The following is a conversation between Jeff Walker, Chairman of New Profit, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: If I were to describe my next guest, the words I would use would be curious, eclectic, collaborative, and mindful. Those are wonderful attributes to have when you’re looking to identify some new ways to solve some very old social problems. He has been an executive with JPMorgan Chase, teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School, and has served or is serving as a chairman of more nonprofit boards than you can count– places like the Quincy Jones Music Consortium, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, and New Profit. He is Jeffrey Walker, who is all of the above and so much more. Good evening, Jeff, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Jeffrey: Hey Denver. How are you?
I played in every band – jazz band, wind ensemble, concert band, and everything else. It took a love of music and working with others to create something beyond myself. My dad worked on the Apollo program on the moon shots. I was impressed that he was working on something that clearly he couldn’t do by himself either. So, this feeling of collaborating and playing together with others has stayed with me my whole life. I think it’s actually the theme of my life; it’s building those ensembles.
Denver: Doing great. You know, when I look at your approach to problems, Jeff, whether they’re of the business or the social variety, much of that has been informed by music, which I know you love. When and where did that love affair begin?
Jeffrey: I can’t go a week without listening to live music. So that started when I was in seventh grade, walked into the band room, and the band director looked at me – tall, braces. “You’re going to play sousaphone…” “Oh, okay.” “…and the tuba.” “Oh, okay.” So I started playing. You can’t really solo too much as a tuba player, so you have to play with others.
So, thinking about working with others to create a sound is kind of where I started Platform, and I built from there. And I played in every band – jazz band, wind ensemble, concert band, and everything else. It took a love of music and working with others to create something beyond myself. My dad worked on the Apollo program on the moon shots. I was impressed that he was working on something that clearly he couldn’t do by himself either. So, this feeling of collaborating and playing together with others has stayed with me my whole life. I think it’s actually the theme of my life; it’s building those ensembles.
Denver: What is it about those ensembles you have found to be so instructive in the way you have solved problems– in both your business and your social service career?
Jeffrey: To be a good jazz player, for example, you have to play well, so good. That’s yourself, and then you have to listen well because others are playing different sounds, and you’re riffing off of them. Then you have to then create this sound that you’re both working on together so you’ll have an impact on an audience. And that’s how I think these ensembles have changed – and I’m involved in many, many of them – try to do. You have to listen well. You have to build collaborative strategies and processes. You have to look at yourself, make yourself better. That’s a self-inquiry process.
So thinking about a successful ensembles, they almost always talk about it as a religious event when it works well. Something spiritual just happened. How are we working that well together? It feels great. How did we do that? And I’ve continually looked for that feeling. You try to unite people together to have that exciting opportunity to make the world a better place. But do it together.
Denver: What’s the feeling you get when you listen to live music? Because as you say, you try to do it every week, and I know you often try to do it at least twice a week if you can.
Jeffrey: Well, that’d be nice. Depends on the city I’m in actually. It’s in a group of other people listening, and they’re reacting. So the people on stage are having to get feedback from the audience and understand, “Ah, this is working or not working. Here is the sound.” I still love recorded music, but that live feeling has another essence to it. I’m a big meditator… and with others, in a crowd. I think the experience is different because you’re getting that energy from others, and someday I hope to measure what that energy really is. I do believe it’s there somehow. But I think the ensembles do that.
Denver: This ensemble concept may have been the springboard for a book you co-authored with Jennifer McCrea a few years ago called The Generosity Network, and it’s about changing the perspective of the world regarding working on the big causes of the day. How do you see that perspective changing?
Jeffrey: We’re all learning how to do this better and better and understanding: it’s not one answer that is going to save the world. It’s not one individual. It’s really going to be a collaborative process. So, Generosity Network – and it’s a course at Harvard now- I’m actually going to guest teach this Monday. It’s all about lowering walls between donors and doers–people that are actually doing the work and people that are actually potentially funding it. There’s all sorts of other stakeholders involved in the process, but there’s actually walls that are up because donors typically would say, “You have to apply to me. You have to apply for funding, and I’ll evaluate you.” It creates fear. It creates fear from the donor side thinking, “Am I making a good investment here? Or do they just want me for my money?”
