What Fuels Passion for Mission?

Got Empathy?,” last month’s Leap Update, struck a resonant chord with many of you. After hitting “send,” we got dozens of notes from readers who felt motivated to share their own stories of the living linkage between empathy and effectiveness.

To build on this theme, we want to feature a nonprofit leader who speaks eloquently about why caring about clients leads so naturally to caring about performance. Then we’ll offer some reflections on why empathy is just as powerfully helpful for funders as it is for their grantees.

Christa Gannon set her sights on law school at age 16, when her best friend was raped and she felt compelled to protect others from similar harm. She went on to graduate from Stanford Law School and then founded Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY), which reduces crime and incarceration through legal education, mentorship, and leadership training.

In a series of video shorts produced by our friends at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, Gannon talks about her organization’s pursuit of high performance. As you’ll see in clips like this one, Gannon keeps returning to the theme that a caring heart and a rigorous approach dovetail beautifully:

We’re motivated to be a high-performing organization because the stakes are really high. We’re talking about kids in the juvenile justice system who think they’re going to be dead or in prison by the time that they’re 18. They might only have one shot at changing their lives, and if that shot is with FLY, I don’t want to let them down. I don’t want to let their families down. I don’t want to let the system down. That’s how all of our staff and volunteers feel.

We hope that after viewing Gannon’s video vignettes—and the others from our playlists on high performance—you’ll plug them into presentations you’re making or classes you’re teaching on these themes.

And if you’re a funder looking for video inspiration, we encourage you to look out for a new documentary film on the philanthropist Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932), the mastermind behind Sears, Roebuck & Company. The film, now being screened at film festivals around the world and not yet available for streaming or on DVD, is a portrait of a first generation Jewish American who, based on his own family’s history of persecution, found a deep connection with the plight of African Americans in the Jim Crow South.

Rosenwald is far less well known today than Rockefeller and Carnegie—largely because he chose to spend so much of his fortune on philanthropy during his lifetime rather than creating a perpetual foundation. But the impact of his giving was enormous. We had known that Rosenwald helped create more than 5,300 schools for African American children, most of whom would not otherwise have had any formal education. But we had not known that Rosenwald’s grants for African American artists and scholars, a precursor to the MacArthur Fellowships, helped advance the careers of so many brilliant creators—from the singer Marian Anderson to the writer Ralph Ellison to the poet Maya Angelou to the painter Jacob Lawrence.

The point is this: Rosenwald’s empathy, born of his own family story, compelled him to invest not just his fortune but also his great managerial mind in his philanthropic work. His empathy led him to venture out of his comfort zone, stay humble, listen, learn, and adapt. Rosenwald exemplifies the melding of heart and head.

And now for brief updates from around the Leap of Reason community:

  • The Science Behind Compassionate Care” builds nicely on the empathy theme of this update. In addition to describing research on the link between empathy and patient outcomes, the article does a good job of helping us understand at a human level why the link exists: “When clinicians make … empathic connections with their patients, when they don’t interrupt them, when they are comfortable with moments of silence, when they can pause a little bit when they see their patient is getting emotional, you see much better diagnostic accuracy,” in the words of Stony Brook University Professor Stephen Post. Similar dynamics exist in many areas in which nonprofits work.
  • Risk Management for Nonprofits, a study by SeaChange Capital Partners and consulting firm Oliver Wyman, is sending chills down our spine because of its devastating conclusions (despite its deceptively boring title). The report, which complements the Human Services Council’s Nonprofit Closure Commission report, shows that 10 percent of New York City nonprofits are insolvent, and more than 40 percent have almost no cash on hand. We fear this financial fragility is not limited to New York City.
  • Last month, President Obama signed into law the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act, which got its start with a text exchange between House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA). The law creates a 15-member commission to determine ways the federal government can “organize, protect, and analyze data to improve public policy.” The appointments must be completed by May 15. We will also be watching what emerges from a promising partnership between the Nonprofit Finance Fund and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco to “examine how results-based funding could revolutionize America’s approach to entrenched social issues.”
  • We read with interest the mea culpa commentary “Why I Regret Pushing Strategic Philanthropy,” by Hal Harvey, who co-authored a great book on strategic philanthropy when he was a program director at the Hewlett Foundation. Much of his commentary boils down to a critique of the arrogance of foundation leaders and staff who “become demigods—with all the theocratic arbitrariness that term implies.” We agree with Harvey’s critique. But as we highlighted in February’s Leap Update, it’s possible to be both highly engaged and “an ideal funder and partner” to grantees.
  • Kudos to Jacob Harold and his colleagues at GuideStar, who announced that they are launching a tool for collecting quantitative programmatic data from nonprofits. The new tool, GuideStar Platinum, may be the field’s first at-scale opportunity to move past financial metrics and get at actual progress and results. Harold is fully aware that nonprofits are more likely to share information on outputs rather than outcomes. But over time he hopes GuideStar can help “guide nonprofits toward outcome orientation.” It’s a Herculean task—and well worth the effort!
  • The next time you’re at your desk eating lunch and want to feed your mind at the same time, please check out the recorded version of this webinar featuring executive director and board chair of the Center for Violence-Free Relationships. “Many staff would [see] clients return for services … over and over. We were not making a difference at breaking or interrupting that cycle of violence,” Executive Director Matt Huckabay acknowledged with characteristic humility and candor. “Just because we were providing all of these services didn’t necessarily mean we were doing effective work.” So began the organization’s journey toward high performance.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance:

Best wishes,
Mario and Lowell