Uncharted Insider - September 2019
Welcome to the September edition of the Uncharted Insider.
- We ran our 5-day boot camp for the Visible Connect accelerator focused on mobile tech ventures working on major social issues like veteran mental health and improved legal representation in the criminal justice system.
- Uncharted helped select a cohort of five ventures working to address the cost of housing in the US, as part of the Terner Center’s Housing Lab (in partnership with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative).
- Uncharted’s intramural volleyball team won the championships in Denver. We decided to decline our invitation to the White House.
Ideas on my mind:
The power of unpackaged truth. I’ve been fascinated to watch the rise of teen climate activist Greta Thunberg as she makes her debut in the US. Setting aside the topic of the climate crisis for a moment (although I do endorse the book The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells as a jarring and kaleidoscopic survey on the topic), I want to explore Greta’s approach to communicating her message. She speaks with powerfully austere and stripped-down simplicity (like this). Her messages aren’t packaged with prose or stitched together with incendiary poetry. She communicates blunt truths in self-effacing style, telling congress, “I don’t want you to listen to me. I want you to listen to science, and then act.” She seems less interested in using her platform for advancing her personal brand, and she avoids the tendency to combine her projected image with her proclaimed message. This conflation of identity and truth is easy to do in an age of personal brands, Instagram images, and influencer cause-marketing. Our identities, as humans, are very much compositions of the truths we believe. But I’m reminded of what one of my friends (and master speech coach) Erin Weed has said for years: “Our own stories sometimes get in the way of the truth we need to speak.” To be sure, truth can be spoken through story, but there is something arresting about the unpackaged truth, divorced from story, standing in naked profundity. All of this, of course, makes me think about the stories and truths that Uncharted is speaking, and how we might refine our messages and our methods to be deeply heard.
Risk-taking. If you were to grant me one wish to change the philanthropic sector, it would be that we would trade in our habits of self-preservation and exchange them for an approach marked by audacious risk-taking. We’ve created an entity — a foundation — that is tasked with reconciling a contradiction at the center of its model. On one side, this entity exists to create impact, solve problems, and step in to market failures. On the other side, it’s responsible for preserving itself so it can live on forever. Those sides are not in perfect balance: the side that is charged with creating impact gets 5% of the endowment to spend every year while the self-preservation side keeps the remaining 95% to reinvest and grow in traditionally non-impact related investments. What other organization is only using 5% of its available resources to advance towards its mission? This seems like the equivalent of trying to be dexterous to handle a complex task, but then only using 50% of one of your fingers, while the other nine fingers are perpetually resting up to be used later.
I could go on about this, but I’m actually more interested in how the structure (these contradictory sides united in one entity) influences decision-making. The psychology on the self-preservation side of the business can seep into the impact-creating side of the business, and some philanthropists are hesitant to make big bets and pursue upstream, intersectional, systems-level approaches. I’ve admired the progressive thinking of the foundations that are thinking differently and removing these competing influences by choosing to “sunset” in which they spend down all their money over a period of time (like the Gates Foundation and others). Others are making big bets (like the MacArthur Foundation), while others are changing their posture with grantees by funding general operating budgets. Some of these changes are nibbling away at the conservative risk appetite in philanthropy, but I wonder what impact would be possible if we could embrace a mentality of “highest and best use” that is anchored in a perspective of viewing our time and our dollars as finite. What would be possible today if we didn’t hold out hope in an eternal future and a perpetual endowment?
Can you help?
We’re expanding our executive team from two to three, and I’m curious to get advice from those who have been through this executive team expansion. What went well? What do you know now that you wish you knew earlier?
What I’m reading (and listening to):
- A person getting paid minimum wage would have to work 127 hours a week to afford rent for the median 2-bedroom rental home in the US. Housing insecurity and the new homeless.
- The tortuous road to building a business; the story of the dozens of failures in building Stonyfield Farms. This is one of the most incredible “How I Built This” podcasts I have ever heard. Podcast.
- Why our optimism is naive and counterproductive on the climate crisis. Here.
- Why we should be more curious than afraid, and how terrified people make terrible decisions. On Being with Elizabeth Gilbert.
I just spent a week in the Utah backcountry paddling 47 miles down Labyrinth Canyon on stand-up paddleboards with two of my closest friends (photo). The desert has this unique power to withhold its beauty until you’re feeling nearly exasperated by its grit and heat, and then it slowly releases its charms through the receding sun against a looming rock wall, the silence of the river broken by a heron cutting through the stillness, the thickness of the milky way spreading across the sky like a quilt, the lightning storm that pulses far-off clouds. The canyon itself — with its arches, crevices, slopes, and hues — is a masterpiece that has taken millions of years to render. It was humbling to be amidst such history, and it was a reminder in the power of patience. Whether in geology, human relationships, or in organizational culture, masterpieces take time. They unfold slowly, non-linearly, sometimes through erosion. They ask us to be patient and trust that the alchemy will run its course and exert its force.