Then from the doer side, they’re sitting there going, “How do I get resources? Am I going to scare away this person?” There’s all these fears. So, if you can address the fear part and lower the wall and start saying, “What do you want? What are you passionate about? How can I help you? I’m not going to be treated just like a checkbook. I’m going to be treated like a partner who’s going to help solve a problem that we’re all going to work on together, and we each bring different resources to the table.” That’s what The Generosity Network is about. It’s ways to build those connections. To understand it’s not about: “Gee, the person raising money in a nonprofit, the development person, that’s their job. If I’m on the board or if I’m another officer, I don’t have to worry about it because I’m not a development officer.” That’s just not right. It’s a partnership, and it’s a relationship. I don’t even call them development officers anymore. These are major relationship people, people who are helping us connect to others in a deep way.
Denver: And it also fosters, I think, the way we have it now… A lot of dishonesty. I’ve worked with many nonprofit organizations. You’re never going to tell the donor about the risk that their investment might fail. And you’re probably going to be inclined to fudge the overhead a little bit to keep it lower. So, that whole sense of just a really open, honest dialogue is completely lost.
Jeffrey: Lose the sell. It’s not about selling. It’s about collaborating.
Denver: Speaking about collaborating, what about philanthropists collaborating together? We see them tend to work in silos quite a lot. It’s my money, it’s my idea, and it’s my way. Are there some tools and techniques to try to bring philanthropists together around a common cause with a measurable impact?
Jeffrey: I love that– measurable impact. What are we going to have done, but do it in a collaborative way. We’ve developed a lot of different things. We have things called Jeffersonian dinners where you’re sitting going: “Why don’t we get people together around a table? Have a whole table conversation and actually share knowledge with each other?” Develop and lower walls between them saying: “ Hey, we can potentially solve things together. You know, I’m getting something out of this. I’m actually enjoying this conversation. I’m actually enjoying this dinner. I’ll come back. Let me do that again.”
Denver: As you say, it’s one conversation at the table. It’s not 7 conversations among 14 people.
Jeffrey: I cannot do thousand-person dinners where everybody’s talking to each other next to them about their dog. Actually having a conversation with intelligent people is my joy. So, that’s what we have to do. There’s all sorts of different ways to start bringing people together, but particularly donors, so that they see there’s an advantage. And it’s actually more fun. So that I would get together with some of my friends and say,” I really want to have an impact, for example, on early childhood. If that’s what your joy is too, I’ll hook you up.”
Music, whatever it might be. So, let’s bring these people together. And isn’t that the role of an ensemble player? Isn’t that the role of an orchestrator? To help unite people around these common causes? And when you do that, the energy goes up. Joy goes up. The resources start rising again. So, we’re starting to see that not just in small donors…. For pretty large donors. Very large foundations start to understand that partnerships are really critical for our long-term success, and they’re re-looking at it in this what we’re calling “system-change models.” How do you look at these larger system questions? And how do you join together with other influencers to affect the change you want to see?
Denver: And it also requires a little bit of a redefinition of what success is because we have a very classical way at my organization and how much have I done. But really, it’s now got to be more around the issue than really around the organization.
Denver: Let’s give us an example here, starting with malaria, because I think that’s absolutely a great one; and your role there was vice chairman of the United Nations Secretary General Envoy’s Office for Health, Finance and Malaria. How did you look at tackling that huge challenge?
Jeffrey: I got involved in the process. When I was retiring at JP Morgan, a guy named Ray Chambers connected me up. And Ray is one of my life gurus. Understands how to go after certainly the problems in the world. You find those, right? You try to be them, but also find them. Ray said, “Come on board. Work with me. It’s something called Millennium Promise first.” Then Ray moved over to Malaria after he saw some kids dying in Malawi at feeding stations, and I happened to be with him. So, he said, “Let’s get together, and let’s figure this out.”
