Crisis Philanthropy: Challenges and Opportunities
An interview with David Weekley and Robin Weekley Bruce.
When March 16, 2020, hit, the North American world split into a Before and After bi-frame. No sector was left unscathed. For philanthropists, calls for aid suddenly exploded, the needs at once intensifying and shrinking to the most foundational line of Maslow’s hierarchy. Many donors started asking, Have we been supporting the right causes? Is our theory of change even relevant now? What matters more, emergency spending to keep organizations afloat, or a longer view that will incur some pain in the interim? What questions are the wise questions, and what need to be discarded?
Robin Bruce and her father, David Weekley, are some of the most respected philanthropists in the United States. They are famously independent-minded and entrepreneurial, with a keen eye for ambitious missions led by fearless leaders. They are also people of deep faith. We sat down with them in early September to learn from their navigation of this uniquely challenging year. Here is that conversation.
Anne Snyder: What is the mission of the David Weekley Family Foundation?
David Weekley: Our mission revolves around helping the most vulnerable grow and transform into the full human being that they have the capacity to become.
Robin Bruce: Yes, we are really interested in groups that promote human flourishing, particularly for those communities or individuals who have been overlooked in terms of widespread systems that are ostensibly designed to help all of us achieve the same levels of opportunity. Over the last twenty-five years that David has been doing this work, we have moved from being very local and community-based in Houston, to now being primarily international in focus. It’s probably 60/40 international/domestic right now, with a move to significantly increase international giving over the next couple of years.
AS: What kinds of organizations do you support? What are your criteria?
RB: First, we are looking for organizations that serve the most vulnerable. And then we’re looking for organizations that work in those primary sectors that we think are fundamental to human opportunity, and therefore human flourishing: education, justice, livelihood, and health.
DW: Let me just insert something here. Our goal is to find Christian organizations serving in each one of those verticals, but we will always default to those organizations doing the most excellent work on behalf of the people they serve—which has meant that we also work with a strong group of secular organizations. And as we’ve partnered with Christian and secular organizations over the years, something concerning we’ve found is that often Christian organizations are not held to the same impact standards and measurements as secular organizations because their donor base responds on a different level and in a different way. It’s been a challenge to find a lot of Christian organizations that operate with the same degree of impact accountability as do the secular organizations. So we’re often seen as being “tough guys” in a Christian context.
AS: There’s a tagline for you.
DW: From our standpoint, it’s just stewardship as it should be, trying to get the very best and the most impact with God’s resources.
RB: Agreed on all fronts.
It’s been a challenge to find a lot of Christian organizations that operate with the same degree of impact accountability as do the secular organizations.
Going back to our criteria, the next thing that motivates us is leadership. Is there a leader of this organization that is compelling and coachable and has a really big vision that’s paired with a pretty high degree of humility? That’s a rare combination, to have the sort of swagger of the BHAG [big hairy audacious goal] and also the humility to truly be in and of the people you’re called to serve.
And then, finally, when you look at the model of the organization itself, we are looking for things that have the potential to scale. There are some really beautiful organizations out there that feel called to be small and deeply rooted. And we love those groups, but they’re not quite where we feel called. We search out partners that have a bit of a hockey-stick vision and have developed a solution that is simple, elegant, and can work at some degree of scale. And then they can go and serve a lot of people in really meaningful ways.
AS: Let’s hone in on the third piece you mentioned. How important is the leader? And how do you think about leadership in this year of crisis?
DW: We’ve funded great models in the past without great leadership, to little success. Whereas great leaders, if their current models are not perfect, they’ll work and they’ll change and they’ll move and they’ll innovate and as long as they’ve got that innate curiosity, they’ll get to someplace different.
Passion and curiosity are huge. But what’s difficult in the non-profit sector overall is a lack of market dynamics or disciplines. We’ve been both challenged and encouraged as we’ve watched our partners navigate a time period like COVID-19. We’ve been challenged in that some leaders have not reacted as innovatively as we would have hoped, while others have taken this opportunity and exploded in ways that we never would have dreamed of.
