Inexhaustible passion for the specific problem you are trying to solve. To launch a new organization and persist through all of the inevitable hurdles (and long nights) of starting up a non-profit, it’s not enough to care broadly about making the world a better place. Instead, you have to be unequivocally convicted, and inexhaustibly passionate about the specific problem you are trying to solve. Typically, this requires some real personal connectivity, proximity, and lived experience with the problem at hand.
For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non-Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Josh Biber from the Toolbox Foundation, the family foundation of Denise Dupré and Mark Nunnelly. Josh began his career as a Teach For America corps member and quickly became their founding executive director just three years later. Josh serves on several key education Boards including One Goal-Massachusetts, StoryShares, and Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
Of course — and thank you for this opportunity.
I started my career as a Teach For America corps member and 5th grade teacher in a school that served predominately low-income students on the outskirts of Phoenix, AZ — and nothing has shaped my values, leadership, or career as much as that experience. Within minutes on my very first day of my rookie year, it was undeniably clear to me that my students were brilliant, driven, caring, funny, limitlessly talented young leaders who had all the potential in the world. And I fell in love with each of them immediately. But within days, it also became painfully clear they lacked the educational opportunities, expectations, and resources they deserved. On average, through no fault of their own, my young scholars were already two to three grade levels behind their high-income peers in reading and math. Of course, this was not unique to my school, and reflected the national disparities in educational outcomes across lines of race and class that remain stubbornly persistent today.
Despite this, my students made remarkable progress, and demonstrated incredible resilience, motivation, hustle, and heart to reach the educational goals set for them. By the end of the year, I had students who had struggled with basic literacy reading Harry Potter, others who went from basic subtraction to pre-algebra, and all of them could proudly articulate what it meant for them to be a scholar while celebrating their unique strengths and talents. This was the piece that has since fueled each part of my civic, professional, and personal life. It wasn’t the challenges (which are indeed overwhelming) as much as the juxtaposition of the clear talents, capabilities, promise, and progress that my students self-realized. Despite the enormity and complexity of the inequalities at hand, I emerged from the classroom evermore motivated — with a determination rooted in hope, optimism, and progress. Of course, the path is not linear, easy, or uncomplicated, but my students helped instill in me an unshakeable belief that progress is possible.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success?
The most important advice I ever received about leadership was as simple as it was profound: “You can’t lead people you don’t love.” While work in the social sector can be urgent, intense, and challenging, I have learned that doesn’t preclude that each professional relationship is built on a foundation of personal care, human connection, and yes, love. In fact, I think it requires it. As the years have unfolded, I could not have predicted the powerful ways my professional and personal lives would intersect, as many of my former students and corps members are like family today. Last year, I returned to Phoenix to officiate the wedding of one of my former 5th graders, and two years before that, my son was tapped to be the ring-bearer in another. This year, my 3-year-old daughter’s new Assistant Principal (and her new hero and favorite person) was one of our TFA corps members in Boston. The list could go on, and I am incredibly grateful.
This year, as I stepped into a new role at the foundation, it’s been powerful to realize it is equally important to be led with love as well. The Trustees of our foundation, Denise Dupré, the founder and CEO of hotel design and development company, Champagne Hospitality and Mark Nunnelly, former managing director of Bain Capital, are incredibly strategic and focused leaders with long records of success across industries. And yet, I always know that before I present anything I might have on a PowerPoint slide, personal weekend updates and pictures of my children are in order. They care deeply about their team and have encouraged me to prioritize rest and rejuvenation amidst our challenging work, never miss a special occasion to celebrate, and have modeled for me how to center family and community in our work.
While there are many other leadership traits we value — disciplined focus, bold vision, a growth mindset, and an innovation-orientation — as we bring on new grantees, the leaders that most inspire us are those that lead their teams and constituents with a wellspring of love.
What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?
When I stepped into this role, I set out to find the magic formula for getting philanthropy right. After a year of pretty intense learning, my biggest takeaway is simply that there is no one right way to do this work. There are a set of best practices, for sure, but taken together, there are as many viable approaches, structures, and strategies as there are social issues to solve. Instead of spending significant time and energy searching for the highest utility strategy, which may lead to analysis paralysis, our focus has been to design a philanthropic approach that is uniquely right for us — one that reflects our values — including education and the environment, among others, leverages our strengths, is responsive to our communities where we live and where we do business, and builds from our experiences and convictions.
Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?
Our hope at the Toolbox Foundation is to play our part in fixing today’s most pressing problems by equipping incredible leaders and impactful organizations with the resources they need to advance their missions. As a philanthropic institution, we see our role as empowering front-line leaders and changemakers by filling their “toolboxes” with the supports they need, be it financial investment, strategic counsel, personal mentorship, or the occasional celebration that they deserve. We are currently focused on a set of issues that we deem particularly salient 21st century challenges — climate change, strengthening democracy, post-secondary educational and career opportunities, and breakthrough biomedical research — and we think about solving them in 21st century ways — sparking innovation, leveraging technology, and mobilizing cross-sector capital and coalitions towards change. Above all, with Denise and Mark’s leadership, we’re guided by many of our values that includes centering relationships, operating with humility and empathy, and an unrelenting focus on achieving impact.
What makes you feel passionate about this cause/these causes more than any other?
We certainly see the issues in the realm of climate change, democracy, post-secondary educational and career opportunities, and biomedical research as incredibly pressing problems. In the last few years alone, we’ve all had a front-row seat for an unprecedented global pandemic, unparalleled fracture points in the health of our democracy, the great resignation and unmet workforce needs, and a growing number of severe weather hazards that result from climate change. But we also see these as arenas of opportunity, and we’re particularly hopeful about the role that innovation, technology, and visionary entrepreneurs can play. In these same few years, we have also all seen the science community rally to discover and produce a lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine in record pace, the exponential growth of markets for EVs and clean energy, and the rise of innovative new online programs, micro-credentials, and bootcamps that are helping to ready millions for 21st century jobs. It is the potential for systemic progress, juxtaposed to the complexity and enormity of the challenges, that fuels our motivation.
Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?
In this case I can, in fact, name a name — me! While the work of the Toolbox Foundation is newly organized, it follows a long tradition of personal philanthropy from our Trustees, and as the founding executive director of Teach For America in Massachusetts, I personally felt the power of their generosity firsthand.
Denise and Mark were two of our very first supporters to fund our emerging expansion efforts, and did so at the onset, when success was not an inevitable outcome. It was a pivotal gift, but I also quickly learned how their support expanded far beyond the check. They offered incredibly strategic advice, generous mentorship, and introduced our work to the community at large, which proved particularly consequential for raising the start-up funds we needed.
As a very young leader (I was only 25 years old) and in a brand-new city, their early bet on us (and on me), alongside their generosity of spirit and personal support was truly invaluable, and over the years, those hallmarks only deepened and took on new shape. I know acutely that their support was game-changing for our efforts, and when I think to the successes Teach For America Massachusetts has had since, having built a statewide movement of nearly 3,000 corps members and alumni and having reached tens of thousands of local students, I know they played a catalytic role making that possible.
This is a role they have played for many young leaders and new organizations, and as I step into this side of the work, the plan is to replicate and pay forward that blueprint to impact as we forge dynamic and authentic partnerships with other terrific new organizations.
We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problems you’re trying to solve?
There’s no one right way to make a difference in the world. Some do so through their careers, others through philanthropy, and others through civic life. Some focus on their neighborhoods and kids’ schools, others on global poverty, and certainly everything in between. And it’s all important. So while I don’t think there is one right way for living a life of purpose, I do encourage people to find their optimal way. I think each person can uniquely optimize impact for their particular tapestry of skills, passions, values, and assets. To get there, a bit of introspection is needed, and my 3 steps would be:
1. Find your personal cause of choice. What issue most moves you? Given your life experiences and values, what problem are you most passionate to solve? What is your personal “why’?
2. How can you add optimal value to that cause. What are you uniquely positioned to offer? Is it time, wisdom, wealth? What skills, networks, and resources can you bring to bear on the issue at hand?
3. Just do it. Once you find the intersection of your cause and contributions, don’t wait and jump in to action.
It sounds simple but is easier said than done. There are so many worthy issues that need focus, and it’s easy to underestimate (and then disregard) our own potential to chip away at massive problems. But I think there is a unique role we can each play — of varying shapes and sizes — to contribute to a more just society.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Create a Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves a Lasting Legacy?”
- Inexhaustible passion for the specific problem you are trying to solve. To launch a new organization and persist through all of the inevitable hurdles (and long nights) of starting up a non-profit, it’s not enough to care broadly about making the world a better place. Instead, you have to be unequivocally convicted, and inexhaustibly passionate about the specific problem you are trying to solve. Typically, this requires some real personal connectivity, proximity, and lived experience with the problem at hand.
- Disciplined focus on your specific solution. The best non-profits honestly ask and answer the following question “what is the one specific thing we can be best in the world at?” And then, to borrow a concept from Jim Collins, they operate like hedgehogs — they curl up and go full steam ahead with focus and discipline at that one specific thing and avoid distractions that would shift their focus over time.