Ray did an amazing job setting up things like Malaria No More and others, and we were helpful in the process. But I actually said, “You know, Malaria is a great example of system change, and I’ve written about it, analyzed it.” It is one of the early ones that we started looking at saying: How did all these individual and organizations come together and have a common goal of lowering deaths from malaria down to near zero? How did that happen? Did it work? Well, we set a goal of 10 years, used the Millennium Development Goals as that common measure that we could go after, and we didn’t quite accomplish it in 10 years. But it went from around a million deaths per year down to below 200,000 a year.
So, a million people a year lives have been saved. It’s not because of one person. It was because there is an orchestration. There’s a collaboration. People have been working on malaria for hundreds of years. Particularly a lot of money over 20 or 30 years, but somehow this shifted the conversation. It made it so the USAID and the World Bank and Partners in Health, with Paul Farmer and Harvard and all these different stakeholders came together…the President’s Malaria Initiative to have a common cause.
And how do we measure that? So, we said how are we going to measure it? Nobody knows if we’re going closer or not. Oh, we’ve got to get bed nets. These are the things we use to stop the mosquitoes from coming in. How do we work with Sumitomo? How do we get production going? It became all the questions that we as old – Ray is an old private equity guy, and so am I; we looked at: what levers can we pull? Oh, we need financing for the bed nets. We need more production. Let’s think about that one.
So instead of just taking a siloed global health approach, let’s start opening it up to lots of other different stakeholders who can contribute. And also make sure that we’re working with the governments so that it’s sustainable. So, it’s not us, the outside world, coming in helping these poor people. It’s actually working in partnership with individuals – philanthropists, faith based leaders and others like in Nigeria, which we did to affect the change.
Denver: How do you get something like that started? What was the moment? Was it Ray? What was the moment that you were able to bring that force to bear on this problem?
Jeffrey: There was the moment of: Let’s do this! And that was in Malawi. Saying, we have to figure out how to do this. Then the process of: Let’s start pulling some people together to talk about what do we do? We didn’t know it was going to be bed nets. We didn’t exactly know all the different people we were going to bring to the table. That is the biggest advantage I know in life – to not have the answers. It’s actually to understand what the questions can be and should be, right? So, that’s the fun part. It’s asking people these questions about: what do we do now? What do you think? How does this come together? Let’s have some Jeffersonian dinners. Let’s have some convening to talk about this.
We actually did one the White House helped with and then Gates helped with. That’s almost too easy to say because it’s hard to do, but you can do this in a micro way too by the way. Local community, etc. Bringing people together to say, “What do you think we ought to do? How do we join together to figure that one out?” But also leveraging your network. I think that’s the joy, honestly, of being as old as I am and thinking, I actually lived a decent life, I think. But I have a lot of people I know, and I can use my networks, and you know my network’s getting better and better because I’m not here to sell anything. I’m here to find some other people to work on these really interesting issues and complex puzzles so we have fun playing together. And it does. I do this all the time. And it’s so fun to do that and find other people to get energetically interested as well.
Denver: It sounds like also that a little humility goes a long way. So, when you start out these things with that sense of humbleness, it’s amazing the things that you can do.
Let’s return to your love of music. It only stands to reason that you love to be able to bring music and make it available to kids all across the country. Now, that is a very big goal. What do you do to start that?
Jeffrey: We started this conversation with Jennifer McCrea and a guy named Quincy Jones. Quincy’s a well-known record producer. I’m not sure young kids these days remember Quincy, but he is Q. He’s such a great guy. We sat there in his foundation, and he was going to give some money to an orphanage in Cambodia, and we said, “Great! That’s awesome. Let’s do some more things.” Then we said, “Q, what about music? Shouldn’t we do something in the music world? What really moves you?” We started talking about kids and the kids that don’t have it, particularly the kids in the inner city.
Schools have been closing down music programs left and right, and there’s some things around like VH1, and there’s nonprofits. There’s a great one, Little Kids Rock, David Wish. There’s Mr. Holland’s Opus and a bunch of others. And we said, Do we just back them? That’s not what we did in Malaria. What if we did something similar here in the music space? So, over time, we brought Berklee College of Music together. We brought teacher unions together. We brought people in each of the cities together, and there are 70 nonprofits. And we bring them into the room, and we got the Grammys to say, “We’re willing to be the incubator, that orchestrator, because we don’t have all the answers, but we care about music. And we have a lot of artists that care about music with the Recording Academy. So, let’s work on this together.”
