The following is a conversation between Anne Marie Burgoyne, the Managing Director of Social Innovation and Impact at the Emerson Collective, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: If you are looking for an organization that is approaching the most intractable social problems in a novel and innovative way, it would serve you well to check out the work of the Emerson Collective, an organization that was started by Laurene Powell Jobs. And with us tonight to shed some light on that work is Anne Marie Burgoyne, the Managing Director of Social Innovation and Impact at the Emerson Collective.
Good evening, Anne Marie, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Anne Marie: Good evening. It’s good to be here. Thank you for including me.
Ralph Waldo Emerson had a very deep belief in self-reliance – the belief that if individuals had an understanding of what was possible for them, if they had knowledge of what their choices were, and then if they had the options to go toward the choices that were interesting and important to them, that they could lead lives of great purpose and great community and great kindness.
Denver: Laurene named the organization for Ralph Waldo Emerson. What was the significance of that?
Anne Marie: It’s such an important question, and it’s such a grounding piece of our culture. Ralph Waldo Emerson had a very deep belief in self-reliance – the belief that if individuals had an understanding of what was possible for them, if they had knowledge of what their choices were, and then if they had the options to go toward the choices that were interesting and important to them, that they could lead lives of great purpose and great community and great kindness.
And so those are the framing topics of the Emerson Collective, which is why over time, so much of the work we do is about helping individuals to find those paths to make choices for themselves.
Denver: That’s great because there’s a real belief that that power resides inside that individual, and organizations maybe can help remove a few of the barriers, but you don’t have to do it for them. They’re the experts on their own lives, and they’ll be fine if they just get a few opportunities.
Anne Marie: Yes.
…the LLC framework allows many different tools, and then equally importantly, many different people who come from very different places in the world, or at least in the US world, who have different skills and different social networks to go at challenges together and be in conversation about how to create solutions together.
Denver: I think it’s fair to say that Emerson is a different kind of organization. It’s really quite unlike anything that I’ve ever seen, and it’s been created to do a certain kind of work in a different way. How would you, Anne Marie, describe the mindset and the approach that Emerson Collective takes to this work?
Anne Marie: I’ll step back, and I’ll describe Emerson a little bit. We’re structured as an LLC, which allows us then on our team to have a wide variety of individuals with very different skills, very different ways of coming at the world, and different ways of thinking about problem solving. Our goal has been to ask not just “How do we make a grant here?” – the cry we use is “How do you go beyond the grant?” – but “How do you use an array of different kinds of tools to create social change?”
So my team, our framing topic is philanthropy, but we go well beyond the grant. We tend to do a lot of capacity building work. We create a lot of introductions. We do a lot of convenings. We have a team that does investing. That’s a different kind of market change; that’s allowing the market, the commercial market, to move how things happen. That can happen in the education space, in impact investing. That can happen in the green economy space environmentally. There’s a lot of places where the market has a very different, larger kind of power to change people’s experiences and their access to services.
We have a team that focuses on communications and marketing and storytelling. Changing people’s hearts and minds, allowing them to build empathy, or simply to build greater understanding of how different people make choices and different people experience and live their lives; that’s a very important opportunity to give others access into understanding and empathy.
We have a team that focuses on advocacy and policy. Frame change around how decisions are made, how resources are allocated, is another important kind of social change. We also have a team that allows convenings to happen much more easily at Emerson, which is a frame which can be very powerful. And then we have a media team that sits between our investing team and our philanthropic team which allows us to put investments into both for-profit and nonprofit media organizations, which then take some of those ideas around storytelling and gives them away to have dissemination and the power to move to additional places.
So, the LLC framework allows many different tools, and then equally importantly, many different people who come from very different places in the world, or at least in the US world, who have different skills and different social networks to go at challenges together and be in conversation about how to create solutions together.
Denver: Are you seeing this LLC framework becoming more and more prevalent? We know about Chan Zuckerberg, and everything you just described … so much more latitude than you would ever have with a 501(c)(3), particularly around issues like advocacy. Is that going to be a growing trend, do you think, or not?
Anne Marie: I agree with you. We see it at Chan Zuckerberg. I think our friends at the Omidyar Network have always been good thinkers in this way. The Skoll Foundation, the way it has the Jeff Skoll set of organizations has also, I think, done some thoughtful work using different tools and different skills.
My instinct is that this is the kind of – and I’ll even broadly say “social change” as opposed to just narrowly philanthropy – kind of work that could grow. I think you do have to make a commitment to being in a place that has some ambiguity. I think you have to learn the importance of multidisciplinary communication.
People on grant-making teams think about the world a certain way: where it starts, where it ends, how decisions are made. Our investment team colleagues, they think similarly to us, but differently; their timelines are different, the way they think about impact is different. Our colleagues that sit on our communications brand and storytelling teams, they have a much less linear way of going at the world, but actually a much more lyrical way of coming at the world. And so, it’s really helpful for them to hear the stories we hear and then bring that kind of animation to them. And then our advocacy colleagues are all about “What’s happening now? What’s happening next?” which is a very different frame as well.
It’s powerful because it brings many perspectives to the conversation, but it also means you need to listen well; you need to be patient, and you need to see how your work fits into something bigger and different than simply what you do. So I mentioned this because I feel like if folks have the appetite and the patience, then I think this is a really, really wonderful way of problem solving, but I think you do need to go at it knowing that it requires a level of thoughtfulness and effort that you need to embrace.
Denver: “Embrace ambiguity.” One of my favorite values of an organization that was on the show, Simprints.
Anne Marie: Indeed.
Denver: And the other thing also, in just listening to you, it really is talking about diversity. And so many people when they talk about diversity, they do it within their existing frame. Here, the diversity is a cognitive diversity in so many different ways, and getting all those strands coming together in a blend really produces a completely different project at the end.
Anne Marie: It does. And then when I think about whether you use the word diversity, or equity and income, or inclusion – there’s this array of labels you can place there – but one set of voices I haven’t explicitly mentioned, which I think is so important to mention, are the people we serve and the people who the people we serve serve, and assuring that the experiences of those people in communities are very much in the center of our work.
I haven’t been as explicit about that as I should be because so much of how we think about solutions is very deeply impressed upon by those people who are in places where they simply need more options and more choice and more access.
Denver: Constituent voice.
And as far as your grants are concerned, you make general operating grants, and often do it for multi-year periods. Why is that the case?
Anne Marie: It’s interesting. I would say the vast majority of our grants are multi-year general operating grants, and I think that that comes from a couple of different frames. I’d have to argue— my gut instinct is to say, “That seems to be the most obvious, best way to do grantmaking.” And that I think comes from my really strong belief that if you get to know a leader, you get to know a leadership team. You understand the mission, and you believe an organization is working toward that mission, that that would be the best place to invest. That allows the leader and their team to make highest, best use choices, and it allows the mission to flourish in the way that it is best able to in real time.
I recognize that there are times when organizations want to focus on a certain geography or a certain project. That may be just a different way. But for us, what’s pretty great about doing general operating work is when we come to organizations to spend time with them – and we have an annual call every year with every grantee… and a variety of people from Emerson join that call to learn, to be proximate to the work – we ask them to give us a report based on what they said they were going to accomplish that year; so it’s driven by them.
And then we ask them to give us an annual report that they sent to another donor. Our goal isn’t just: meet you where you are, but to learn. But then we really can ask about their board, about the staff, about programs that are hard, about things that are going well. It allows you to have a palette of things to talk about. You don’t get just narrowly born into that place where you chose to invest. You have a lot of freedom and flexibility.
I’d also say I was an executive director many years ago. I worked in the disabilities community. Nearly all of my grants were restricted grants, and it made it extremely difficult, I could say, to be creative; I’d even say sometimes to be pragmatic. I made a lot of suboptimal choices because that was the set of choices I had available to me.
And then I was also blessed for years to work at the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, which is also a giver of general operating grants. And it became so apparent why those grants are like the Star Awards. They’re like the yeoman grants because they do the work..of whatever work needs to be done. So I’ve always been really proud that we’re able to do grantmaking that way, and I think we’ve become more and more committed to that kind of grantmaking over time.
Denver: Well, I hope more people are, and there is discussion about that. I’ve seen so many organizations that sign these contracts and then get started and realize that it’s not working, but they’re committed because of a contract to continue on for another year and a half or two.
And everything you said about general operating grants, I was just listening to that. It’s very consistent with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s belief in an individual, and this is sort of that extended belief to the organization. We’ve checked you out; we believe in you, and we believe you’re going to make the right choices along the way, and then report to us. As opposed to prescribing them almost with a crystal ball over the next two years that: this is what’s going to happen.
