty.” We think there are two particularly interesting parts to this story about anti-poverty leader Mauricio Lim Miller and his Family Independence Initiative. First, it’s a creative example of listening to and honoring the voices of those you serve (the theme of last month’s Leap Update). Second, it’s a great example of how organizations can make data useful for clients, something VPP’s Isaac Castillo often stresses. And for those who want to dig deeper, Hilary Cottam‘s powerful TED Talk touches on some of the same important issues.
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Speaking of the New York Times, we enjoyed “A New Kind of Classroom: No Grades, No Failing, No Hurry.” It focuses on an innovation in education—mastery-based learning—that was ahead of its time when it was developed in the 1960s but getting new life thanks to computer-assisted teaching. The idea is not to focus on drilling and assessing. It’s all about letting students learn in their own ways at their own pace and moving on once they truly understand a topic. Mastery-based learning isn’t for every student or every school. But we’ll be watching closely as the many schools voluntarily experimenting with this approach share their learning about what works and what doesn’t.
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We commend the Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) and Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco on their new book, What Matters: Investing in Results to Build Strong, Vibrant Communities. We agree wholeheartedly with the book’s key premise that “Reorienting around outcomes has the potential to substantially improve the results that social-sector funding generates. And it has the potential to liberate us from a system that frustrates all its participants: the taxpayer who wonders what she’s getting for her money, the nonprofit service provider burdened by compliance rules that force attention and activity in areas she is not convinced will make a difference, and the people left without jobs, health, or hope when the compliance-based system fails to deliver results,” in the words of NFF’s Anthony Bugg-Levine. And we have great respect for the innovative models that the book’s many smart contributors have put forward.
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The Laura and John Arnold Foundation, stalwart champions of evidence-based policy, have just released “If at first you succeed, try again!,” the second installment in its Straight Talk on Evidence The report, which focuses on an unsuccessful replication of a program for probationers, illustrates why “replication of positive findings is essential in the social sciences.”
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Events/Webinars for Raising Performance

Sept 11-15 Philadelphia, PA Funder Executive Education Program;
Center for High-Impact Philanthropy
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Sept 12-13 Stanford, CA Nonprofit Management Institute: Leading Social Change in Turbulent Times“;
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Oct 18-20 Seattle BoardSource Leadership Forum“;
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Oct 25-27 Detroit Our Common Future” conference;
Independent Sector
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Nov 1 Washington, DC Feedback Crash Course” workshop;
Feedback Labs
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Nov 2-3 Washington, DC Feedback Summit“;
Feedback Labs, Fund for Shared Insight
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Nov 6-11 Washington, DC From Learning to Action” conference;
American Evaluation Association
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