So, rather than focusing just on an NGO to work with, we started saying, Let’s focus on cities. So, we picked Philadelphia and Nashville for example, to say, Do we share common goals? But the problem is: we want kids to have more exposure to music. I grew up with music, and I think it transformed my life. It teaches leadership, it teaches… scores go up. There’s lots of evidence of what happens. So, let’s make sure that all kids, K through 6, have music, to take some music program in school. Not after school. Then let’s make sure kids, 7 through 12, have culturally relevant music. That was whole… we had days of discussions, negotiations because I’m not here to say, Long Island wants to teach classical music. Awesome. But it doesn’t fit every city. Little Kids Rock wants to teach modern rock. Awesome. But it doesn’t fit every city. So, how do we say, “We’re going to empower instead the head of the music programs in each of the cities to figure out what’s culturally relevant, so we motivate the kids, and we motivate the parents too.” Parents get around this. Energy goes up. The kids show up at school more often. So, that’s what we did.
We have some common goals by city. We’re helping them raise resources. We’re helping them network. We’re helping artists now start taking ownership of the cities themselves and saying this is important to them. Bringing social media strategies around this one. So we have all these different NGOs. We get lots of different academic institutions to prove the results as well as provide teaching talent and some other things. So, it’s really fun. Now we’re finding more and more people who are joining with us and at Grammy’s Music Education Coalition we set up and co-founded, and saying: Join with us to do this. It’s a blast. So people are going, “Okay. That’s sounds fun to me.” And we are having a blast.
Denver: Well, that’s absolutely fabulous, Jeff, and I do love your concept that you bring to these things– of the tool box. Making these tools available and then letting those local people decide what they want and how they want to use it, because once you try to foist it upon them, it’s never going to work. How would you know? And they own it a little bit more.
Let’s continue along that same line. There’s been a tremendous positive change that has occurred as a result of the efforts of social entrepreneurs. They have really achieved some remarkable results. But if we’re going to dramatically increase the level of that change, it’s going to take something called “systems entrepreneurs.” And I know you co-authored a piece about that in the Harvard Business Review a while back. What is a systems entrepreneur?
Jeffrey: Systems entrepreneur is an orchestrator. It is someone who can have that managed ego to say: “I have questions, but I don’t have the answers. But I’ll help pull together those that might have some answers or might have some approaches.” So, there might be several different innovations, several different social entrepreneurs and enterprises that we can unite for a common goal. We might need to figure out that there’s some communication awareness strategies. We’ve got to make people aware of these solutions. Nobody knows about them. What’s the point? You know? Maybe we ought to work with somebody in the system itself, in the school system. Who’s in the school system that can be a partner, so that they’ll take responsibility when we bring these innovations in… and to embed it so when we stop, when we as philanthropists stop, it stays? And that sustainability is a big issue.
So the systems entrepreneurs share data, share best practices, and most of them– this is Ray and our team around Malaria– they’re small, small teams, and they leverage, high- leverage opportunities to say, “What if we as philanthropists fund not just social entrepreneurs; social entrepreneurs are really important. Most of them are key innovators. But how do we fund this other group that helps unify it around this common problem?” And they have a set of tools that they can use to unify people. One is: What’s the common problem? Music, we figure out is lack of K through 6 classes. Let’s measure that. So, it drives you to the measurement when you identify what the problem is.
Number two is: there’s some things called “system mapping.” A consulting firm called FSG helped create it along with Bridgespan and others. Let’s map who cares about the problem. If you map who cares about the problem, you may have partners, influencers, partners, opportunities, levers… whoever that is. So, then don’t drive to the answer until you have identified the problem and those who care about it.
