Letter from Steve McCormick
On “Transformational Change”
May 23, 2012
In my last two letters I shared some observations on why I believe foundations should take well-conceived risks and be comfortable with failure. Those thoughts prompt a more fundamental question: risk-assumption, and willingness to fail, in furtherance of what?
It is my strong conviction that large foundations are uniquely positioned to aspire to “transformational change.” The phrase is often loosely, and perhaps too casually, employed. At the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation we’ve attempted to articulate what we think constitutes transformational change: such a transition is a “state change,” not simply an incremental shift. Systemic new norms, conventions, behaviors, understandings, and practices arise; new fields, language, and perspectives emerge. The change is irreversible and generative of further change.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s commitment to “positive health” is a great example of risk-taking on a big idea in the pursuit of transformational change.
The ability, responsiveness, and willingness of government and other public institutions around the world to address critical social issues is diminishing dramatically, at a time when issues are becoming more global, complex, and potentially catastrophic. Meaningful, lasting solutions to seemingly intractable problems will not come about through incremental change. We are at a time in history that calls for foundations to step forward, cultivate new ideas, and assert leadership in catalyzing and supporting efforts to effect transformational change.
To do this, foundations must take full advantage of their unique attributes, but also overcome some commensurate and inherent shortcomings. Foundations are capable of investing significant capital on big, novel ideas over long time horizons. Foundations have the freedom to be bold; to take risks; to foster creativity, imagination and unorthodox thinking; to be tirelessly persistent in the wake of repeated failures; to learn and adapt with agility; to engage with government and the for-profit sectors as well as the not-for-profit community. But, paradoxically, lacking the need to generate revenue (by selling a product, raising donations, or persuading an appropriations committee) foundations can too-easily become comfortable, complacent, self-focused and only marginally influential. To effect transformational change, foundations will have to be relentlessly devoted to the notion that excellence must be self-imposed, as Tom Tierney and Joel Fleishman so aptly observe in Give Smart. Foundations must constantly challenge themselves, keep raising the bar, and maintain relevance in a world in which everything seems to be changing at the pace of Moore’s Law.
I said at the outset that foundations are uniquely positioned to aspire to transformational change. With this position, I would also argue, comes responsibility. In respect to the vision and aspirations of the Moores—given the nature and extent of the social and global challenges that confront us; the historic decline in the capability of, and plummeting confidence in, public institutions around the world to address these problems; and the extraordinary assets and unique attributes of foundations, unfettered only by self-limitation—I feel those of us who are privileged to carry out philanthropy on our founders’ behalf have an obligation to aspire to transformational change.
Steven J. McCormick
President, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation