Created in 1953 by 3M executive Archibald Granville Bush and his wife Edyth, the Bush Foundation serves the Upper Midwest; with $780 million in assets, it is one of the 100 largest U.S. foundations. In August, Jennifer Ford Reedy was named its fourth president. Reedy was the chief of staff at Minnesota Philanthropy Partners, where she led several innovation efforts, including the startup of GiveMN.org, an online platform built to help charities increase giving; more than $70 million has been contributed through GiveMN since 2009. Previously she worked at McKinsey and Company and coordinated the Itasca Project, the Twin Cities’ CEO-led economic development initiative. I recently sat down with Reedy to discuss her plans for the Bush Foundation.
Sarah Lutman: What will be the themes of your leadership?
Jennifer Ford Reedy: We want to spread optimism and encourage creativity. Optimism is very important, as people need to believe that change is possible. And creativity is necessary, as the [financial resources] pie is not growing and we have to think differently, think bigger.
So when you think about the first few years of work ahead of you, what are you hoping to do?
A portion of our work will be foundation-driven initiatives in priority areas, and another portion will be community-driven initiatives on community-identified issues. The new themes I’m describing will be most evident in our community-driven work. We’re asking: How can we source, fund, and promote projects in ways that have as much impact as possible on building optimism and increasing communities’ capacities?
How does your business background inform your approach?
One of the formative differences between working in a business versus working in the nonprofit sector is that you can’t run a business without worrying a lot about what everybody else is doing. You are continuously re-assessing what people need, where the opportunities are going, and what your competitors are doing. It is unusual for a business to hunker down and continue to do exactly what [they’ve always done] and survive for very long.
In the nonprofit sector almost every incentive is to optimize your organization. Let’s say you’re a human services organization, focused on your clients and doing the best thing for your clients. If you’re the leader, you are probably staying up nights trying to figure out how to make your budget. With those forces it is really hard to think, “I’m going to spend 30 percent of my time in collaborative efforts with other people.” You just don’t have the time. But if you did, then all kinds of other possibilities open up. The more of that there is in the nonprofit sector, the better.
The model of private philanthropy used to be that it provided venture dollars for new ideas. Now what?
Philanthropy once lived in the happy belief that we could fund experiments and the government would take them to scale. The current environment forces funders to think harder about making a bigger impact because just piloting things is not going to create the lasting change we want to see. We need to think differently about our relationship with government. If you think about what resources we bring to the table, they’re so small relative to the public sector. We almost hesitate to talk about it because it diminishes the perception that foundations are able to do things.
But even if we invest our dollars in amazing projects with incredible return, our impact is small compared to [whether] we are able to help public sector dollars be spent with even a slightly better return. Anything we can do to even incrementally improve the impact of public sector dollars is a high-impact strategy. I think foundations that are doing the most careful thinking about how they can have an impact on issue X, whatever it is, see they have to have a partnership with the public sector.
How do you measure effectiveness in foundations?
There is some valid criticism of foundations for becoming measurement-focused in a way that makes them less effective. You get so concerned with how you are going to measure impact that you’re actually having potentially less. That’s valid. But some of the true believers in philanthropy around measurement have good points. It depends [on] what you’re working on. Bill Gates recently wrote about the importance of data. If you are working in an area where there is the possibility of an objective measure, then it’s an important role of philanthropy to get those measures out and focus on moving [the numbers].
Philanthropic strategy is fundamentally about opportunity cost. Of all the things you can do, you choose to invest here. Are you doing better from investing here than you would have if you invested any other area?
To be excellent in philanthropy you have to create your own standard of what excellent is and then manage toward it. If you choose to care what people think about you, then it’s a measure. For me it matters a lot. Because I believe that having the greatest possible impact with the dollars that Archie Bush left requires inspiring and influencing other people. That means we have to be a great partner. It means we have to be transparent about what we are doing. It means we have to invest in communications to say what we’ve learned and how we think we can help. Public trust will be an important metric for us.
You aren’t framing the foundation’s work in terms of problems; you seem focused on opportunities.
That’s important. You know, we talked earlier about the importance of optimism. It’s the power of mindset. It does actually matter. It sounds light, but there is something about believing that something is possible that is a critical part of the recipe for any community venture. I heard a panel not long ago with economic development officials from St. Paul and they talked about the importance of optimism. They said site selectors will go into coffee shops and talk to people about what they think about the future of their city. Because there is something about a place’s belief in itself that is a meaningful indicator of where the community is headed.
Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul–based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media, and philanthropic sectors.