Original Events

A view of the whole

Philanthropic foundations should seek a role more active than mere funders – and more noble than banks.

In a project conducted on behalf of Boeing Corporate Citizenship, we concluded that a foundation’s most important job is serving as the steward of a theory of change.

“One of the things that is most interesting about foundations is the ways in which they can be conscious and systematic about a larger ecosystem,” said Salin Geevarghese, a veteran of several large philanthropies who we consulted as part of the work. “They can see certain gaps in society and make themselves the players to move into those gaps. It’s a role that is not completely in the public realm and it’s not completely in the private realm. There are opportunities for extraordinary contributions to society.”

This unique view of the whole should be what drives strategy at foundations, not some false idea of return on investment. Besides, if every decision they make also gives us all insight into their theory of change, every dollar spent by philanthropies will generate much more value for the common good.

The patient protagonist

For decades, the ultimate authority in health care has been doctors or insurance companies. But research we did with a group of health entrepreneurs suggested that many of the most exciting potential developments in the future of medicine will be unlocked only when patients lead the way.

“For much of history, this was impossible because patients were – almost by definition – isolated, broken, and weak,” Andrew Benedict-Nelson wrote in our report. “But changes in the landscape of patienthood – most importantly patients’ newfound ability to act collectively – could make them the driving force behind improvements in health care in the 21st century.”

Evolving far beyond their current role as informed consumers, patients could advocate for systemic change and drive their own independent research agendas – provided the social norms of the health care system can keep up.

We’ve explored health care’s changing norms in several other projects including the launch of a nursing department at USC and our original publication Health Plus Social.

Food, sunshine and love

There’s a movement today that argues the arts should occupy an equal place with math and science in school curricula. But in work we did on behalf of the Creative Coalition, we came away with a radically different perspective.

We concluded that enthusiasm for the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, and math — runs so high on the education scene not just because those subjects lead to high-profile jobs, but because student performance in STEM is easily measured in objective terms. If that’s the scorecard, art doesn’t stand a chance.

But what can be objectively shown is that humans need art to thrive, in the same way they need food, sunshine and love. Therefore, schools must absolutely fight for art’s place within their walls — just not in the same way they aim to raise SAT scores.

“In today’s schools, no curricular subject (even STEM) claims to increase quality of life metrics — there isn’t even a place to declare victory if they do,” our report read. “But social programs do, from school breakfast programs to mandatory vaccination plans. These programs ultimately succeeded when the benefits they provided were viewed as every child’s right — researchers track what happens when kids don’t get a measles shot or a hot breakfast. We should start talking about art’s impact with the same urgency.”

We were enlisted for this work by Tim Daly, president of the Creative Coalition. It is one of several projects in which we’ve untangled the social norms related to art, including those in hospitals and corporations.

Stealth management

Over the past generation, changing social norms have made the white-collar workplace a much more flexible environment. From the introduction of new technologies to the embrace of enlightened HR practices, many corporations realize they will do better if they empower employees to find work-life balance.

But lots of employees don’t work in offices, and many of them face grim realities as they try to balance the responsibilities of work and home. In work with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, we explored this new frontier of workplace flexibility. To find answers, we examined the social norms of jobs where flexibility would seem to be impossible – think forest rangers and psychiatric social workers.

We found that even in these places, some people were making it work – not just for themselves, but secretly for their peers. We dubbed them “stealth managers,” then suggested some ways Sloan might be able to mine their wisdom and bring work-life balance to everybody.

“We realized that the geniuses of flexible workplaces aren’t CEOs, management consultants, or even professors who have spent years studying the issue,” our report read. “Instead, they’re more likely to be front-line managers or shift supervisors.”

They get the job done

You might think the best way to supercharge American entrepreneurialism is tax incentives or business education. But in our work with the University of Illinois, we discovered the most efficient way to increase the number of start-ups: relax immigration restrictions.

After investigating the key traits of entrepreneurs, we concluded that no group ticks as many boxes as immigrants from countries that are less free to countries that are more free.

“If there were some other measure – if we knew that left-handed people were more entrepreneurial – then I would say that we should hire more left-handed people or let more left-handed people into the country,” said University of Chicago professor Pablo Montagnes, whom we consulted on the project. “But we don’t have a measure like that. The measure we do have is a desire to take a risk and move to the United States for a particular reason. …

“The U.S. is best at creating these kinds of opportunities for people. If people want these kinds of opportunities, we should be the ones who let them take advantage of them. Often the immigration debate is about illegals stealing jobs from Americans. But entrepreneurship is about creating new jobs and new things that would not exist otherwise.”

Change the world to what?

The humanities are frequently dismissed as useless. Yet we at GreenHouse have come to believe there is virtually no discipline better suited to solving the world’s toughest challenges.

This isn’t because of any one particular thing that students of humanities know. On the contrary, it’s because of their feel for the unknown and uncertain, for the shifting terrain of the human condition where one finds the root of all social problems.

“Every time I hear the phrase ‘Change the world,'” Howell Malham Jr. said, “I think ‘Change the world to what?’ The humanities can help us figure out what to change the world to.”

We first uncovered this hidden power in a project with the state humanities councils of Illinois and Indiana. We explored the idea further in our work with Humanities Without Walls, training doctoral students at 15 research universities.

Movement makers

Today, the relationship between design and social good is old hat. There are ever-increasing numbers of social impact design agencies, conferences and even college degrees.

But we – GreenHouse and Jason Ulaszek – helped launch that movement, when we kicked off UX for Good, the first to marry user experience design and social problem-solving. At the time, it was somewhat heretical; the first piece written about us suggested we were “bullshit” and suggested we stick to solving more conventional problems.

The first challenge was staged in Chicago, where we convened 50 designers from around the country to tackle problems like homelessness, urban violence and mental health. Later challenges took us to New Orleans, where we addressed musicians’ quality of life; Vancouver, where we took on mindfulness education; and Rwanda, where we took on the effectiveness of genocide museums.

The initiative was honored by the user experience industry and has inspired several similar initiatives in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

Flash mob for good



There are a handful of essential questions that every organization – certainly, every organization taking on social challenges – must answer regularly and honestly: Are we solving the right problem? Have we outlived our usefulness? Is it possible we’re pursuing the wrong core strategy?

But that’s much, much easier said than done. For one, the key actors in any successful organization have bought in to its strategy, necessarily giving up the objectivity required for rigorous self-examination. For two, tackling questions is dangerously disruptive, introducing discomfort and insecurity among staff, volunteers and boards of directors.

This is why GreenHouse principals launched Insight Labs as the first-ever philanthropic think tank. Between 2010 and 2014, we we enlisted more than 750 big thinkers from business, government, philanthropy, academia and the arts to tackle the foundational challenges facing 45 public, private and social-sector institutions.

The Labs became best known for our novel approach: invite a dozen or so subject matter experts to tackle a challenge in which they did not have expertise; keep the invite list secret from even the participants until the project was launched; and do most of the work in a three-hour flurry. It was most aptly described as “the love child of a think tank and flash mob for good.”

Our first effort was on behalf of what is now Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, whose nearly billion-dollar capital campaign had stalled in the wake of the 2008 recession. Together, we deconstructed the ground-breaking engagement strategy of Barack Obama’s first run for president, and mapped it to the potential, expanded role of children’s hospitals in society.

Over the next 60 months, we convened brain-trusts at the request of groups as diverse as NASA, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the U.S. State Department, the TED Conferences, Boeing and Starbucks. Our approach was explored in books and magazines, including Forbes and Fast Company.