At the Morgridge Family Foundation, we often talk about disruption and why it is so important to our giving philosophy. Disruption means different things depending on context; it can be an inconvenience, a mindset change or an industry overhaul. In philanthropy, we use disruption to shake up stale systems and find more productive ways to address systemic issues.
In celebration of our recent $10 million unrestricted gift to longtime partner and disruptor MindSpark and the upcoming release of MFF’s 2021 Disruption Report, we sat down with the leaders of both of our organizations, MindSpark CEO Kellie Lauth and MFF co-founder Carrie Morgridge, to share what disruption means to us and how to cultivate it in your own work.
How do you define disruption?
Kellie: Disruption is often talked about like it’s an event but it is much bigger than that. It is a process. When done well, disruption is a human-centric approach to business, a way to lean in and to tackle problems. At MindSpark, disruption truly is a methodology. It is not a one-time thing or a specific product, it is all-encompassing. For both [MindSpark and MFF], it is part of our DNA.
Carrie: Agreed. Adding to that, at the Morgridge Family Foundation we are constantly looking for ideas at the intersection between technology and positive change. We look for solutions that can make people more efficient and effective. If we can focus more on learning and less on systems and processes, especially in education, then we have disrupted in a very positive way.
Is there anything you would add to explain disruption to someone who has never heard the term before?
Kellie: I often tell people that disruption doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. It is an experiment. Great disruption is sometimes successful but other times, it is an epic failure. Either way, it’s a learning opportunity.
Carrie: People often don’t like change; it is outside their comfort zones. Disruption requires change. Think about a time when you used unfamiliar technology, such as using a Macbook when you’re used to Microsoft products or vice versa. There is a learning curve to get used to the new product – it can be very uncomfortable and doesn’t feel intuitive. Disruption often feels like that, too. In the 21st century, we must learn to change with the technology and with the times or we’re going to miss out on major opportunities and the chance to scale.
Other than being open to change and to failure, what are the characteristics of a disruptive organization or leader?
Carrie: At the Morgridge Family Foundation, we always say that disruption comes from investing in great leaders first. These leaders are honest about what is working, honest about what is not working and focused on building a great team. Disruption doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen with one person – it happens with a team. We lean in on the teams of people who lead change and we trust that they are going to hit their goals. We hold them accountable, and more often than not, they deliver.
Another marker of disruption is time and patience. Disruption doesn’t happen like a lightning strike. It happens with a plan, with leadership, with communication and with honesty. You have to fail, pivot and fix. You have to reinvent your ideas until they become viable products, programs, or solutions for all of us to embrace.
Kellie: I agree! I’ll add that, for MindSpark and our partners, disruption is about investigating and redefining the customer experience. One way to do that is through looking for different but cross-pollinating partners. The disruption magic happens when you take two dissimilar models, businesses or missions and put them together in a strategic way that uplifts the communities that we serve and care about.
Another important quality among disruptive leaders is the tendency to solve persistent problems instead of popular ones. It takes courage to be willing to do the learning, to talk about what’s wrong, to pick up the rocks and take a look at the messy parts underneath.
So far, we’ve been talking in abstracts. Can you share an example of disruption that really stuck with you?
Carrie: I want to stress partnerships. When it comes to social impact disruption, a private family foundation like us can help provide a business plan, a syllabus, and the first few years of funding to prove that a new model works. After an idea is proven and outcomes measured, then the government can pick it up and make it sustainable.
One example of this process working is our partnership with Dave Krepcho and the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida.
They identified a problem: the state offices where people applied for food stamps were typically not located near bus lines, meaning any recipients with a job – about 65 percent – would have to take the entire day off work and ride several buses just to apply. Second Harvest proposed a disruptive idea, a three-year pilot program to fund five field outreach specialists. The specialists would travel to recipients’ homes and fast track the food stamp application process. The grant would cover laptop computers, cell phones and portable fax machines right in the specialists’ cars.
We agreed to the proposal. The specialists solved so many issues at once, from lack of transportation to confusing application processes to poor literacy skills, and leveraged both donations and government funds. In their first year, the specialists signed up hundreds of families for [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)] totaling $10 million in aid. They became a national model and have trained many other cities on how to replicate their success.
How do you cultivate disruption in your day-to-day work?
Carrie: So often, especially in the education space, philanthropists want to fund a safe silver bullet. They look for a program that they can “plug and play” in their school. What Kellie and MindSpark teach is that disruption is about changing the culture of the school and the ways in which things are taught.
Kellie, could you talk about creating a mindset of disruption in your culture at MindSpark? You do it so well.
Kellie: People like to think about innovation and disruption as a moment of genius but that is absolutely not how it works. To build a culture of disruption, you have to help people understand how to tolerate discomfort. Sometimes that process is painful. To make it easier and inspire creativity, build in moments of surprise and delight and cultivate a playful attitude around work.
Of course, work can be very serious but it should inspire people and be a place where people love to spend their time. If you want to be a disruptive organization, you have to intentionally build your culture and put people first. Like Carrie has said, it’s not going to be widgets or new laptops that drive true disruption, it’s going to be people who see problems and solutions and put them together in new, unique ways to benefit everyone.