Then you can say, “Now, let’s figure out what to do about it together.” And that’s what a systems entrepreneur does is start to introduce a number of these tools to figure out this larger systematic change. And system change can be large things like the Freedom Fund that’s focusing on slavery, the 42 million people in the world that are enslaved, or the END Fund, focused on neglected diseases; find neglected diseases and get them down to zero. But the people that are running those, Nick Grono for the Freedom Fund and Ellen Agler is the END Fund, they are the system entrepreneurs. They’re the ones that are saying, “Join with me, donors, so that we’ll be more effective together, and I’m not here to sell you that I have the answer. But I know together, we’ll actually have a better answer.
Denver: They really understand and appreciate the full context of the problem. They understand that though that the solution is going to have to take into account the full context.
Jeffrey: Their mode of action is what others are drawn to then, saying: They’ve done more work on this than others, so let’s join with them! In New Profit, that’s what we’re doing is creating a lot of these system entrepreneurs and incubating them saying: How do you partner, like we’ve been doing for 20 years with social entrepreneurs? And in fact, a lot of social entrepreneurs now are becoming system entrepreneurs. Wendy Kopp is now that for Teach for All. When she started Teach for America, I called her a classic social entrepreneur. But she’s evolved saying: I want to look at this larger system. That’s what Gerald Chertavian is doing in Year Up. He’s looking at this larger system of employment and skill base with employment strategies. So, I think it’s natural, not just for social entrepreneurs, by the way, but others to roll into these orchestration strategies.
Denver: Let me ask you two more things about philanthropy before you move on. One of them is the relationship between the CEO and board chair. There’s probably no more important relationship in a nonprofit organization, and it’s so good to talk to you. I get to speak to a lot of CEOs, but not so many board chairs. So, to be able to hear it from your perspective would really be interesting. What are the elements of a healthy and a robust relationship, as well as the warning signs that the organization is about to suffer because that relationship is beginning to break down?
Jeffrey: I totally agree that this is a critical relationship because some people talk about how the board versus the CEO, but actually the chair is so critical to making sure the board communicates well with the CEO, actually has a healthy culture and atmosphere when you’re actually having board meetings, so that they’re constructive; they’re generative, curating interesting thoughts and ideas and openings of networks. So, when I arrive to a board meeting as a board chair and I’m working with a CEO, if I don’t have people come out of the board meeting going, That was interesting! I really learned something. If they didn’t say also that, “You know, I think I contributed something. I actually think what I said might have been helpful.” Then, that’s a great meeting. If they think, that’s just a bunch of PowerPoints and somebody presented to them, or Gee, that was the only time we ever heard; once a quarter we get together for a board … that is terrible.
Denver: I’ve been to a lot of those.
Jeffrey: The best and healthier relationships in my mind are constant contact with the CEO. Vanessa Kirsch is at New Profit, who is the CEO there, and I talk every Friday morning for an hour and a half, and we just talk. “What’s going on? What’s important? What can I help with? What other board members that can be helpful? Can I call them and bring them in? Gee, you have a donor issue? Let’s figure out how to get that donor interested in what we’re doing. You have a management issue.” Whatever it is. So, you become hopefully, a partner in the process. And then you model that because you model that with others in the organizations, and other board members model that too. So, each board member contributes something differently, and your job as board chair is to figure out how to match them. It’s that ensemble creation; it’s that you play really well, that instrument. So, I could hook you up with somebody that really needs that! As opposed to: we’re just kind of a mass of people who are there to control you, and that’s a terrible strategy. So, the board chair is that conduit. Is that connector.
I believe in life that if I can find people who I wish I was, but don’t have time to be, which I call an avatar, then I’ll support him. If I can have as many avatars in the world that I just love and that are really pieces of me in different forms, then why wouldn’t I support them with all the knowledge, network, and contacts? I don’t care. Of course, they’re me in different shape and form. Awesome!
Denver: Let me ask you about donors. Some organizations don’t really have a lot of hands-on volunteer opportunities for donors. Yet, some of those donors are yearning for a personal connection with that organization. And you’ve spoken about this concept of avatars. Sounds interesting. What is it?