And that comes down to the leadership component. If you’re in the marketplace, and you go through a period like the one we’re going through, you have to change or else you’ll just go away as a company. In the non-profit field, as long as you can continue to raise money from donors, well, you don’t have to change.
A year like this creates change for everyone. I would say maybe only 30 percent of the non-profit sector has made significant movement.
RB: It really is this question of, to borrow from Praxis language, Who is leaning into the curve and considering not just how to survive, but instead how to reimagine? And with David having experience in the boom-bust cycles of homebuilding, we’ve learned that you can’t just ride it out and see what happens. Our hope is that our partners really lean into this upheaval of a year and accelerate the curve of change.
AS: Has your sense of what you need in a leader shifted this year? What character traits will you be looking for in leaders post-pandemic?
DW: Some of it, to me, is, Are you more interested in your organizational survival or are you more interested in your customer?
AS: Ah, there’s a market mind for you!
DW: Yes. In periods like this, it’s very easy, especially if you live off of non-profit dollars, and you’ve got a PPP loan, and you’ve got all of these wonderful people, to just keep on thinking you’re fine doing what you always did, how you always did it. I had a non-profit leader tell me, “Oh, but I’ve got all of these great managers and leaders in place.” And I kind of wanted to say, “Who doesn’t believe they have all of these great leaders and managers in place? But how are you going to best serve? And does your current team meet your needs today, or do you need to make some switches? What needs to happen to serve your ultimate customer?”
Is there a leader of this organization that is compelling and coachable and has a really big vision that’s paired with a pretty high degree of humility?
These are tough decisions.
RB: I’m thinking about a group that we work with in India called Kheyti, which has created a greenhouse to help smooth farmers’ cash flow throughout the year, so that they can grow crops even in dry season and amid climate change.
They had a plan that down the road they were going to create a lightweight version of their greenhouse that was going to be significantly cheaper, et cetera. And all of a sudden they had reduce their organizational burn rate by 30 percent amid one of the tightest lockdowns in the world while simultaneously moving this pilot up from twenty-four months to six months.
So this organization is both having to make really, really hard choices organizationally while dramatically accelerating because their work is so important to communities that are being exponentially affected by what’s going on. It’s an incredibly tough challenge.
DW: I did a webinar for Rice University here on leadership in a crisis for non-profits. One of my comments was, “When I talk to non-profit leaders, I want them to come to me with a plan, not a plea.” I want to know what we are we going to do. Let’s get to it.
These kinds of times almost “lock you up,” right? Each of us has been locked up one way or another. And if you’re a leader of an organization, it’s very lonely and you’ve got tough decisions to make and you don’t want to show your fear to your team for sure, nor even your board usually. So it’s tough times. I’ve had to lay off people in various boom-and-bust cycles of the housing market. I’ve had to go through periods of loss. Many of these non-profit leaders have never had that experience, and this is their first time of serious testing in that way. It’s hard for their imaginations—for all of our imaginations—to take courage in this.
RB: It’s a really interesting dynamic because if you think of donors as being the “market,” I think what a lot of non-profit leaders were saying in the beginning was defensive. For example, “We’re going to be okay as an organization. Don’t worry, we’ve got the PPP loan. Basically, we’re going to stay the same. You don’t have to worry, we’re not going to change.”
Are you more interested in your organizational survival or are you more interested in your customer?
And our response to those kinds of assurances was, “Well, why? That doesn’t sound like a great plan.” And it’s . . . I don’t know . . . I think that donors are also responsible for the passiveness and the defensiveness that these organizations were communicating, because they want to project this constancy and that your investments are safe with us. But we were hoping for a different approach.
I think we thought, prior to COVID-19, that we were adequately looking for entrepreneurial, growth-minded people. We’d probably now say that we’ve doubled or tripled down on that and have become even more comfortable with things being less perfect, but happening faster. We want to be trialling things and taking more risks but moving constantly. We’re feeling less comfortable with incrementalism. Which is really a reflection on us, and on our team, and where we feel most called as stewards.
AS: As you, David, have weathered these boom-and-bust cycles in the housing business, have your grantees come to you more often for mentorship and advice this year?
