In late 2016, I visited a school in Tennessee and another in Connecticut where I had conversations with students and teachers in the aftermath of the presidential election. I can still recall the weight of the discussions as students shared their experiences and perspectives on issues like the travel ban and immigration orders in some Muslim-majority nations. I noticed that even amid a wide range of political and ideological viewpoints, as well as citizenship status, these students were still able to listen empathetically, engage in productive dialogue, and imagine better policy solutions with one another. I left the discussions feeling hopeful about the next generation and their ability to navigate differences and work together in the face of civic problems.
What I experienced in Tennessee and Connecticut did not happen by chance. It was the result of very intentional culture-building by talented and caring educators who nurtured and role-modeled these skills for their students. Their efforts created a courageous and compassionate forum for difficult conversations to take place.
As someone who has dedicated his career to adolescent development and a parent of three children in elementary and middle schools, I am deeply aware of how important these spaces are for young people: a space to try on new ideas, to learn from and work with others, to value differences, to stumble, and to repair. These life-long skills are critical to their well-being, resilience, and ability to participate in a healthy democracy.
My commitment to this work has been a throughline over the last 15 years working with and for Einhorn Collaborative: the first half as a grantee partner at City Year and the second half as a member of its staff. In February, after eight-and-a-half wonderful years at Einhorn Collaborative, I will take on a new challenge as the Executive Director of the Carmel Hill Fund, a foundation that seeks to help young people become vigorous readers who also have the skills, relationships, environments, and supports to become emotionally thriving adults.
As I reflect on my tenure here, one thing that has remained sacrosanct through the organizational changes and strategy shifts is the authentic, relationship-based approach to partnership that is grounded in two simple questions: How can we help? And what can we learn together?
In an attempt to answer these questions as they relate to my time at Einhorn Collaborative, I want to share some of the treasured memories, relationships, and lessons that I have gained from our team, grantee partners, and peer funders – all of which I will carry with me for the rest of my career.
Lesson 1: Believe in the power of human connection as a way to solve big and small challenges of our time.
In 2015-2016, we supported a cohort of 11 amazing Pre-K-12 grantee partners to participate in a year-long learning journey, facilitated by the Billions Institute, focused on creating social change at scale. In addition to ongoing coaching and virtual sessions, every few months, the cohort came together for in-person experiences to get to know each other on a personal and professional level; identify common questions, challenges, and opportunities; and imagine new ways of working together to support the healthy development of young people. Seven years later, I know many of these relationships have endured and many organizations are still putting what they learned as a cohort into practice today.
Lesson 2: Celebrate the good news and work through the challenging ones, together.
I have been a fundraiser since I was 19, so I know what it’s like to receive a phone call about new funding that can help your organization advance its mission, try something new and risky, or frankly, just make payroll in the coming months. Because our team at Einhorn Collaborative works so closely with organizations in the partnership development and due diligence phase, by the time we get to a “yes” on an investment (and since not all ideas make it to this stage), the relationship we have built would make these congratulations calls even more rewarding.
As much joy as I get from these conversations, the best calls were the unsolicited ones I got from partner organizations to share their accomplishments: new research and evaluation findings, the hiring of great people, or the securing of new programmatic or funding partnerships. Having a chance to celebrate small and big wins helps us recognize our partners’ perseverance and creativity and builds a strong foundation for us to take on challenges together when they arise.
Lesson 3: Pause and reflect.
We know from our partners the important role that critical reflection plays in learning and development. At the risk of overly simplifying decades of scholarly work, after each project milestone, I would try to reflect on the following elements:
- What: What happened? What are the facts, observations, and perceptions?
- So What: Why does it matter?
- Now What: What will we/I do differently because of this experience and insight?
I have many fond memories of working with Einhorn Collaborative colleagues both past and present, especially in moments of difficulty or ambiguity. As we navigated the many changes together, we tended to each other’s emotions and made time to talk openly and honestly especially when we disagreed. Sharing our stories over delicious meals and good music was always grounding and nourishing for the work we had ahead of us.
As I enter my last week at Einhorn Collaborative, I’m excited for the team to welcome a new Bridging Strategy Lead, someone who will bring their own lived and professional experiences to inform how to best nurture a generation of bridge-builders. And of course, that person can call me anytime for advice and mutual learning. But until then, a few things, including advice that was given to me:
- “It is all about nurturing relationships.” We know developmental relationships are part of the secret sauce for young people to thrive, and they are also key to strong collaborations with your colleagues, peers, and partners. Go out of your way to develop, nurture, and sustain them as you never know where they may lead.
- “Make the sum greater than the parts.” Find opportunities to bust silos and connect the dots and relationships. For example, our Bridging strategy focuses on national service, community-engaged learning, and civics education. What efforts might elevate all three opportunities for young people and create a new cultural norm of civic participation as essential to adolescent development?
- “Listen to beneficiary voices.” Recognize and understand the power dynamics in philanthropy and work to build trust-based relationships with partner organizations and the communities they serve. Be curious and intentional about bringing in beneficiary voices, especially those of young people, and allow their wisdom to help guide the work. For inspiration, check out how our collaboratives in the Bonding strategy are bringing parent leaders across the country into decision-making roles.
As the headlines remind us regularly, young people need more support to improve literacy and mental health outcomes. Philanthropy has a role to play, in partnership with the government, educators, community leaders, and young people to address these needs. I am grateful to have played a small role in this work during my time at Einhorn Collaborative, and I look forward to taking on this challenge from a new vantage point at the Carmel Hill Fund.