A Conversation with Carrie Morgridge

Story in: Among Peers

A Conversation with Carrie Morgridge

Earlier this month, a group of committed educators gathered at George Washington University for Share Fair, a one-day conference on integrating technology into classrooms. These “Classroom Intensives” featured presenters from some of today’s most recognized names in progressive education: Flipped Classroom, Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots, Apple, Discovery Education, Khan Academy, Promethean, SMART Education, and many more. The goal of the day was simple: transform education and propel schools towards the best 21st Century classrooms.

Share Fair was conceived and organized by The Morgridge Family Foundation, a private family foundation based in Denver, Colorado. And while it takes an orchestra of collaborators, sponsors, and volunteers to run the event in multiple cities each year (the next one will be held in St. Louis on March 29), it is foundation board member Carrie Morgridge who serves as conductor and Chief Get-the-Job-Done Officer.

For many donors, running a private foundation is a side job, or more likely, an avocation. Not for Carrie. This is her full-time profession and she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I get happiness and joy from giving,” Carrie remarks. “It’s not just about writing the big checks, but also about giving my time, my input, and building relationships with grantees and organizations. I like to make things work.” But like any other job, she acknowledges there are challenges, “I am very accessible to people, but I had to learn that ‘can you have a cup of coffee?’ meant can you give me some money … It’s a challenge to filter out the good grants, from the possible grants, to the ones that should be declined.”

One thing Carrie knows with absolute certainty is that she doesn’t know it all. In a room full of philanthropic peers, she imagines saying: “I want to know everything that you know, so I can learn from you.” It’s a scenario that indeed played out recently, when Carrie met with the second generation group of the Giving Pledge, a group comprised of the world’s wealthiest individuals and families who are giving the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.

Below, Carrie elaborates on her life as a full-time philanthropist.

1. WHAT CAUSE OR ISSUE IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU AND WHY?

Our Foundation’s mission is, “Investing in the transformation of education for both students and educators.” We consider this mission with each and every grant we make. Education is incredibly important to our entire family, and technology is where the money we give away comes from, so technology integration for teachers in the classroom is a perfect fit for us. But we are about so much more than just education. We really care about the whole child, including the wrap-around services that a low-income child might need. We also invest in the environment, but we are achieving that by educating our youth, with hands-on, real-life work. Also, we are one of the few foundations I know of that invests in schools serving Middle Class families.

2. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO LAUNCH A PRIVATE FOUNDATION?

We started our foundation as a Fidelity Gift Fund. This was easy and accessible for us. As we grew, our needs grew. We moved our main giving account to the Denver Foundation, a local community foundation, but after a few years, we outgrew that too. Our financial advisor recommended that we explore a private foundation. Since 2008, we have been a Foundation Source client, and I have a great working relationship with the team that supports me. My goal was to operate without hiring any staff, and we have succeeded in that. We launch national RFP’s, work on 185 projects a year, and Foundation Source’s support allows me this freedom. This is my full-time career, but that was our choice. I travel a lot seeking out the best in education, and integrating the best practices that I learn to our various communication platforms, such as our website, or our national teacher training event, Share Fair Nation.

3. WHAT DO YOU KNOW NOW ABOUT BEING A GRANTMAKER THAT YOU WISH YOU KNEW STARTING OUT?

I wish I knew where my money would make the most impact. This is only something that can be learned with time in the field. I was lucky enough to serve on a community foundation board, where we did site visits and held people accountable. That was 20 years ago, and I still apply the skills that I learned from that board to my current grant giving. 

4. WHAT IS THE MOST SIGNIFICANT CHALLENGE YOU FACE IN RUNNING A PRIVATE FOUNDATION?

My biggest challenge is that I do all of my own email, flights, grants, reports, etc. I am very accessible to people, but I had to learn that “can you have a cup of coffee?” meant can you give me some money. These days, I don’t do coffee, rarely accept a lunch, and only go to one gala a year (we are asked to attend hundreds of galas). The second biggest challenge is the amount of asks we get verses the budget we have. Some days it just feels like people from all over are begging you to change the world, which we all know is not possible.  It’s a challenge to filter out the good grants, from the possible grants, to the ones that should be declined. 

5. WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING?

I get happiness and joy from giving. For me, “giving” means many things. It’s not just about writing the big checks, but also about giving my time, my input, and building relationships with grantees and organizations. I like to make things work: setting goals, collaborating with organizations, and feeling the transformations take place. To see or feel the impact of our giving, connecting, and invested time is the biggest reward I receive. I like making people feel special. I like working directly with teachers, and most – for example the ones at Khan Academy – are shocked that I am so hands-on with projects. (The technology at Foundation Source allows me to do this).

6. NAME ONE PHILANTHROPIST, PRESENT OR PAST, WHOM YOU WOULD LIKE TO HAVE COFFEE WITH, AND WHY?

I am lucky on this front because I have daily access to John and Tashia Morgridge, whom I consider to be some of the top philanthropists in the U.S. They are there to offer us support and guidance, and to help us learn from our failures. In fact, John P. Morgridge says “If you aren’t failing at some of your grants, you aren’t being innovative enough.” I have met many of the top philanthropists and they all think they have the answers. But if we did, wouldn’t the need for us be gone? I like to learn from others. The most exciting group that I have had the pleasure of being with is the second generation of the Giving Pledge. In our first dinner together, I learned so much that I came back to our foundation and changed the way we did grants. It was very powerful for me.

7. WHAT IS A BURNING QUESTION THAT YOU HAVE FOR YOUR COMMUNITY OF PHILANTHROPIC PEERS?

Teach me what I don’t know! I want to know everything that you know, so I can learn from you, to become a better philanthropist. 

8. NAME ONE INDIVIDUAL OR ORGANIZATION THAT HAS PARTICULARLY IMPRESSED YOU. WHY?

Of all the people I have met so far, Salman Khan is the most impressive man of our time. Not only is he uber-smart with three degrees from MIT and a business degree from Harvard, he is also a humble, nice, and kind person. From Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, to countless national and international awards, he is still the same humble, shy, nice guy we invested in years ago. As of now, Khan Academy teaches more than 10 million unique users a month. This alone is the biggest disruption in education we have ever had. Sal Khan and his entire team remain true to their mission.

9. IF YOU CAN ACCOMPLISH ONE THING WITH YOUR PHILANTHROPY, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

I would like to create a new, scalable model in education, in which a student’s curricula is relevant and aligned with her or his passions and future careers. Education centers designed for children of all ages would offer formal and informal learning, technology, vocational learning, and the arts.

10. WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH WE HAD ASKED, AND WHAT IS THE ANSWER?

  • CARRIE’S QUESTIONS: Do you think you are a good philanthropist, and do you think you are making an impact? How do you define success?
  • CARRIE’S ANSWERS: I think our community views us as good philanthropists. We work hard at our foundation, and I believe our community appreciates the work we do. Am I having an impact? We have rolled out and trained over 10,000 teachers to use technology in their classrooms, yet the Colorado reading scores remain flat. If one was just reading the data, we have failed. But success to me is not just about the data. Success is getting a letter from a teacher who is connecting to her students because she finally had the right tools in her classroom to teach each child at his or her own pace and learning modality. Success is a teacher who says they can see their students learning; thinking. Success to me is when you overhear a teacher talking about the newest app for students that finally gets through to them, or the “a-ha” moments, which technology is bringing into the classrooms. Success is when we play a part in helping students become successful learners.