Evidence in Action Podcast Fay Twersky on Rethinking Institutional Distrust
Fay Twersky, president and director of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, and cohost Sarah Rosen Wartell discuss rebuilding trust in institutions, designing effective philanthropic programming, and empowering communities to shape their own future.
Display Date

About this episode

We tackle the challenging question of how evidence can drive change for people and communities in a climate of widespread institutional distrust. We explore the root causes of this erosion of trust and its impact on decisionmaking processes. Join us as we uncover innovative strategies that can bridge the gap between evidence and action, rebuild trust in institutions, and empower communities to actively participate in shaping their own future. 



Sarah Rosen Wartell, Urban Institute President


Fay Twersky, President and Director, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation



Sarah Rosen Wartell, cohost:
Welcome to Evidence in Action, a podcast from the Urban Institute. I’m your cohost, Sarah Rosen Wartell. I have the honor of being Urban’s president.

Kimberlyn Leary, cohost:
And I’m your cohost, Kimberlyn Leary, executive vice president of the Urban Institute.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
In this podcast, Kim and I are going to explore the role of evidence, what it is, who makes it, who can use it, who should be using it, and how it can help us to shape policy and achieve better social, economic, and environmental outcomes.

Kimberlyn Leary:
And on every episode, we’ll be joined by a brilliant guest ranging from federal policymakers, local leaders, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, and those who meet community needs.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
We’ll be asking them how they use facts, data, and evidence to improve lives and strengthen communities, and also about the limits of these tools in today’s complicated world.

On today’s show, I’m sitting down with Fay Twersky. She’s president and director of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, which is an Atlanta-based philanthropic organization focused on creating sustainable and inclusive communities. Prior to the Blank Foundation, Fay was vice president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in California, where she launched its pioneering effective philanthropy program. And before that, she was a director and member of the leadership team of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she developed their impact planning division. Fay is also a frequent author and commentator on trends in philanthropy. I’ve asked Fay to join us to talk about some of the causes of the great erosion of trust in social institutions across society: Is it merited? Is it constructive or destructive, or both? We’ll hear some innovative strategies to empower communities to actively participate in shaping their own future, and perhaps along the way, rebuild some trust in our institutions. Thank you, Fay, so much for joining us.

Fay Twersky, guest:
Thank you, Sarah, so much for having me. I’m delighted to be here.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
So let’s start with some background about you personally. Can you tell us where you’re from, and what did you want to be when you grew up?

Fay Twersky:
Yeah. I grew up in Philadelphia, and I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family. I come from a long line of Hasidic rabbis. I grew up poor. I went to college on a Pell grant. I was raised with a lot of great values, in many ways, the values that I still hold, but never, I think, in a million years could I have imagined working with billionaires to help them give their money away to make a better world. So that wasn’t even in my consciousness.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
And I see that you got a master’s degree in city planning, which is obviously a discipline we know well here at the Urban Institute. What made you want to pursue that course, and where did it take you?

Fay Twersky:
Yeah. Well, as I said, I put myself through college. I had a work-study job, and my work-study job was at the Red Cross out in Richmond, California. So I did my undergrad at Berkeley, and I ended up working at the Red Cross in their emergency services program, which was working with people who were victims of disaster, people who were homeless, military families, people who are refugees. And I often called it my “other education” because I had to take two buses and a BART train to get to that job two days a week. And I felt like I was in a completely different world than the world of the headiness of UC Berkeley. And I did that job for four years, and I really saw a lot of folks with a lot of different needs, people who had fallen through the cracks of our society.

And while I really appreciated the opportunity to provide help one person at a time, I came away from that experience feeling like there has to be a better way to help more people, more systematically. And that really led me to look at what are graduate programs that might enable me to do that. And urban planning, city planning ended up rising to the top of the list, and I began to get very interested in that. I got recruited to join a startup applied research firm, and that one consulting firm led me to another. I ended up getting a call from the Gates Foundation to come and join them at a critical moment to start a new team for them focused on strategy and measurement. So we ended up moving to Seattle, and it was a great move in many ways. But that began my journey into philanthropy.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
I want to first talk, before we talk about distrust and evidence, just talk a little bit about institutions and get your take on that. Many of us think of institutions as universities, hospitals, the ballet, but institutions are also Congress and the media and a civil rights advocacy group and their disciplines like city planning or economics that have their own norms and practices. Those are all kinds of institutions too. And so too are philanthropies, like the Blank Foundation or policy research institutions like Urban, institutions are part of the infrastructure of our society. So when society isn’t working, some of us say institutions are often seen as the culprits, and we have seen this rapid erosion of distrust in these, almost every kind of institution, probably many causes for that which we can talk about. But before we get to the erosion of distrust, I’d love to ask you, how do you think about institutions, whether they’re long-standing ones or new startups that are taking new approaches? Do institutions matter as a unit of society?

