The Urgency of Now: Michael Smith and the White House's Message to Funders

While there were many impressive speakers and participants at the Yale Philanthropy Conference last week, perhaps most inspiring was Michael D. Smith, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of Cabinet Affairs for My Brother’s Keeper at the White House. Smith plays a unique role in managing the president’s initiative to address the opportunity gap for boys and young men of color, an effort that has drawn in some of the nation's top foundations.

Before joining the White House team, Smith directed the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), a White House initiative that provides funding to nonprofits in the areas of youth development, economic opportunity, and health promotion. SIF gives grants of up to $10 million for organizations to scale and replicate evidence-based solutions to social challenges in low-income communities.

Smith's background in philanthropy is extensive. Before joining the Obama Administration, he was Senior Vice President of Social Innovation at the Case Foundation. There, he provided oversight to the foundation’s giving and program strategy, and guided numerous sector-building initiatives and public-private partnerships, including the Startup America Partnership.

Prior to the Case Foundation, Smith worked on national initiatives aimed at bridging the “digital divide” for both the Beaumont Foundation of America and PowerUP. Smith has also served on the boards of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE), and Public Allies.

Smith grew up in Springfield, MA, and his mother and father were both 16 when he was born. He described the neighborhood he grew up in as poor and largely black. "A kid like me shouldn't be standing here today giving a talk at the Yale Philanthropy Conference," he said, and offered some analysis of the factors in his life that gave him an edge over many of his peers and put him on a path for career success.

"I had a mother who was smarter than the average bear at 16," he said, adding that he would trust his 16-year-old mother's intelligence over "my average 35-year-old friend now." Smith also credits lots of time as "a pentecostal pew baby," and that his mother enrolled him in a school bussing program as another significant factor that helped him succeed.

But most of all, Smith credited the Boys and Girls Club, where his mother took him to get free child care at the time, as having the strongest positive influence over his life. "What I got was a host of second parents. I had my second mom, I had my second dad, I had this village that surrounded me and protected me. I had my first jobs and opportunities. It really transformed my life. "

Springfield, a small city with few opportunities, still struggles with intense poverty and high crime rates. In fact, Smith's own half-brother, Tory, was a murder victim in 2009. Smith told the audience:

So that's what my family deals with, but that story is told all too often in cities across this country. Go to the cities. Over and over again, there are families like mine, there are stories like Tory. And I ask myself, how do we face statistics like that, yet we still put on our black tie, and we go to that gala, and we pat ourselves on the back for doing good?

Meanwhile, kids, our most vulnerable community members, are falling through the cracks. And so I ask myself, why haven't we paused? Where is the outrage? Where is the urgency? Where is the demand for innovation and results and the idea that we will start doing things differently?

Clearly, the mission of My Brother's Keeper is personal for Smith. That, along with his background in philanthropy, means that he can push funders with special force. 

And what is Smith's message to funders? At the Yale conference, he called on philanthropy to take on three challenges. "First: Be Fearless." He stressed the need for philanthropy to take more risks. Smith developed this approach when working at the Case Foundation to encourage more risk-taking and innovation. He identified several features of successful social changemakers, including making big bets, experimenting, using failure to build something better, reaching beyond the bubble of your own peers, and letting urgency conquer fear. "They don't go for the incremental or the safe. They call people to action like John F. Kennedy did."

Second: Smith encouraged people to stop donating to organizations until they know what kind of results they are getting. He emphasized an important distinction: "This is not just about people being served, but about getting results."

Third: Smith encouraged funders to "know when to walk away." He offered an example from the private sector in Pepsi Clear, which was pulled from the market when market data showed it was not successful. "For some reason, we don't know when to walk away from Granddaddy's nonprofit when kids don't even come to the door anymore."

"We need mergers, we need acquisitions," in the nonprofit sector, he asserted. And he added that we also need funders to say "No, we're not going to send you that $10,000 check," when a nonprofit has not been able to demonstrate results. 

Smith also talked about the power of funders to help small nonprofits merge in order to save money on overhead costs., one of my grantees when I was at Case Foundation, we encouraged to merge with Generation Engage, and so we did the work. We brought the data together, we told them what a board could look like, told them what was the best of this program, what was the best of that program. [...] 

Funders have an incredible amount of power to do that. The same was the case with Hands On Network and Points of Light Institute... At the end of the day, these two organizations merged. [...] Funders can have those tough conversations with nonprofits and also bring the resources to bear when they follow through.

Smith also made a strong plug for the Obama administration's emphasis on public-private partnerships. "Gates is in partnerships all over the world with government, because they realize they can't do it alone. They also have the private sector on board. The government is really great at scale, but they're not really great at rapid testing and iterating of things. Philanthropy is really good at innovation, testing new things, trying out new things."

Smith described the My Brother's Keeper as example of how the Obama administration is working with private sector and philanthropy. "About 11 foundations announced a $200 million dollar commitment to jump start My Brother's Keeper, and in the past year about another $100 million in private sector support has been pledged. Magic Johnson co-chairs the National Convening Council with Joe Echevarria, retired CEO of Deloitte. Their job is figuring out what the private sector can do in this work."

Smith sees Year Up as one of the most promising public private partnerships that the National Convening Council has identified. "Companies pay $25,000 per Year Up student because they believe that's talent that can be well trained and useful to their workforce. Having these partnerships where business is really tied in, that's where we see a good intersection."