Jeffrey: I believe in life, that if I can find people who I wish I was, but don’t have time to be, which I call an avatar, then I’ll support him. If I can have as many avatars in the world that I just love and that are really pieces of me in different forms, then why wouldn’t I support them with all the knowledge, network, and contacts? I don’t care. Of course, they’re me in different shape and form. Awesome! It’s finding people like that. It gives me energy when I find people like that. Many of them are younger, so maybe helping them get in there. Somebody who is passionate, and I have, as in my old venture life, I do too many things, but figuring out those that I can work through and leverage, as my old CEOs of companies. Now these are not just social entrepreneurs, but these are system entrepreneurs; these are others that are passionate. How do I engage them and help them succeed?
And that does take – many in the philanthropy world, I think, need more of this… some self-inquiry saying: Am I doing this well? Am I actually…do I manage the ego? Do I try to pull my ego more out of it than I can? It’s impossible to take it all and then work on the bigger issue and have some sympathetic joy. Sympathetic joy is to find as happy that others are happy and joyful and not jealous and that’s something I and hopefully many others continue to work on to make sure that… oh I wish I had that joy. Boy, he has a great car. I wish I had that car. I’m just happy he has the car. So, how do we do that in life and getting people to help do that as well?
Denver: One way to help do that is through mindfulness, and you, Jeff, are one of the earliest proponents, certainly in the business world, of mindfulness and meditation. What got you started down that road?
Jeffrey: The contemplative world is important to me. It gives me that center. I started meditating in 1973 at the University of Virginia in the middle of a field. And I now am the outside chair of the Contemplative Science Center where Studies Mediation… and we’re building a building right on that spot, which was very strange. Very strange when they told me that. I had no input into it at all.
Denver: They probably didn’t know where you were laying on the field.
Jeffrey: First year in college. Who knows where we are? That connection between self-spirit and others and understanding that we can meditate and modify our brains; we’re modifying our brain cells, and so understanding that working together to create people who have lower anxiety, lower depression, and these are all the things that I’ve been helping support over the years in research around that show that if you do have a long term practice, your mind changes. You become, I think, a better person. You are able to focus better. You are able to be more collaborative. You are able to work in teams better. You are compassionate.
I can show you, and there’s lots of science now. We actually have science going through the FDA near approval for ADHD, for mindfulness instead of taking drugs. Isn’t this better? So, we’re using these tools to bring it to kids. Kids at schools. We’re bringing in kids in higher ed and early ed and using it in healthcare. So, we help set up companies to do this and fund those as well. So, it’s been a center part of my life in the practice of that. I go on retreat twice a year. I find many others who – CEO of Aetna is my Sangha, my work group. That holds us all accountable because it’s hard to do by yourself. So, if you’re like, How is your meditation going? How’s your yoga? This is not selling one thing. It’s really a whole set of practices that help us reform our mind and body to be a little more useful in the world.
Denver: You said about the fact that you don’t do this by yourself because I think many people envision meditation as a being a solitary activity. And I guess there are opportunities and there are benefits in doing this in a communal way, correct?
Jeffrey: Totally. It’s different. It’s okay to go by yourself. Absolutely. You should do that. But it’s a different experience, as live music is a different experience than recorded music. When I’m practicing with others, when I’m meditating with others, and then I’m having discussions with them afterwards as to how did that go? What do you think? God, I was thinking a lot. Oh, Okay, that’s okay. I’ll think about that. Gee, there’s a different kind of meditation you can do. There’s a loving kindness meditation. Oh, what is that? How does that work? So, with others, you get better. With others, there’s an energy feeling of… just like jazz guys talk about… something spiritual that’s going on. I think that’s true in the meditation space as well.
Denver: Let me ask you about mindfulness as it relates to an organization, particularly a nonprofit. I think all of them are striving to become more relevant and become a magnet for talent. What can leaders do to create a culture of mindfulness?
