Everything we do is to advance our organizational purpose: to inspire and support creative problem solving — within and across sectors — to make our region better for everyone. We also aspire to be radically open as an organization, and part of that means sharing our own learnings.
In this section, you will find a mix of learning papers authored by our staff members, past and present, and other types of staff reflections over the years.
If you would like to stay in the know when we publish any staff learning papers or reflections, make sure you are added to our email list to stay in our active network.
Radically Open: Performance Scorecard
Part of our commitment to being radically open is transparency. For this paper, we are focusing on a newer practice for us: publicly reporting our performance on key indicators. We launched our performance scorecard on our website in May 2023. This was a big step for us and, as far as we know, unique among private foundations.
Published July 2023
What we learned in issuing social impact bonds
In fall 2020, the Bush Foundation issued $100M in social impact bonds and used the proceeds to create two community trust funds that directly invest in Black and Native American communities in our region. The grants will go to individuals in an effort to build stability and generational wealth.
Published January 2023
Note from Jen: Upping our commitment to community-based philanthropy
We have engaged community partners in our grantmaking for many years – from asking community leaders to select Bush Fellows to funding local institutions to operate state-level versions of our Community Innovation grant programs. We want to build on this experience and do more. We are excited to announce two specific changes in this direction.
Note from Jen: Learning, relearning and unlearning
The work of overcoming long-held beliefs and assumptions is humbling. For me, it has involved realizing over and over how my beliefs and assumptions are limited by my experience, different from what others believe and assume, and sometimes just plain wrong.
Note from Jen: Building from tragedy — commitment to making our community better for all
It is always upsetting to witness racism and violence. It is particularly upsetting when the racism and violence is close to home. When it is our community. Our police. Our neighbor — George Floyd.
Note from Jen: Turning optimism into action
One of our values is to spread optimism. To us, that means thinking bigger and thinking differently about what is possible for people and communities. It does not mean pretending like things aren’t bad or difficult. Turning optimism into action requires being realistic and adjusting efforts to fit changing circumstances.
Note from Jen: Investing in community problem-solving
The Community Innovation grant program evolved from one of our three “Goals for a Decade,” announced back in 2008. Now the decade has passed. We now are considering the continued evolution of our organizational strategy. For Community Innovation grants, one thing we are thinking about is whether we can make the program both higher impact and easier to understand if we focus less on the particulars of the problem solving process and more on the potential of the idea being developed and tested.
Note from Jen: Investing in you
Our tagline is also our strategy: Investing in great ideas and the people who power them. This focus on people has been part of our work from the very beginning. It is not a typical foundation approach. In fact, programs like our Bush Fellowship require special approval from the IRS. (With good reason; the IRS wants to be very careful about how foundation dollars flow to individuals.) While we’ve been known for our Bush Fellowship program for decades, in the past several years we have dramatically expanded the number of additional opportunities we offer to individuals.
Lessons Learned from the InCommons Initiative
We launched the InCommons initiative in 2009 with a group of partners, with the objective of increasing the leadership and problem-solving capacity of communities. After four years of successes and challenges, we made some significant strategic changes in 2013. The lessons and insights shared in this learning paper are primarily drawn from the external review by the Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Lessons Learned from the Bush Foundation/Minnesota Philanthropy Partners Shared Facilities Project
Four years ago, the Bush Foundation and then-Minnesota Philanthropy Partners (MN Partners) pursued a shared facilities project. The plan called for the organizations to co-locate in one building. By doing so, they hoped to leverage their combined purchasing power to lower costs on facilities and services, create opportunities for cross-foundation learning, and inspire other non-profits to explore the benefits of co-location.
Lessons Learned from 2014 Bush Fellowship Selection Process
In 2014, the Bush Foundation made a number of changes to enhance the Bush Fellowship program’s flexibility, selectivity and visibility. Wilder Research surveyed the 2014 Bush Fellowship semi-finalist and finalist candidates, and selection committee members to evaluate the impact of the changes to the selection process. This learning paper shares insights gleaned from this survey.
Using Data to Improve Teacher Preparation
In 2009, we launched our 10-year Teacher Effectiveness Initiative based on the theory that better teacher preparation programs would lead to more effective teachers and, in turn, improved student outcomes. This learning paper examines the measurement systems used to understand the effectiveness of different strategies.
Lessons Learned from the Community Creativity Cohort
In 2015, we created a one-time grant program to provide operating support to exemplary organizations while involving them in the design of a new ongoing program. We did this through the Community Creativity Cohort. Learning cohorts are powerful tools for program strategy development. This learning paper outlines the key steps in our process, as well as the strengths and challenges we experienced. We believe these learnings could be used across a wide array of issue areas to inform program design. We do not go deep into the Community Creativity strategy that emerged from this process.
Planning Ahead to Ensure User Adoption of New Technology
We launched a new CRM platform as well as an interconnected grantmaking system on January 1, 2016, after 18 months of planning, designing and testing with a dedicated technology consulting firm. We wanted to leverage new technology solutions that could help us be more effective at grantmaking, and therefore serve the region better. This learning paper summarizes what we took away from the process that might inform others looking to make sure staff are best equipped to embrace a new system.
bushCONNECT: Three Years Out
At the Bush Foundation, we believe leaders do their best work when they have the opportunity to meaningfully connect with one another and with new ways of thinking. Our event strategy zeroes in on supporting and producing events that inspire, equip and connect leaders in the region. A few years ago, we dreamed up a new event that we would build and host ourselves: We called it bushCONNECT.
Five Year Reflection: Communications as Program
Less than 10% of all private foundations have a website, according to the Foundation Center. That’s a bit shocking until you realize that most private foundations can afford to be, well, private. They don’t need to raise money, and they don’t need to sell anything. They don’t really have to communicate anything to anyone except the Internal Revenue Service. We believe this approach to communications leaves a lot of potential impact on the table. We believe effective communications is a potent strategy for doing the most good possible with our resources. Communications is an essential part of our work.
Published October 2017
Five Year Reflection: (Internal) Talent Management for (External) Impact
We know that the future of our region will be defined by the talents and ambitions of the people in it. The same is true for our organization. We invest in our staff members to advance our purpose of making the region better for everyone. We see this as a smart investment with long-term yields. For the past five years we have been working to embed our belief in the power of people in our own operations in four ways...
Five-Year Reflection: No Moat Philanthropy
There's a famous (in philanthropy) quote that defines foundations as "a large body of money completely surrounded by people who want some." Over the past five years at the Bush Foundation, we have worked actively against this fortress mentality. We believe our efforts have made us smarter and more effective. Here's what we have done, in the form of five principles of no-moat philanthropy.
Building an Inclusive Culture
Changing organizational culture takes intention and time. We’ve spent the last five years creating a more inclusive culture internally so that we can be more effective externally. In this paper, we highlight the questions and decisions we’ve made and what we’ve learned. Not because we’ve done it all right, or because we’re done. But with the benefit of some hindsight, here’s what we’ve learned, five years in.
Note from Jen: Equity in practice
We’ve been working for several years to operate more inclusively within our organization. We’ve been working to understand the equity implications of all we do, big and small, in our grantmaking and operations. One of the toughest stages in doing equity work within any organization is jumping from training room conversations to action.
Note from Jen: Goals for a decade revisited
In 2008, we launched an ambitious new strategy we called “Goals for a Decade.” We set three goals and developed Foundation-led initiatives to achieve them. Now, a decade has passed. While we’ve shared successes and challenges on each initiative along the way, we thought it was the right time to do an overall assessment of the strategy.
Note from Jen: Queer eye for leadership
Of all the things I love about my job, the most joyful is getting to talk to Bush Fellowship finalists when they come to our office for their final interviews. I love talking to people about their aspirations for making our region better for everyone. And I love talking to people about how the process of applying to be a Bush Fellow has helped them understand what they need to be the leader they want to be.
Note from Jen: Embracing the not-simple in all of us
The Bush Foundation is about solving problems to make this region better for everyone. Solving our biggest problems requires working across difference. It requires truly listening and understanding the lived experiences of others. It requires engaging with each other in ways that bring out our best selves.
Note from Jen: Leadership in context
One of the most fun parts of my job is meeting Bush Fellowship finalists when they come to our office to interview. Always an impressive and inspiring group, this year I was struck to see that more than a third of the finalists were immigrants or refugees to the U.S.
Note from Jen: Leadership development on $0 a day
Each of the new Bush Fellows will receive up to $100,000 to invest in their own leadership development. That is amazing and will support them to dream big about their growth as leaders. At the same time, when I think back about the experiences that made the biggest difference in my own leadership development, most of them were free.
Note from Jen: Sharing progress and spreading optimism
For those of us who are focused on addressing social issues and trying to get others to care, it is almost irresistible to paint the bleakest possible picture. We share our stories and our data in a way that suggests things are horrible and getting worse. To do great things, we need to believe great things are possible. We need optimism.
Note from Jen: The opportunity in Native-focused philanthropy
A new report from First Nations Development Institute lists us as the 7th biggest foundation funder of Native issues in the U.S. On one hand, it is exciting to be recognized as one of the top funders of Native American organizations and causes. On the other hand, we are really small compared to most of the other foundations on the list. I believe a lot of funders are missing a great opportunity for impact.
Note from Jen: Working backward from impact
We talk a lot at the Bush Foundation about how you don’t have to have a “leadership role” to be a leader. You can lead from anywhere. It is a bit more awkward to talk about the corollary truth, which is that just because you have the “leadership role” doesn’t mean you are leading.
Note from Jen: Philanthropy that's better for everyone
One of the challenges of making institutions and systems work better for everyone, is that the people who rise to leadership tend to be people who thrive in those environments. When an institution worked well for you, it is harder to see the ways it may not work for others. It is harder to see what needs to change to make it work well for everyone.
Note from Jen: bushCONNECT + How change happens
This year at bushCONNECT, I shared some thoughts on how change happens. I’ve done a lot of research the past couple of years on successful examples of social change. There are examples all around us all the time. We often don’t even notice them, much less learn from them.
Note from Jen: Venturing out from our bases
The Bush Foundation is nonpartisan. We do our work, however, in a partisan world. We recognize this in our focus on community problem solving. We recognize that solving problems in our communities requires working across political difference. And like working across any kind of difference, this requires truly understanding what we believe and why.
Note from Jen: Doing more good
One of our values is More good. Every year. As an organization, we do things that we believe are clearly good. And even as we try to do good, we know we also do things that cause or contribute to negative outcomes in the world. We do both every day, sometimes simultaneously.