The Emerson Collective identifies catalytic organizations that can create systems change. Now, that is a lot of buzzwords in that, so why don’t you break it down for us a little bit, and maybe give us an example of one or two of those organizations.
Anne Marie: I agree with you, there are definitely some buzzwords in there. So, I will break it down, and I’ll use the language we use internally.
When we’re looking at organizations to support and be in collaboration with, we look for strong leaders, individuals who are deeply committed, not just to their organizations, but to the fields in which they work. You could call them thought leaders, but I’d say more they’re people that are rowing their boat in a way that other people can say, “Maybe I could try to row that way and see how that goes for me.”
And then we’re looking for strong models. And if I were to pull that apart more, I’d say work that over time is structured in a way that you can learn why it is or isn’t working… work that over time you can pick the pieces that have been successful, and you can do them deeper or bigger or share them with others. We look for organizations that have chosen over time to gather data. I don’t just mean outcome data to fundraise better, although that’s important, but data that allows the organization to equally importantly change and pivot their program to serve differently and to serve better.
And so those are the kinds of things we look for. So yes, they end up being organizations that are catalytic. They end up being organizations that fundamentally changed their system. But we come at it more from the fundamentals of: How has this leader and this organization found its path? What are they doing? How is that affecting others in the field? And how are they deeply serving the people they’ve chosen to serve?
Denver: Give us an example of one or two.
Anne Marie: I’ll give you a couple examples. I mean, one – and this is one that we’ve story-told around for a long time – is the work of EducationSuperHighway, Evan Marwell’s work. Evan had a realization, and this was, as a dad, that his kids’ school… which was a school that was actually in a position to not have this problem… couldn’t enable all of the students in the school to do blended learning concurrently; in fact, not even, maybe a handful of classrooms could. And that put him on a hunt to figure out how many public schools in America could use blended learning under the belief that not every class and every kid every day should be using a blended learning curriculum, but there are ways when the computers can really enable meeting kids where they are and helping them to grow in their skill sets.
And his realization was it was a very, very modest number of public schools. And so, Evan used what I’d call sort of an “air and ground game model.” From a ground game perspective, he began to understand over time, which public schools weren’t in a position to provide access, and he did that through a very clever, simple way where different schools, by simply pressing a button, could show the level of signal and connectivity that they had. And then over time, that evolved into allowing schools to be able to have transparent ways to understand from a purchasing price perspective how what they were purchasing compared to what others nearby and far away were paying. It greatly decreased the pricing in the sector.
But there was also an air game piece, which is he worked with the FCC – and I use “he” making it seem like it was just Evan. Evan would be very quick to point out that many, many people were involved in this conversation and this advocacy. The FCC changed the way it structured E-Rate to allow a lot more money to come to schools, to purchase equipment – hardware and software – that could be used for internet connectivity. And so, in the end, of course, how the economics works is if you have more money and the price decreases, you suddenly have an enormous amount of buying power to fundamentally change access to public schools in America.
And Evan, when I met him, and I met him when I was still with the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation. I was actually his first funder there and then referred him to Emerson, and so I’ve been lucky enough to work with him for the entire time he’s done his work. He said to me when he started – and at the time, he would have said it was a crystal ball thing – “In 2020, in seven years, this is going to end. We’re going to have ideally about 99% connectivity in public schools, and we’re going to go away.”
And here we are coming up to 2020, and by next August, that entire team will have been dismantled, and 99% of the schools in America will be at that target internet access number, which I say is a crazy thing only because I find it so delightful, not because I don’t know it to be true. But it is really an amazing, humbling thing.
Denver: It really is. So much of this sector, we try to mitigate problems, and he approaches right from the very outset, “We’re going to solve this problem, Hook, Line and Sinker. We’re going to get it done by 2020.”
Anne Marie: And that’s pretty, that’s pretty amazing.
I’ll give you a different example of systems change. And I’m excited to share I’m joining the board of this organization in January, which is honestly such an honor. But Bill Bynum and his team at HOPE Credit Union, which is down in the South, and they have about 30 credit unions spread across four states in the South. Their work is very bottoms-up systems change, which I deeply admire. And for that team, asking the question: How can people who have historically been unbanked… and I will stop and say, “The number of people who are unbanked in our country or underbanked in our country is quite large, and it’s disproportionately people who have historically not had very many assets, which doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to have them banked, and individuals of color and people who’ve been in much more manual labor sorts of roles.
