In Dialogue: The Team Takes Shape

In Dialogue: The Team Takes Shape

A conversation with Team Generosity founders, Jeff Walker and Jennifer McCrea.

Jeff:  So Jennifer and I met around the end of 2004.  Meanwhile I had been involved in a bunch of projects, including NPower, a nonprofit that I started in 1998 with my friend Jerry Colonna.  Jerry was a tech guy and a venture capitalist, and both of us were doing a lot of work supporting nonprofit organizations.  And we were frustrated with the fact that a lot of the nonprofits we were dealing with were spending and wasting so much money on technology projects.

Jerry and I realized that the mission of these nonprofits really had nothing to do technology.  Their task was to help people get jobs or access to health care or clean drinking water.  So why should they be spending their time and energy trying to figure out how to make technology work for them—setting up computer systems and software to manage their financial systems, their human resources programs, their reporting practices, and so on?

Jerry and I wondered about this, and we started asking one another, why can’t we figure out a way to do all that work once and then share it across a range of nonprofit organizations so that they all can benefit?  And that became the kernel of the idea behind NPower.

We got another friend of ours involved—Chris Wearing, who worked at Accenture—and we put a business plan together that we used to raise three-year commitments of $200,000 a year from J.P. Morgan, Accenture, and the Robin Hood Foundation.  The result was a shared collaborative structure linking companies with nonprofits.

Karl:  And because of its mission, NPower almost had to be a partnership, because it was about harnessing the technology created by for-profit companies to serve the needs of nonprofits.

Jeff:  Exactly.  And the concept of partnership became a key theme of my life and work.  I later served as chairman of the J.P. Morgan Chase Foundation, which gives away over $100 million a year, and I discovered how important it is to get people within a company passionately connected to any cause that the company supports.  Otherwise, the sponsorship of the company will eventually go away.  So when I’m raising funds from corporate sources, I like to get a wide range of people in the companies personally involved.  In the case of NPower, we asked from help from chief information officers, software and hardware specialists, and other volunteers, and we matched them with nonprofits who needed their specific forms of expertise.

The experience with NPower started me down a continuing path of corporate social responsibility.  It was fascinating to discover how creating these collaborative teams to harness individual passions was so relevant to the work of the corporation as well.  Around the same time, I helped set up a course in Mindful Leadership down at the University of Virginia, my alma mater.  The course connects multiple schools with multiple missions around the goal of developing leadership that’s more present and more mindful.  And I tied the course content into the partnership goals and objectives we’d established at J.P. Morgan, where we’d already been placing a strong emphasis on such nontraditional leadership principles as managed ego, listening skills, and team creativity.  In fact, we had a list of ten concepts that helped shape the way we ran our organization, and they all centered around the notion of liberating people’s energies through creative partnerships.

We used a lot of coaching and invited experts in to talk with us about how we could not just grow as individuals but also work more effectively as part of a team.  It’s the kind of thinking you don’t encounter everywhere in business but that really informs a for-profit/nonprofit partnership like NPower.

The point is that as my life unfolded, I kept discovering new connections among all kinds of disparate interests.  I even taught a class on mindful juggling and its connection to leadership.

Jennifer:  I didn’t know that!  That’s hysterical.  I’m learning all this new stuff about you.

Jeff:  I love juggling, honestly.  I love to do it and I love to watch it.  You have to learn beginner’s mind, you have to learn flow state. And to share it with others, you have to learn how to teach somebody else and go to that place and connect.

Jennifer:  That’s such a metaphor.  Aren’t we all doing a lot of juggling every day?  And hopefully we’re juggling balls, not chainsaws.

Jeff:  Hopefully yes.

The bigger theme is that philanthropy really starts getting interesting when you get past traditional ways of thinking about it.  A lot of donors approach philanthropy in the same way they approach business.  They ask, “What am I trying to accomplish?  How will I set my priorities?  I’ve got to lay out three objectives, then get some nonprofit organizations to give me presentations about their programs so I can start making choices about building my portfolio.”  That’s traditional business model thinking.

Instead, I would want to ask these potential donors questions like, “What are you really moved by?  What do you feel a deep and passionate connection to?  What sets of people have you encountered that you would like to work with to do something useful and interesting?”  These are the kinds of questions that can help people answer the ultimate question, which is, “Why do philanthropy in the first place, rather than just setting up companies and making some money?  What’s the difference?”

Karl:  What is the difference, Jeff?  What’s your answer to that question?

Jeff:  One answer is that business looks at the world in a more limited time frame than a great nonprofit.  Business also tends to be more transactional over time, although the best investors actually go beyond that to try to grasp a vision of where the world is going and contribute to that future in a meaningful way.  But most people in business don’t think that way.  Which is why I don’t find too many who work in the worlds of business or investment who tell me, “I feel so fulfilled.”  People in business tend to get tired and bored.  Whereas the guys that I’ve seen working on really interesting causes exhibit a much more complete energy.  They put more of themselves into their work, and when they find other people that share their passions they get really pumped.  This is what drives so many people to ultimately shift from the corporate side of life to the nonprofit side.