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Uncommon Mindset, Uncommon Results

Over the coming months, we’ll unpack “Five Habits of Highly Effective Funders.” Last month, we offered greater specificity about how highly effective funders manage to build bonds of trust with their grantees, despite the inevitable power differential. This month, we’re going to look at another one of the habits: “Effective foundations exemplify a ‘growth mindset.'”

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Our timing for this post isn’t a coincidence. The Leap Ambassadors Community just published a profile of the Raikes Foundation, a true exemplar of this good habit.

For those of you who aren’t educators or haven’t followed the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, a growth mindset is a non-negotiable prerequisite for learning, growth, and improvement. It’s based on the scientifically valid belief that your intellect and talents are like muscles that you can develop through your efforts. “The belief that cherished qualities can be developed creates a passion for learning,” writes Dweck in her seminal book Mindset, a book Bill Gates loves.

A “fixed mindset,” the deterministic view that your intellect and potential are pretty much set at birth, has the opposite effect on learning. If you believe your traits are fixed and immutable, you don’t spend your time trying to get better. You typically surround yourself with friends and colleagues who shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who push you to grow. You live in fear of challenges that might possibly reveal to yourself or others that you’re holding a pair of fives, not a full house.

The two of us have come to see that we approach some situations with a fixed mindset and others with a growth one. Mario, for example, often looks at public speaking with a fixed mindset: “I’m a fast-talking Italian. There’s nothing I can do about it.” In contrast, he often exemplifies a growth mindset when it comes to solving complex problems: “I’m good at this, but I know I can benefit from the perspectives of others I respect.”

We’ve had hundreds of meetings with foundation leaders in which it was immediately apparent whether the leader was showing up with a fixed or growth mindset. We’ll share a few representative stories that illustrate just how easy it is to tell the difference:

  • Leader A, who had just received tough feedback in a Grantee Perception Report, used the first half of a two-hour meeting to pick apart the findings (“This methodology is flawed!”) and the second half explaining why the results weren’t meaningful (“Why should I care what my grantees think? I’m not trying to win a popularity contest!”).
  • Leader B, who was commissioning a lookback on her foundation’s practices, was quick to insist on including the voices of former staff members who didn’t have good experiences and applicants who were rejected for grants after long, drawn-out courtships.
  • At her foundation’s board meeting, Leader C hosted a discussion of lessons learned from family foundations that have had the most success in addressing community needs. At least a dozen times during the session, she extinguished lively discussions with some version of, “We just don’t do it that way.”
  • After being challenged respectfully by a staff member, Leader D acknowledged that he probably had a blind spot on a core aspect of the foundation’s work and quickly agreed to bring in a well-respected, speak-truth-to-power consultant to challenge his assumptions.

The truth is, we’ve been in more meetings over the years with funders like A and C than like B and D. (The same is true for the meetings we’ve had with business and government leaders.) But our purpose isn’t to cast stones. After all, we’ve committed our share of fixed-mindset sins! Instead, we’re eager to convince you that one of these mindsets leads to learning and improvement—while the other leads to false feelings of validation (“I didn’t realize how funny, smart, and good looking I was until I became a funder!”) and missed opportunities for growth.

If you’re a grantmaker, please take a mindfulness moment to think about these questions when you open your next meeting with an applicant or grantee: In this moment, am I in a growth mindset or a fixed one? Do I feel gratitude for an opportunity to learn from someone on the frontlines—or am I fixed in my beliefs of what works? Am I truly open to taking in insights on where I can do better—or am I only seeking validation that my view is smart or right?

Every one of the positive-outlier funders profiled by the Leap Ambassadors has a leader at the top with a growth mindset—and, as a direct result, many others in the organization do as well. That’s no coincidence. A growth mindset is one of the five key determinants of their uncommon results.


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

Last week in Seattle, Lowell had a chance to have lunch with Keystone Accountability’s David Bonbright, whose life work is helping growth-mindset leaders listen to and learn from those who are closest to the problems we want to solve. Bonbright did a great job of summing up his philosophy in his Giving Compass commentary “What Would Nelson Mandela Do?” We’ll share one pearl of wisdom, a sentiment President Mandela shared directly with him in 2005: “I have found that those who enjoy the most power and influence—even with the best of intentions—tend to over-rely on their own counsel. We see in most antipoverty programs, for example, a lack of accountability by donors and NGOs to the people who are meant to benefit from the programs.” Hear, hear!

We’ve been following the TED-fueled Audacious Project since its launch exactly a year ago, because it represents an innovative model for pooling serious resources ($750 million) from serious funders. Lowell was delighted that a hometown organization was on the just-announced list of awardees: The University of Washington’s Institute for Protein Design, which aims to become the “Bell Labs of protein design.” What is protein design? It’s the relatively new field of creating proteins from scratch for the purpose of creating radically new types of vaccines, medicines, and zero-carbon fuel sources. The Institute for Protein Design received a $45 million shot in the arm from the Audacious Project and its funders.

We’ve been doing a lot of thinking and writing lately about artificial intelligence and machine learning—and why we desperately need stronger societal structures for harnessing the life-enhancing good and preventing the existentially bad. We’re encouraged that Stanford has just launched the Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI). Stanford, a university with a great track record of cross-disciplinary work, is the perfect place for this work. We’re also deeply impressed with the leaders of the institute, including Fei-Fei Li, a true luminary in the field. The people and the approach are right for our time and societal needs.

Speaking of the potential upside of AI, we recommend Tina Rosenberg‘s New York Times column on how AI is helping authorities break up rings of sex traffickers. When men text certain online sex ads, they’re actually texting with chatbots that do a great job of pretending to be sex workers. A few days later, they get a message from the police, with a picture of a man sitting behind bars, intended to scare the hell out of them. “The new chatbots are safer and cheaper than in-person operations, and they are always on the job,” writes Rosenberg. “They can deter far more buyers than undercover operations can—before they buy sex. 1,200 percent more effective than full operations.” We hope this story inspires you to think about how you might join the growing number of nonprofits and government agencies using AI to improve services for vulnerable populations.

Mario and all of his fellow Clevelanders were disappointed by LeBron James‘s departure from the Cavaliers last year, but it’s great to read that the Akron school he created is showing real promise for the students it serves. According to The New York Times, “The inaugural classes of third and fourth graders at I Promise posted extraordinary results in their first set of district assessments. Ninety percent met or exceeded individual growth goals in reading and math, outpacing their peers across the district.” We’re mighty skeptical of most celebrity philanthropy, because models and mindsets are often driven more by PR considerations than anything else. But we’re encouraged by these early results and hope they set a higher bar for other celebrities who truly want to benefit the communities in which they grew up.


Events/Webinars for Raising Performance

May 7 — Online
The Keys to Growing Your Nonprofit: Effective Finance & Operations Management” webinar; SSIR

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

May 29-30 — Seattle
The Learning Conference 2019“; GEO, Philanthropy Northwest

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

Nov 13-15 — Chicago
“Upswell Chicago” annual conference; Independent Sector