And so that team is on a mission to first ask: How do we get people banked? How do we help people to think about the stewardship of their hard-earned dollars? And then whether it’s a car, or a house, or a small business, how do we help people to see that that’s in their grasp?
And then there’s also other pieces of that program because HOPE is a CDFI, which allows them to build community infrastructure. But that to me is a whole different kind of systems change. When you give individuals and communities access to infrastructure, that fundamentally changes the way they see themselves, and they see what’s possible, a whole different but very game-changing kinds of work.
Denver: That’s for sure.
Getting back to education, Emerson does a lot of work in education reform under the ages of the XQ Institute. Fashion entrepreneur Marc Eckō is your Chief Creative and Strategy Officer, which tells you a little bit about the different approach you’re taking. Share with us what’s going on there.
Anne Marie: So XQ is really exciting.
Denver: Yes, it is.
Anne Marie: XQ is focused on the observation that for more than a hundred years, our high schools haven’t really changed. So much of the education that our young people are exposed to is about memorization. It’s very much about sitting in a classroom and listening and taking in content, but that isn’t really how our world is.
Denver: It’s like going into a wayback machine.
Anne Marie: It’s going into a wayback machine, and it’s preparing people to work on factory lines that no longer exist, or whatever the analogy is, we don’t have that anymore.
And so, what I admire about XQ is on one level, it’s very much about fundamentally changing the curricular experience of high school kids in America. XQ ran a competition to select the now 18 schools that are in the XQ cohort – and I’ll go back to that in a moment – but it had at least a dozen content units that teams that applied had to review and understand to allow them to compete and bring an XQ school into the competition. Over 10,000 people were on those teams. There were over 700 teams that applied. At least half of those schools – we had a fairly impressive team that addressed and assessed those applications – said that those were schools that were the raw materials of really compelling schools.
And so, whether it was asking: What do 21st century jobs look like? What does it look like to imbue technology into every aspect of learning? If we’re in the middle of a climate crisis, what does it look like if you have schools that simply focus on questions of water or climate? One of the schools is in the museum of a community because it allows students to reflect on place in a very fundamentally different way. I think that’s really in itself quite powerful. And so, there was an aspect that was very much about asking: What does 21st century learning look like? What are those skills, and how do we reframe the conversation about what seat-time learning opportunities and skill acquisition are?
There was another piece of the work that was very much about – and this is where Marc comes into the conversation – How do we change the conversation about high school in America? I think high school kids are often seen as a threat or at least kind of a group to be handled carefully until they move on to some other phase of their lives. I have a high school daughter. High school kids are astonishing people. They still have a level of idealism that allows them to believe many things are possible, and a level of pragmatism that allows them to sort of anchor it in where they are. And so that storytelling around what is possible for high schools and high school students, XQ also plays a really important cultural role. It goes back to the sort of fundamental tools of Emerson. We’re in a place to be able to retell the story of high school and high school students.
What’s been interesting to fast forward to now; we’ve 18 schools in the original XQ cohort model. New York City, your city here, is now entering into a partnership with XQ, and by the end of next year, there’ll probably be 10 XQ high schools. We have a partnership in Rhode Island as well, and there’ll be probably be 5 schools there.
What’s interesting is, I feel like XQ has learned enough that they are bringing a toolkit to those conversations. At the same time, part of the plan is to bring educators – so parents and principals, families, members of the community – together to be in conversation around that toolkit, not just to say “How do we execute on this tool kit?” but “What do we know about our communities, our students, our needs to then assure that that XQ model is taken and actually brought into the canon of that place?”
I think it’s going to be incredibly exciting, and I think it really shows that this question of “What can high school be?” is not only intellectually and curricularly capturing people’s understanding and interest, but also culturally, which I think you kind of need both to allow change like that to happen.
Denver: Yes, I think you do, particularly at that age, too.
Anne Marie: So much so.
Denver: But there’s a complete reimagination here where so much of the school reform has just been nibbling around the edges. And if you don’t change the central foundation—
Anne Marie: This is digging into the middle. The messy middle, really.
