When my husband and I first started our journey into philanthropy, we were filled with what Alan Greenspan would describe as “irrational exuberance.” Every cause was critical, every idea transformational, and every problem’s solution looked to be just out of reach. Medical philanthropy seemed most promising at first, particularly breast cancer research and patient care. The universe quickly responded and visited our family with multiple diagnoses of breast cancer— coupled with the unwelcome arrival of kidney disease. We embraced the universe’s lessons and gradually gained the know-how—and the confidence— to implement more “strategic” philanthropy. We moved beyond passive check writing, and our heads became equal partners with our hearts when evaluating our philanthropic investments.
But the unknowns in philanthropy can be daunting; the enormity of it all began to hit home. Philanthropic capital is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the challenges that plague the planet and the 7.5 billion souls that occupy it. Furthermore, immense frustrations and inefficiencies in the nonprofit sector deter philanthropic capital’s success: mission drift, turf wars, duplication, and misaligned incentives, coupled with an oversupply of efforts that do nothing to eradicate the root causes. For our family’s foundation specifically, we found ourselves such small players compared to larger foundations. What difference could our philanthropy make in the grand scheme of things?
The Rule of Three
Three frameworks that worked in concert with one another helped us break through and move forward.
Faith and values—Hope and love are the ties that bind our family, and we work every day to act on our values to provide compassion to those in need. Our Catholic faith is an integral part of our lives. We take great inspiration from Jesus, who was 30 when he started his ministry, died when he was 33, and performed 33 documented miracles in his lifetime. In numerology, 33 is a power number symbolizing the Trinity. In addition, the Pittsburgh Steelers were founded in 1933 (we are part owners), Walt Disney set up the 33Club (we are big Disney fans), the human spine has 33 vertebrae, and there are 33 turns in a complete sequence of DNA. At the 33 Foundation, we are awed by the mysteries of the universe, and try to listen to them as we seek to bring magic to the everyday and even make miracles come true.
Design thinking—Elon University excels in engaged learning, and it is the ideal environment for an undergraduate design thinking program. Inspired by the great work of our oldest daughter, an Elon alumna, we dug deep into design thinking and funded “Elon by Design.” We hope that this effort will ultimately scale beyond Elon to give other institutions the wherewithal to train students with this critical 21st-century problem- solving skillset. Design thinking starts with understanding real issues in real contexts. It then focuses on generating and testing solutions by encouraging creativity, teamwork, collaboration across disciplines, experimentations, and learning from failures. We now apply this methodology to almost every aspect of our deliberative process.
Systems-based approach— Systems thinking can be used on its own or in combination with design thinking. Applying a systems-based approach has helped us design, prioritize, and evaluate our philanthropic portfolio. Systems thinkers pull back to understand how discrete parts of an ecosystem fit together, looking for patterns, root causes, and leverage points that can effect a permanent change in that system (ideally for the better). This allows us to see how we fit into the larger whole and to more effectively target our philanthropic investment to places that really matter and are uniquely positioned for ultra-high-risk capital.
Play It Forward Pittsburgh
This conceptual confluence has helped us create our most ambitious effort to date—Play It Forward Pittsburgh—where we brought all of our talents, ties, and time to bear for our hometown. From August to December 2017, we brought together the Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates under the same banner, along with 38 other partners, specifically to raise awareness about the urgent need for organ donor registrations. This is the first time that the city’s three professional sports teams have allied for the same cause, and the results have been outstanding, reaching more than five million people, registering more than 700 new organ donors and creating a pediatric transplant network of excellence out of Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. The city was so taken with the movement that our partners have committed to a second season where Play It Forward will once again unite to tackle another social impact issue, most likely mental health.
A Call for Partners
Moving forward, we are working with the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy to identify and foster a community of like-minded families and changemakers. We know first-hand that the current philanthropy services ecosystem is inadequate, and the few networks that exist now for peers to share best practices and lessons learned need to be reinforced and brought to scale. We are looking for other philanthropists to join our small but mighty band of pragmatic idealists and down-to-earth dreamers to help us ensure that we get the maximum return on our philanthropic capital. Indeed, if we don’t, the future of our children and grandchildren hangs in the balance.