Olivia Leland, Founder and CEO of Co-Impact, explains why global collaboratives need to be anchored by core values such as having a beginner’s mind.
In a seminal psychology experiment, researchers provided five-, six-, and seven- year-olds with a box of tacks, a matchbook, and a candle and asked them to use only these items to affix the candle to the wall and light it in such a way as to ensure that the melting wax did not fall to the floor.
Who was most likely to solve this challenge and solve it most quickly?
That’s because the youngest among us approach this challenge with the most open minds (in psychology parlance: they have less “Functional Fixedness”). They understand, almost immediately, that a box of tacks can be used in a multitude of ways — including to create a shelf to hold the candle.
Those with more education and more experience have trouble imagining the box as anything other than a receptacle for tacks.
While this experiment was carried out in 2000, it demonstrates a timeless principle called “beginner’s mind.”
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,
in the expert’s mind there are few.
Our preconceptions can limit our understanding of the world and of what is possible.
This is one of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned throughout my years working in philanthropy. And it guides our work at Co-Impact, a global collaborative that brings together funders to support groundbreaking initiatives in health, education, and economic opportunity in the Global South. The initiatives we support focus on transforming underlying systems, led by organizations and partnerships that are deeply rooted in the countries where they seek to make a difference.
At Co-Impact, our core values — beginner’s mind being one of them — underpin everything we do.
When embarking on a journey in partnership with others, it can feel intuitive to focus solely on the destination we wish to reach — our shared purpose — especially when we have big ambitious goals. But we must be equally careful not to leave unspoken the values and beliefs that will guide us there. As the philosopher James Allen warns: “Without right principles to begin with, there will be wrong practices to follow with.”
With this insight in mind, when we launched Co-Impact three years ago, I knew that we needed to recognize not only the value a partner brings to the table, but also the values they bring.
None of these values is more important than the others. I focus on beginner’s mind in this article only because it may be most surprising.
Many of Co-Impact’s funding partners and staff have been engaged in supporting social change work for decades. And yet, this group of experienced funders has committed to beginner’s mind as a core value. Why? Because the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. And here’s what we know: thoughtful, innovative philanthropists have been trying to do good in the world for generations. Examples of where philanthropy has played a significant role in large-scale change exist, but are few and far between.
The reality is that deep and lasting change requires collaboration with all of the actors in a system, listening to those already working on a problem, and taking a long-term view. To really make a meaningful difference, not simply to provide a Band-Aid, we must better identify and leverage the boxes of tacks in the world.
And it is not just a matter of mustering the determination to confront a challenging learning curve. We need to adopt and exercise the principle of examining the world with a beginner’s mind.
Making a difference requires knowing that you don’t know everything, can’t do everything, and partnering with others can provide insights we could never imagine.
Of course, the alignment of values doesn’t mean that partners align on everything. But a partnership with a foundation of authentic and effective values fosters unity in diversity. These values allow for respectful disagreements, as it is inevitable — and at times, important — that there be differing opinions on the best way forward. Rather than sowing discord, these differences can be processed in productive tension; they
can surface fresh thinking and unconventional ideas and be a powerful antidote to groupthink.
Ultimately, it is only when we are able to admit we don’t have all the answers that we learn, innovate, and craft new ways of grappling with big societal problems — and, perhaps, we may even find creative uses for boxes of tacks along the way.
An example of this approach is the story of oral rehydration solution (ORS) — a simple mixture of salt, sugar, and water — that, when given orally to severely dehydrated children, eliminates the need for intravenous fluids and saves lives.
In the 1980s, the Bangladeshi organization Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) trained tens of thousands of its community health workers (CHWs) to teach mothers how to prepare ORS at home. Though ORS is easy to administer and readily available, families were still not using it years after its development. Oxfam, UNICEF, the Swedish International Development Agency, BRAC, and the government of Bangladesh adopted a beginner’s mindset to find a way forward.
BRAC interviewed its CHWs and found that they didn’t understand why diarrhea was so dangerous to children. As a result, they didn’t understand how ORS worked and hence, did not believe in its efficacy. In response, BRAC brought some CHWs to its labs to see, first-hand, how ORS worked. The CHWs were then advised to explain what they learned and to sip the solution themselves during household visits to demonstrate its safety. Over the span of a decade, CHWs reached out to more than 12 million mothers, which, along with a major social marketing campaign, resulted in the wider adoption of ORS as a lifesaving tool at home.
The story of ORS demonstrates the power of listening, and of recognizing that we do not have all the answers — sometimes we do not even have a firm grasp of all the questions. And it also demonstrates the importance of values — in this case valuing the insights of CHWs and the role of women as caregivers in their families.