Denver: The messy middle is right. I had the pleasure of having Arne Duncan, the former Secretary of Education during the Obama administration, on the show a number of months back. But he was so interesting, and for those who missed him, I want you to talk a little bit about Chicago Cred, what its mission is, and how it is emblematic of the way Emerson tackles tough, tough issues.
Anne Marie: So, I’ll start by saying – I’ll remind you what I said a few minutes ago that Emerson looks for great leaders, working in great models.
Arne Duncan is a great leader. He was a great Department of Education Secretary, and he is a man of Chicago. He is a person that deeply loves his city. I think one of the challenges in Chicago that he was most taken by was the number of young men who were shooting at one another, particularly in like 15 to 17 neighborhoods in the sort of south and west sides of Chicago. So, it’s an issue that some people in Chicago probably didn’t have to entirely see day to day, but it was really an epidemic.
And that’s what Arnie wanted to go toward. I think his realization though was though many young men are in gangs, many young men probably have made choices that are not the best choices for them. A fairly definable handful of them are the ones that were most driving the violence in that city. And so, the work has been as much about reaching out to those young men, highlighting that there are better options for them, more safer options, more lucrative options, and options that will allow them to see themselves in a future.
And then a very intensive program that didn’t just say “we’ll get you a GED” or “we’ll get you a job, but we’re actually going to help you to get some cognitive behavioral therapy to help you to re-see how you see the world and how you go at certain things in the world.”
Denver: All those wraparound services.
Anne Marie: All those wraparound services. What I’ve admired about Arne is instead of saying, “We’ll put the things in one at a time and see what we need,” he really went at it and said, “We need to do this in the right way.” I’ll also say there are pieces of the model – and this is very Emersonian, too. When they started out, they did everything in a cohort model. Young men would start in a cohort, they’d go through in a cohort. There was something really powerful in that. They had a lot of connectivity to one another. They saw themselves as a unit, and they wanted each of them to succeed together. But they realized that it was too long to build a cohort. Young men needed to move through the program at different speeds. And so, the cohort, in the end, even though it seemed like a really good idea and had benefit, wasn’t the right model.
And now they have a street outreach model. They reach out to young men, they pull them into the program, and they start right away. So, it’s different. The service provision has to be different. The young men experience one another and the program differently, but it allows the model to meet each of them where they are at any given moment.
Denver: The organizational learning piece that you were talking about a few minutes ago.
Anne Marie: It’s so strong there. So they’ve served, my gosh, I think they’ve probably served over 500 men. There are thousands of other men that have been touched by portions of the service. CRED also provides a lot of summer programming for young people. Thousands of young people go through that program.
And what I’ve also appreciated about Arne, the other thing I will say is: he has surrounded himself with an excellent management team, top-notch individuals that have come from the best and strongest nonprofits in Chicago. His COO used to run Crain’s Business. He’s found people with the networks – and I mean networks across the city – and the knowledge and the wisdom and the patience and the care to want to focus on that group of young men and their families.
Denver: And they’re making some headway.
Anne Marie: They’re making good headway. I’m sure there’s lots you can attribute it to, but murders in Chicago are down 15% last year, 15% the year before, 11% this year, year-to-date.
Denver: It has made progress.
Anne Marie: There’s something happening, I’m hoping.
I feel like we’re finding that place of respecting editorial line and allowing storytelling and stories about hearts and minds and change to find a home.
And so, it’s not one of those magic things where we deliver envelopes and things happen, but I think it’s actually more powerful than that because it’s about being in conversation with colleagues and building a sense of shared knowledge and deep empathy together. And that’s where I see that change coming from.
Denver: Boy, so many other programs, but let’s move on to some of the other things you’re doing. Emerson Collective founder, Laurene Powell Jobs, she has a majority stake in one of the most venerable magazines in all of America, The Atlantic. Tell me how that and some of the other media properties of the organization are being leveraged to promote positive social change.
Anne Marie: I have found this to be such an exciting part of Emerson’s work – The Atlantic, Macro, Anonymous Content, Pushkin. What’s been interesting to me is: I feel like we’re finding that place of respecting editorial line and allowing storytelling and stories about hearts and minds and change to find a home. And so, I recognize that The Atlantic and all these other organizations that we work with have very strong editorial control and a very good eye for what their readers or their viewers are interested in.
Denver: It’s a business.
Anne Marie: At the same time, individuals on our immigration team will often sit down with folks on those teams and simply share: “This is what’s happening at the border”; “This is what happens when a mom is separated from her kids”; “This is what it means if you are wearing a tracking device on your ankle for months and months”; “This is what it means if your spouse is in detention in Atlanta, and you live in San Francisco.”
And I think over time, those stories stick with people, and they come back, and they say, “Can I talk to someone who’s had that experience? Can you give me a sense of the numbers of people? Can I go to that place and be proximate and better understand?”
And so, it’s not one of those magic things where we deliver envelopes and things happen, but I think it’s actually more powerful than that because it’s about being in conversation with colleagues and building a sense of shared knowledge and deep empathy together. And that’s where I see that change coming from.
Denver: Yes. You plant seeds, and these are good stories that are not being told, too. So, if you’re in the journalistic field, these are really rich.
Anne Marie: Yes.
… sports is one of those places where mass culture conversation can still happen.
Denver: In this 3D game of chess that Emerson seems to be playing, you also are involved in many of the sports teams, particularly in the Washington area. Tell us who those teams are and how are you partnering with them.
Anne Marie: Yes. So, we work with the Monumental. Well, they have three big sports teams. They have the Mystics, which are a women’s basketball team.
Denver: Won the championship this past year.
Anne Marie: And I think it’s really important to list them first because women’s sports deserve to be–
Denver: I agree.
Anne Marie: I knew you would. And then the Wizards, which is, of course, a men’s basketball team and the Capitals, a hockey team.
Denver: Which also won.
Anne Marie: Yes. And so it’s been really exciting. I mean, there’s nothing like coming to something and then it finding its footing.
Anne Marie: But to me, sports is one of those places where mass culture conversation can still happen. We don’t all watch Seinfeld together. We don’t have Sunday night television that we talk about Monday morning at work.
Denver: As a matter of fact, you can’t because somebody hasn’t seen it yet, and they’ll shoot you if you start to talk about it. Don’t ruin it. Don’t ruin it. Sports is really the only thing…
Anne Marie: The spoiler alert is a problem. But sports allows that, and it allows that outside the arena, and it allows it inside the arena too. And so, we’re continuing to explore, but the work in Washington itself… and allowing organizations, nonprofit organizations to be able to benefit more from the sports teams… and also just finding other ways for message dissemination to happen within and outside the arena.
There’s some interesting work we’re doing… because some of the sports teams have some interesting work they do in Africa, and so some of the outreach we’ve been doing actually across borders has been really interesting. I think that work will continue to find its footing over time. That’s what makes me even more excited. We’re starting to get calls from players who are thinking about their own philanthropy and how can we have conversations about that. I hadn’t anticipated that, but I think that’s an interesting conversation, too.
So we’re learning, but you’re right. It’s another part of the Emerson arena, which as it finds its footing with the other pieces, I think will add a lot of power.
Denver: Yes. It’s just approaching these problems with so many different ways, multiple channels in terms of trying to attack them and see what happens, and it’s going to be that kind of blend that you just don’t even know what’s going to come as a result of it.
You were a bit of a board junkie, and particularly at your time at Draper Richards Kaplan, who, when they finance or invest in a company, insist that somebody serves on the board. You’ve been on like 30 of them or something. So, you probably know a thing or two about what makes them successful… and the common pitfalls that so many organizations, particularly in the philanthropic sectors, succumb to. Give us a few of your insights about nonprofit boards.
Anne Marie: I am delighted to, and I still sit on boards today. I honestly feel like it’s a different proximate exercise than volunteering or visiting sites, for example. But I do think board sitting allows you to understand the guts of what’s happening in an organization. And so when I think about board sitting, I tend to be someone that is in some ways deep in the room, meaning at board meetings, and in some ways uses the time in board meetings to be more contemplative, and then outside the room, I’m pretty active.
So, in the board meeting itself, what I’ve learned is: it’s a good time to listen, and it’s a good time to ask questions. And the best way to do that, of course, is to become really prepared by reading all the materials that are given to you. And if you’re on a board where there aren’t adequate materials given to you in advance, being a good advocate to feel like you show up prepared every time… financials, a good executive director update, updates from all the committees. So a real sense that you’re coming, and whether that’s every quarter or every half year, and you really have a sense of the status update of the organization, I think is very important.