DW: We’ve had some, but the reality is that many leaders find it hard to be fully transparent with donors about their insecurities.
To me, the biggest risk is just getting stuck. And I see that all of the time. Things get tough or things get different and people just get stuck and they don’t take action.
I mean, even if you’re not sure . . . you’ll never be 100 percent sure when you don’t know the future. But sitting and waiting and inaction don’t lead anywhere. The reality is, you’ll probably be more right than wrong. And the people who report to you want to see that you’re going somewhere. People want to be led. People want a sense of confidence.
AS: How would you describe the most sustained challenge to your leadership and judgment calls, as philanthropists? And what has been the opportunity?
DW: Different sectors obviously have very different impacts during this time. So, kids aren’t in school. How much do we go invest in education right now versus in health? Or livelihoods, agriculture, where can we invest now and have impact tomorrow? So we’ve been forced to be a little more short-term in our thinking rather than long-term, just because of the situation we’re in.
At the same time, there’s actually a lot of longer-term thinking going on as we watch the most agile organizations adjusting to a more virtual, efficient, scalable delivery model. This crisis is forcing organizations into different delivery models. Many of these ministries and non-profits are led by very passionate people who have hands-on experience. So by nature, they may not be necessarily digital or virtual-focused, and yet that’s the world we’re in. But some are making the transition, and it’s yielding some really exciting pathways forward.
Let’s take something like Alpha International. Alpha is all about getting groups of people together and discussing, right? They originally had the hunker-down mindset that Robin was describing. But they quickly came out with their digital versions of group discussion, and they’re finding that churches are running with it. More people are taking the Alpha course than ever, and it’s going to completely revolutionize what seemed like non-negotiable elements of their delivery model. People can now experience the Alpha programming and discover Christ with greater ease and access than ever before.
RB: Yes, so some of the encouragement we feel is just in the acceleration and progress that’s happened when people and organizations are forced to adapt. An additional area of encouragement has been how willing people are to engage virtually.
We have had multiple organizations that have said, “Well, this was in our plan to do in three years or five years, but we’re actually doing it now.” I think of an organization like Jacaranda Health in Kenya, who with the phone numbers of two hundred thousand expecting mothers used SMS to alert moms of health-centre capacity and deliver prenatal and antenatal advice in real time.
We’ve seen it in Alpha because they’ve removed the barrier of people having to go somewhere, battle traffic, find child care, show up regularly, et cetera. So they’re seeing through-the-roof growth.
If I think about it in developing-world context, there’s a group we support called Strong Minds that was (pre-COVID) an in-person group-therapy model, and they’ve offered a telehealth version of their work where participants are doing group therapy via conference line. As has the Hope and Healing Center in Houston. And they have both found that actually a lot of people are more emotionally open, earlier on, because of all the environmental stress we’re all sitting in, and because something about the virtual arrangement is actually beneficial on the front end of these things. People are sitting in their homes—there’s a kind of psychological safety right from the get-go.
So I think it has been really surprising and encouraging and much more expansive than I would’ve predicted. Originally, I would have thought about the digital component as merely adding efficiency and scalability, but in some cases it’s actually engendered a deeper engagement. Or a different kind of engagement. These extremely creative groups have not only been willing to shift the actual model of how they’re delivering their core service, but they have looked at the assets available in this otherwise constrained year and said, “How do we use these assets to go deeper with the people we serve and come alongside them in a way that might be outside of scope typically, but is absolutely the right thing to be doing during this time?”
AS: As you take a bird’s-eye view of your philanthropic engagements since March 16, what patterns in innovation have been most striking, that you think will take us into a post-pandemic landscape?
RB: One of the areas that I think is shifting most dramatically is education. And I don’t know where things are going to wind up, but there are incredibly encouraging things that are happening.
I think about an organization that we support called Rising Academies that’s developed a series of radio programming during this time in western Africa.