- A healthy dose of adaptability. At the same time, it is also true that the world around us is constantly changing, and arguably at a faster pace than it ever has. In turn, it’s increasingly vital that non-profits remain agile, adapt to changing context, and revise their model in response. This orientation is indeed in tension with the hedgehog theory but finding the appropriate balance between focus and flexibility is a defining feature of the best organizations.
- People, People, People. Ultimately, all of the things we often discuss in non-profits — strategy, execution, vision, etc. — mean very little without the right people, in the right roles, feeling empowered and determined to lead change both individually and collectively. The best organizations obsess about their people at every level and in every way. The foundation I am working with now is a good example.
- Pass The Baton. To the question of “how do you leave a lasting legacy?” The simple answer is, “You do so deliberately.” The best organizations do not stumble into leadership transitions, but instead put as much energy and foresight into succession planning as they did in to launching the organization. The best leaders have the humility to know when it’s the right time to pass the baton, and drive at sustainability and transition goals (be them financial, strategic, or human capital) as aggressively as they did any other outcome during their tenure.
How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?
I wouldn’t say the pandemic has changed my definition of success for a more just and equitable world, but it has sharpened three lenses:
Increased urgency. While the pandemic introduced remarkable new problems to all of our lives, it also brought to bear so many long-standing inequalities. Painfully and persistently, those most affected by the pandemic — both directly and indirectly — were those from historically marginalized groups. The compounding effect of this has only exacerbated inequities in so many arenas, be them public health, education, or poverty, and in turn, has upped the urgency dial for all of us.
The power of technology and innovation. The pandemic did accelerate and catalyze the role technology can play in reimagining inequitable systems, much of which is rightly here to stay. Education is a powerful example. While school closures illuminated just how vital in-person schooling is for most parents, we have seen enormous innovation in how technology can complement the core work of the classroom, be it through asynchronous delivery of top content from experts, the ability to individualize through self-paced modular work, or new modes and methods of communicating and partnering with families.
Hope, through resilience. It’s hard to overstate the pain and challenge this has brought to so many, particularly in under-resourced communities, and how long the negative impact will last. And yet, it is also true that our society has shown remarkable resilience through this unprecedented moment in history. Despite it all, scientists have delivered a novel vaccine in record time, industry is reinventing the very nature of the workplace, and social change-makers have redoubled their efforts to serve their constituents in new and powerful ways. As daunting as this episode has been, there is a lot to be hopeful about.
How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?
When I was a 5th grade teacher, every scholar in my classroom had a classroom job, be it our technology manager, our class banker, or the coveted teacher’s assistant role. I had one student named Daniella who was our classroom communications officer. She would greet and tour any visitors, would relay all classroom announcements, and would distribute our weekly newsletter. But if you asked her what her classroom job was, after quickly relaying her technical responsibilities, she would lean in and whisper “but my secret job is making Mr. Biber happy.”
Daniella was an unflagging wellspring of human goodness. And so, she came to realize that whenever I had a hard moment or a failed lesson, I would take a beat, meander over to her desk, observe whatever she was doing (always the right, kind, or helpful thing), and share my heartfelt praise for her. Invariably, doing so would recenter me on the work at hand, and would serve as a grounding reminder of the goodness that enveloped me even amidst the hard moments.
For many, receiving “words of affirmation” is their love language of choice. For me, it’s sharing them. On one hand, I am action-oriented, so whenever there are setbacks in the work, proactively putting a little goodness back in to the world feels like a more active way to combat it. But selfishly, the act of doing so provides an immediate forced reminder of the hope and resilience that is so beautifully abundant in the social sector. Even in the hardest moments (and there are many in the work of social justice), it never took long to find a teacher going above and beyond for their students, or a leader making courageous decisions, or of course, an amazing student doing the right thing. In truth, my classroom was full of “Daniellas,”and I try to remind myself of that through every challenge.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I think national and global thought leaders have an enormous role to play in shaping public discourse, elevating social challenges, and spotlighting solutions. I admire and learn from more than I could count. But for me, the richest insights I have gained that have influenced my work most profoundly have been directly from trusted mentors like Denise and Mark, and most vitally, from the very communities and constituents our organizations work with and for. Personally, many of my former 5th grade students — now well into adulthood themselves — remain my most important sounding board, and I will certainly be sending them this column!
You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?
The best way to follow the work of our philanthropy is to directly follow the incredible work of our grantees, such as KIPP, Broad Institute, Teach For All, and Prime Coalition.
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.