I also feel like, and that’s where the question asking comes in. So, there’s oftentimes I have feedback to give, and I don’t think board meetings are the right place for feedback. I think feedback is better served outside the room, but I do think questions are really good in the room. And then I think about the work often of Bill Ryan and Dick Chait, who I think have kind of written the seminal piece on leadership…. or board work as leadership and management.
I think board meetings are a great place for generative conversation. Those questions about “what would happen if” or “how does it work when,” not to leave with a big list of action items but to explore the edges of the mission, to understand where in different circumstances, different choices would be made, where different possibilities sit. Because I feel like one of the things boards risk doing is doing what the leadership team capably does every day. And if you’re going to just litigate other people’s work when they show up 10 hours a day and do it 50 weeks a year, that doesn’t seem very helpful on a couple of different levels.
Denver: No, it doesn’t.
Anne Marie: It’s not respectful, and it’s not very fundamentally useful. And so, for me, I’ve always tried to figure out for a board member: What are those places that I can push the envelope a little bit? I also feel like sometimes I’m the person who provides cover because I believe actually that some level of risk-taking and thoughtfulness is important. And there’s other folks who, I think stewardship is about holding everything super close. I tend to be a person who tends to say, “Let’s give this some time and some space.”
I will say the two things I think board members really need to be active in are giving executive directors very, very good feedback and really assuring during the budgeting process that there’s a lot of clarity around the choices that are made in budgeting because resource allocation is strategy. That’s kind of where it happens right there. And the budgeting process is where you have the opportunity to understand that and to give feedback. So those are the places I feel like I do really put focus.
Denver: Everything else is talk when it gets to the budget.
Anne Marie: Very much so.
Denver: You also talk, looking at the seminal work, about the balance between steerers and rowers.
Anne Marie: Yes. And I guess it’s funny. If you’re at all familiar with Bill and Dick’s work, there’s a two-by-two matrix that has steerers and rowers.
I guess over the years I’ve realized: you can get up in that upper right quadrant and be a bit of a steerer and a bit of a rower, and I sort of think that’s who I am. And it’s in part because I do think the steering piece is important. That’s where question asking comes from. That’s where risk mitigation comes from. That’s where generative conversation comes from.
But I’m kind of a rower because I used to be an executive director. I’m kind of a rower because I believe that board members should help to fundraise. I’m kind of a rower because I used to be in finance, and so I actually can look at a balance sheet and look at an income statement and have some insight that’s valuable. And I often end up mentoring members of senior teams.
So, I sit in both, but I think it’s important to know what you are doing, too. Meaning like: you’re conscious of the choices you are or aren’t making, where you are and aren’t opting into.
Denver: I think it’s also important – this is my opinion – is that the board is a team and people don’t look at boards as being teams. They look at them showing up as an individual, throwing in their 2 cents, writing a check, doing this. But for a board to really be great, it has to be a team.
Anne Marie: It’s very true. And that’s one of the reasons why I feel like you can’t phone it in as a board member, which is a great temptation, and often the structure enables you to phone it in. But I’ll often say to EDs, if you don’t have at least a couple live meetings a year and a live meeting where you have an expectation that people come, an expectation they eat a meal together, an expectation they have a proximate experience with the program…you don’t get to check the box of it being a live meeting, and you need a few of those.
And then I think committees can be useful or not useful. But one of the more useful pieces of committee work is that it creates opportunities for board members to interact with each other, not necessarily with staff. So you build rapport one-on-one, you appreciate one another’s skills. You understand the kinds of wisdom that different people have to bring, and then you can bring that into the room with you. “David, it was so interesting when in a committee meeting you shared this.” “Phil, we were on a plane one day, and you said this,” and it just makes it feel safer. And I think people bring their best when they feel like they are being asked to step up and do the hard parts.
Denver: They’ll ask a lot more questions that way, and you can tell so much at these live meetings from body language. You just can’t get on the phone. You don’t even know what the guy’s doing on the phone sometimes.
Anne Marie: Yes. That’s so true. Because they’re doing emails.
Denver: They’re doing emails or watching Sports Center. I don’t know what it is.
Getting back to Emerson, how would you describe the workplace culture at the Emerson Collective, and what makes it distinct or different from all the other places that you’ve ever worked?
Anne Marie: It is a very distinctive culture, and it’s a place where multidisciplinary thinking is really valued and multidisciplinary communication– being able to sit down with peers who have maybe different perspectives, and both listen and hold your own. Creativity, problem solving, really looking at ways to get to change that are different and that can be combined is valuable. It’s a pretty optimistic culture.