Jeffrey: That’s a great question. The business schools started down this path before anybody else. It’s interesting that business can lead that. At Harvard, they call it “authentic leadership.” At Stanford, they call it touchy-feely. Deepak Chopra teaches a course at Northwestern Business School. Now, it’s being infused throughout business. I taught meditation at JP Morgan twenty years ago, and we had mindful leadership as well. So, it’s not just about the problems. But it’s also about the opportunity to improve yourself, making yourself more effective.
Bill George who writes about authentic leadership and does some great teaching, Scott Kriens, one of my partners; they teach in a place called 1440 Multiversity in California that’s a new retreat center about leadership and bringing companies in and country managers in. What they’re finding is people are working better in teams, when they have these skills; there actually are lower incidences of anxiety, and better and higher performance levels. There’s all sorts of other aspects of the change – behavioral health issues, and now SIGMA is adopting those programs; a company called Happify is embedding it. We had another one we invested in called Headspace, and Insight Timer and a bunch of others.
So, we have an investment group called Bridge Builders which has seven of us now who have joy in investing in this space. We don’t have to. We can do other things, but we actually love it with each other. There’s a guy called Charlie Hartwell who is our collaborative glue that holds us together. We always need something like that. We love to get in a retreat together, but then we find a deal called, this Insight Timer thing. Wow! There’s 4 million people that have signed up and there’s one million users. And they have 2,000 teachers, and maybe we can bring these ideas out to the world. And there’s other business strategies too. Then, we can in healthcare start improving health by investing in companies that can bring these tools and techniques to medical students, to understanding that we can bring these tools to academic research, to make people’s lives have lower suffering. In my life, if I can lower suffering in the world, enhance joy, I’m done. And if I can do it through ensembles with others, I’m so done.
Denver: Very nicely, and very simple. That’s what you want to do, and not a lot of complexity to that but, profound!
You mentioned teams before. How does mindfulness change the way teams can work together and become more effective and more engaged and happier?
Jeffrey: That’s an important point. Particularly in the new Millennial and Next Gen world, there’s flat structures, and they’re interested in working together on big issues and big problems and stimulating themselves. So, giving them skills to actually lower the number of thoughts in your mind; half your thoughts are kind of extraneous. Let me slow that down a little bit. Let me think about that one. Expand the space between your thoughts. Giving these skills to people seems to allow them to be a jazz ensemble, play together well, listen to each other better. Understanding there’s a purpose for them doing this work together, and being open with each other starts opening the communication like, How you doing this? Let me help you, and you can help me. Being a mirror to another is a really useful tool. If I don’t have people who are my mirrors, who understand so I can see myself more clearly… my wife is a great one; she’ll tell me, ”You’re not really owning up to what you promised.” Or “Where are you going on this one?” I think that’s what happens in teams for sure.
Denver: And you touched a moment ago on higher education. Boy, the pressures of grades and alcohol and addiction, and sexual violence! Really just trying to fit in and be popular. Lots going on at that age. But you believe that these mindfulness tools can be very valuable, and you’re doing something about it. What is it?
Jeffrey: At the University of Virginia, at Contemplative Science Center, we’ve teamed up with the University of Wisconsin, Richie Davidson there, and Penn State, Mark Greenberg and team, to create a course called Flourishing. It’s a first year course. Get three credits, and it’s a flip classroom, so you read everything ahead of time, and then you actually just get and talk and work with each other in classroom. They’re talking about these issues because our Student Health Services– I’m on the board in the University of Virginia for example, and I was on the board at Berklee College of Music– there is more stress than when I was in college. We were still stressed. Okay, but now, somehow, with technology, with sex oppressors, with drinking and everything else.
So, Student Health Services were at their wits end. So waiting until somebody is depressed and suicidal to show up in the Student Health is not the answer. It’s giving them the tools to be able to address these problems themselves or with others in their dorms, for example. So, what this course does is giving those set of tools. By the way, it’s not just mindfulness. It’s whatever works for you. It’s a set of tools. It might be yoga. It might be Qigong. It might be just talking. It may be hanging out. It might be opening up to others. Just knowing that there’s resources around and teachers teaching that as well. So, the course has done great. Now we’re talking to a number of other universities about using similar models for that Flourishing style.