Fay Twersky:
Yes. They really do matter, all kinds of institutions. It’s what helps our society work. It’s what helps us be able to drive our cars on safe roads and be able to get passports in a reasonable amount of time and all the things that people don’t really think about. When you travel to countries that don’t have functioning institutions, you realize how important they are for just functioning everyday life. One institution that you left out of your very good list, though, that I would add in is religious institutions. You could say lots of not such good things that the religious institutions have done, but there’s net more positive I think, and especially in terms of civility and goodwill among people.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
I think you’re exactly right that that’s a real source. I think another thing I want to get to your thoughts on though is that the distrust in those institutions may have some merit perhaps. Clearly, the overdue reckoning with our history of racial injustice has shown how many of our institutions reflect those same patterns and how they’ve failed to live to their stated values. Our government institutions have failed to mitigate the decline in economic mobility and rising inequality or address the warming of the planet. Our tech platforms have reinforced our bubbles of isolation, and antielite sentiment has been exploding. All of these forces are then impacting institutions. I go into many rooms where people bemoan the loss of trust, but there’s a part of me who thinks, maybe we haven’t done such a good job. I’m curious how you think about distrust and its value.

Fay Twersky:
I believe in the process of continuous improvement. In fact, one might say my whole career has been devoted to that. I do think institutions need to be refreshed periodically. I think that’s part of the natural course of things. I had a mentor who used to say, “Let not the abuse of a thing be an argument against its proper use.” So there can be poorly run institutions, but that doesn’t mean that all institutions are bad. So I do think paying attention always to: What is the mission of this institution? Are we living up to the mission? What can we do to fulfill our purpose better more effectively, more efficiently with more fairness and more dignity? All of those questions are questions that we all need to be asking ourselves. In philanthropy, in Congress. Of course, in Congress, look at what a mess Congress is right now. But to me, it’s not an argument to throw out the institution of Congress. It’s an argument to improve Congress and make Congress function more effectively.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
So I’d love to ask about the institutions that you’ve been in for the last few years. Philanthropy themselves seems to me that there may have also been growing skepticism about that as a sector, maybe institutions you’ve been part of. What’s your experience about skepticism or distrust? Is philanthropy immune from this or also from being challenged too?

Fay Twersky:
Oh, we’re being challenged in a significant way. That’s cyclical too. There were lots of challenges to Carnegie during his time about using his wealth in ways that didn’t necessarily help the employees of his companies, but was more focused on the larger society. And questions about, is he using that to burnish his reputation and so forth? One, I think it’s healthy, actually, to have some critique and to be asking ourselves questions and to have questions posed to philanthropy about, how are we doing our work? How are we bettering society? Who’s making decisions, asking for more transparency. I think all of that is actually healthy and good for philanthropy and foundations.

As for the critique of the institution of philanthropy in a way, and whether philanthropy itself is antidemocratic, I think really, those critiques are more critiques of our tax system than anything else because given what the tax code is, then it makes sense for people of means who want to give back to society to use the tax code to do so. And that’s what you see, and that’s what the Blank Foundation and other foundations like ours are taking funds to do things that maybe government wouldn’t do, to use the philanthropic funds as a kind of risk capital to experiment and to be flexible and provide nimble, flexible support to organizations that are doing really life-saving work.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
So I wanted to ask what your advice is, maybe not to philanthropic leaders, but to perhaps some of the organizations that they might invest in, for how they handle the kinds of challenges that they’re getting from philanthropy itself to incumbent institutions about their utility from their workforce. How does a leader in your mind need to handle an environment where once everyone was just happy to let you do what you were doing, and suddenly now, there’s a lot of second-guessing because the outcomes haven’t always been what people hope for?

Fay Twersky:
Yeah, that’s a big question. We all make mistakes. We all take risks and try things and they don’t work out. And that’s part of learning, and that’s part of being a high-performing organization is trying things and don’t let failure trip you up so much, but keep going and strive to be the best that you can and using data and evidence to inform your practice. When we consider making a grant, especially a significant grant to a nonprofit organization, we ask about their results.