Denver: That’s good.
Anne Marie: I’m a big fan of optimism. I think if you don’t believe something can change, it really cannot change.
Denver: Oh, I would agree.
Anne Marie: It’s a culture of joy. And it’s also a culture where people work pretty hard. And so it’s interesting because sometimes when we have folks who’ve come over from other organizations, they’ll say about three months in, “This is harder than I thought it would be.” And my response is always, “Then I must not have set your expectations very well because that hasn’t changed a bit. Just because you showed up didn’t mean it got harder.” But I do think we’re really—we believe that so many of the people we serve are working awfully hard, and we need to at least be keeping pace to be able to provide the kinds of supports that we want to.
Denver: And add a word about the founder, Laurene Powell Jobs and how she has helped shape and influence that culture.
Anne Marie: Laurene – all the things I just described are things Laurene holds very dearly. Laurene is very, very smart. She thinks deeply about issues. She’s a very good problem solver. She asks a lot of questions and a lot of hard questions. She laughs a lot. She finds joy in the work. But I’ll also say, and I share this with her, we have days of sadness and frustration, too, and I think it comes just from having a lot of care. Over time, if you know a lot of the people, you know the leaders of the organizations, you know their work, you know the people they serve, you kind of roll up and down with them. But the culture very much is an embodiment of how she does the work.
Denver: Let me close with this, Anne Marie. As you study this eclectic approach of the Emerson Collective, what do you believe its influence will be on the entire social sector and how others will begin to look at and think about their own work?
Anne Marie: I appreciate that question. I feel like on one level, what the Emerson Collective I’m hoping is doing is shining a light on one way change can happen. And it’s born of the founder Laureen. It’s born of the people that she’s gathered around her and the skills and the inclinations that they have. But a different philanthropist – I’ll use that word sort of narrowly or broadly – would probably surround themselves with different people with different skills and opportunities, but could create a social change mechanism that could be very, very interesting and very, very powerful. I hope others look and think not how can we be the Emerson Collective, but how can we be what we are distinctly in a position to be and to do? I’d say more narrowly philanthropically, the path that we’re on is really asking the question: How can we encourage folks to make more general operating grants, more multi-year grants?
We have a fairly large capacity building program. We offer a lot of training opportunities, a lot of convening opportunities, and we offer the ones we’ve chosen to offer because of what we believe is helpful or relationships we have, or our understanding of where needs are. But I think lots of other organizations could do the same. They’d probably come to a different set of opportunities, but I think it also would show a building of trust. The reason that we provide – and we call it frictionless philanthropy beyond the grant – the reason we provide those supports is going back to why we do general operating grants. We meet a leader, we meet their team, we have deep faith in them and the possibility of the work they could do, and we want to support them.
So we don’t sit around and ask: Should we do more? We ask: How could we do more? And I hope others have that same sense of – I’m going to use the word: generosity. Not saying people aren’t generous, but it is a different spirit of generosity when you just keep asking: if we make one more introduction, if that team goes to management training, if that leader had a coach, if someone came in and looked at that organization’s balance sheet and straightened it out a bit, would that help them to understand their work better and to pitch their work differently?
Those are the kinds of questions we would love it if others asked.
Denver: Well, we certainly have underinvested in this sector across the board. Well, Anne Marie Burgoyne, the Managing Director of Innovation Impact at the Emerson Collective, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. For listeners who want to learn more, tell us about the website and some of the information you have up there.
Anne Marie: Our website at any given time is a curation of a lot of different interesting stories. Right now, I think we have a piece on Amanda Ripley, who’s one of our fellows, talking about how people in different situations can be in conversation. Jason DeParle, who’s one of our fellows, who just wrote a book, A Good Provider is One Who Leaves. There’s a piece on that there. Our Dial Fellows, which is a new program we have to help a number of our leaders of for-profits and nonprofits to be better communicators. There’s a really nice piece there.
We have a partnership with Now This. There are some interesting immigration explainers, and some other really great stories about some of our justice and unity grantees, Stand for Children, Impact Justice. I think HOPE Credit Union is there. There’s a lot of really terrific content there.
Denver: It’s rich. Well, thanks Anne Marie, it was a pleasure to have you on the show.
Anne Marie: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
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