They’re figuring out how to engage kids in a way that they can continue their education during this season. What are the fundamental ways that we learn? Okay, well, we’ve got radio in most rural villages, we can reach kids through radio. And now Rising Academies “Rising on Air” radio education program is serving ten million kids in twenty-five countries. And, best of all, all of this content and approach is open-sourced—meaning anyone can go and download and put Rising’s innovations to work on behalf of kids everywhere.
So I just think there’s a lot that’s starting to happen there that will stick around far beyond this season. Will there be a rebirth of radio? And kids radio programs that will exist far beyond this? There should be.
I think we’re seeing glimpses of solutions emerging that will drive toward long-term equality in education.
DW: To look at another one of our verticals, in the health space, community health workers are so critical, and the COVID-19 crisis is showing that in extraordinary ways. How these mostly women, sometimes gentlemen, of professional community health workers that get paid $75 to take care of one hundred families or more with 80 percent of the most common illnesses, many of which, if not treated, can cause death.
The way that they proactively care for their neighbours in a deeply relational, human way, track their work by phone, have that uploaded, centralized? I mean, it’s just extraordinary. America could learn from what’s happening in some of these African countries through community health workers.
RB: That’s a great point. Community health workers are absolutely the heroes of this season. And the fact that they are going household to household in the midst of an incredibly risky environment and continuing to serve their community. It’s extraordinary.
Contact tracing was used heavily and with great success with the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa and we’re now trying to learn from those lessons. Paul Farmer of Partners in Health is working with the city of Boston on how to do contact tracing there based on their experience with contact tracing in Africa.
So I think in many ways, community health and caring for your neighbour with these fundamental needs is far more advanced in some of these developing nations than it is in the United States and we have . . . yeah, we have so much to learn from these groups.
AS: So you talked about metrics at the outset, and how Christian organizations in particular sometimes don’t hold themselves to same “hard” standards, and I hear you. But in my own experience gaining some leadership legs this year, it has been a stretching experience to deal with such constantly shifting rapids, and it doesn’t frankly feel like metrics will stick. How do you make decisions that are wise when you don’t really know their outcome? We can all work as feverishly as we can to row a boat, but if we don’t know what direction to row in, it’s tempting to want to throw all the old maps out the window.
RB: I think of one of my favourite Jeff Sandefer quotes from Acton is that the key quality of the entrepreneur is a tolerance for ambiguity. And what that means is, you look ahead and say, “That’s the hill over there. We’re going to take that hill. That’s definitely the hill we’re going to take.” All along, you know in your head that that might not actually be the hill, but you have to charge for that hill as if it’s the only hill until there’s a different one. And that’s the entrepreneur and leader’s role—to cast that vision with a sense of confidence and being nimble enough organizationally to change when you need to.
DW: There’s obviously a very human component to all of this, even though we’re talking about numbers and metrics. The reality is, we are far away from that action, and so we can’t know or judge the way that the project coordinator in Zambia is interacting with the people they serve there. Really the only thing we can do is look at references and try to view the work through the outputs and outcomes that a program is having.
And during times like this, and other times that I’ve been through ups and downs, my favourite definition of a leader is that of defining reality and giving hope. In my experience, it always works to be honest and transparent with people about where we are and, at the same, project a sense that we are going to get to the other side, and here’s what we’re all going to do to get there. Because no one knows what the future is today, probably more so than ever in this COVID-19 crisis. I mean, the prognosticators have all been wrong, right? So you have to live in ambiguity and be prepared to take action in ambiguity without knowing the future.
RB: Andy Crouch had a phrase he wrote about back in April that I’ve thought about a lot, which is being a people of promise instead a people of prediction.
And I take that as meaning that you should look at the things that are unchanging. And that might be a personal set of promises you’ve made, but also an organizational set of promises. And this can be true for any organization—for-profit or non-profit—that you remember the set of values or promises organizationally that you have that are unmoving. How now do these values and promises direct your course? You can lead in this way without needing to predict the future.
AS: On that note, allow me to thank you both. Uncertainty might not be going away anytime soon, but neither are the underlying whys of deeply important work. Thanks for your example and reflections.
Image courtesy of Kheyti, an organization supported by the David Weekley Family Foundation.Subscribe