Denver: Fantastic. And even better than getting those tools to young people in college is getting it to them earlier, and at the University of Virginia Contemplative Science Center, you are looking at the younger students. And the proving ground for you is the 28th largest school district in the country, which is Louisville, Kentucky. Tell us about the Compassionate School Project.
Jeffrey: It’s this one that’s been going for almost five years now. We teamed up with the local community foundations and the Brown family and a bunch of others to bring 25,000 kids Kindergarten through 5th grade, the tools of mindfulness, yoga, social emotional learning, and health. Wow! If we could give tools like that to the kids at their early age, so that we’re not trying to fix things when they’re 18 or 21, then we’re going to have a better world.
We’ve been doing this, and the results are through the roof. 25,000 is not a small test. It actually is a research project, and there’ll be really great papers coming out of it, but the results are impacting Louisville.. It’s been happening over the last couple of years, and they’re embedding this program into their school system, which is the goal of our philanthropy, is to help support some of that. And if you can actually tie research into it to prove that the kids are in school more often, that the kids are performing better grade-wise, that they have the ability to not get into fights as much and some other things… which is all true; then isn’t that a good thing?
Then we use those as models. What happens is, this is a systems change strategy at the city level. You’re doing it in partnership with the mayor, and the mayor’s amazing; the superintendent, the schools, and figuring with them how to imbed it, as opposed to saying: “I have a nonprofit, and these are all good ones to innovate. I have a nonprofit that is going to come give you this resource, and you have to do the following to allow me to bring it to your school system.” It’s just not a partnership mode. That was really good we’ve developed those ideas, but I think we’re all in this world now starting to bring together lots of these different tools. And being collaborative and working with the people that are going to be affected, and that’s in proximity. That’s as close to the problem as we can get. Involving those people at that bottom part of the system, and then being this collaborative glue, this top-around model that helps them get access to those tools to affect the change they want to see.
Denver: Well said. Let me close with this, Jeff, and maybe how you do what you do is unique to you, but there may be some advice there for others. I think the conventional wisdom in philanthropy is: If you really want to make a difference, you need to focus your efforts on one or two things, maybe three. You’ve made a real difference, but it’s been a lot more than one or two or three things. Malaria, the Berklee School of Music, Harvard, the Contemplative Science Center we talked about, New Profit, Just Capital, Millennial Promise, the Lincoln Center Film Society and so on. It doesn’t even include your business and your investments. Is there a secret to be able to juggle so many things and continue to bring vital and valuable contribution to each?
Jeffrey: Having joy while you do it. If I’m not having a good time by the relationships that I have, the collaborations I’m working on, I move on. Also dropping things. When they’re interesting in the early stages, I like the early stage idea of figuring stuff out. Once it becomes more mature, then I’ll move on. I like to advise more than I like to be on a real board. I go on real boards, but I’d rather work with a CEO or work with a great innovator or an orchestrator to accomplish the change you want to see and use my network to do that. Network is a big effect. So being able to introduce people to others, saying: “I’m not going to do it for you. But I can hook you up with somebody who can.” Or to unify and leverage off of other people so I can affect the change I want to see together is really important. Avatar effect, understanding this ensemble effect, to my mind makes my life manageable enough that I can be involved in a lot of cool stuff.
Denver: Manageable enough that we were lucky enough to have you come here this evening. Jeffrey Walker, the systems entrepreneur. Thanks so much for being here this evening. If people want to learn more about all that we talked about or your approach to the things we discussed, where can they go for additional information?
Jeffrey: You go to Google and just call up Jeffrey Walker and look up some of my articles. Bridge Builders is another one. If you want to know about investments in the contemplative space, you can look up Bridge Builders, and see some of the investments that we have. Look up Contemplative Science Center University of Virginia, and then go to New Profit. We’re writing a lot of articles about system change as we speak. A lot of system entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs at newprofit.org.
Denver: Bridge Builders is bbcollaborative.com. It’s a great gateway for people who are interested in meditation. Thanks, Jeff. It was great to have you on the program.
Jeffrey: Great, Denver.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.