It’s not the only thing we care about. We actually have a framework that we have developed at the Blank Foundation called the Three R’s Framework, which is results, relationships, and respect. Results is first. We care about results, and we want to support the organizations that we care about whose values and purpose we’re aligned with to achieve results in the world. We’re as concerned, or maybe more concerned, with the communities that we’re trying to help, the people we’re trying to help than just the organizations. Of course, the organizations play huge roles, but we can’t forget about our ultimate purpose, but then we want to do that work honoring the relationships, developing relationships of trust, and to do so with respect. Respect both for the organizations we’re working with, but also ultimately, as I said, for the communities that we’re seeking to benefit.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
Well, you’ve mentioned communities, so I wanted to specifically ask you about how you’ve been encouraging some of your grantees to think more about the communities they serve into. I understand the Fund For Shared Insight was cofounded by you and is a collaborative of more than 100 funders supporting more than 500 nonprofits, and you’ve asked them to commit to amplifying the voices of those least heard in our communities and being responsive. Can you talk a little bit about what drove that whole initiative?

Fay Twersky:
Yeah. Well, I have been a missionary really for lifting up community voice and nonprofit participant client voice really since my Gates Foundation days. There were three parts of my role at Gates. One was strategy, second was measurement of results, and the third was helping the foundation hear from outside voices. We heard a lot from experts, we heard a lot increasingly from nonprofit leaders, but we weren’t hearing from the voices of the people that we were seeking to help with our funding. And a great example of that is schools. So we had been investing at that time in the Small Schools Initiative, where they had the theory that they were testing of, if you took big public schools and broke them into small schools or help support the development of small schools, that that would really help kids learn better. There was lots of data collection, lots of evaluation and research that was happening looking at all kinds of indicators, but there was no data collection from the students themselves.

It was so interesting because here we were in, at that time, a very product-oriented kind of philanthropy, but there was no consumer feedback, that would be the analog, and no business operates these days without any consumer feedback. And that really got me on the move to say, “How can we really integrate more feedback from the end-intended beneficiary in a systematic way? In a way that people couldn’t discount so easily?” That led me at Gates to start YouthTruth with the Center for Effective Philanthropy, which is a terrific program now working with schools and students throughout the country.

After leaving Gates, I began this effort with other funders to say, is there something that we can do together? And that led to the creation of the Fund for Shared Insight, whose purpose was to amplify the voices of the people least heard. And at Fund for Shared Insight, we launched our signature initiative, which is Listen4Good, and Listen4Good is a very simple, elegant survey tool, five questions and some demographic data that any customer-facing nonprofit can use to get feedback on how it’s doing. That’s it. Five questions. And among the first things I did getting to the Blank Foundation is offer Listen4Good as an offering to about 30 of our grantees at the time and launched that both as a practice and as an ethic.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
One of the real challenges to many of our long-standing incumbent institutions has been around racial equity and around how those institutions do or don’t reflect the communities that their work is reporting to serve, do or doesn’t reflect distributed decisionmaking that includes those communities. How has that influenced your philanthropy? And a second question is, how do you think that influences this question of distrust that we see right now?

Fay Twersky:
Yeah. It’s a really interesting question. It’s important to remember that community is not homogenous. It’s not like you talk to a few residents in a neighborhood and you get the full scoop on what is happening in the neighborhood and what the real needs are and what people would like to see prioritized. You have to factor in different kinds of perspectives from community, as well as evidence from different kinds of studies that have been done, and then use your judgment to make decisions about how to deploy resources. Data don’t make decisions, even lived experience, because there’s going to be conflicts. People make decisions. And so the role of somebody in the foundation world is to factor in and triangulate all of these different points of view and do some pattern recognition and combine that with what are we trying to accomplish and then make some decisions about resource allocations.

But it’s rare that there’s just... Sometimes it happens, but there’s just a direct line from what one person or two people might say and what’s even possible to do. Listen4Good, we would get great examples, feedback from nonprofit participants about nonprofits, what they wanted to do. And some of the time, it was easy to take the suggestion, suggestion that middle-class folks working in these nonprofits didn’t think about, like if you’re waiting in a food line, it’s hot outside, put up umbrellas, put up shade areas. Okay, well that’s important, you can respond to. But something else, like set up a dental clinic, that might be a little harder. It might take a little more time. You might not have the budget for it. So it’s important to hear all that feedback, hear all those needs, and then some, you can do right away. There is no silver bullet, even in community engagement, in terms of how it needs to find expression in all decisions that foundations or even government makes.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
One of the things I just heard you say is, one needs to constantly be open to hearing and learning because all kinds of new ideas may come from that, but part of your job is deciding which of those ideas you can act on and which you can’t, or what your priority and sequence, and how do you keep with strategy? Because if you get a thousand different things, you can lose the coherence of what you’re trying to do. So I want to come back to evidence, but before I do, you mentioned democracy. I know that’s an important priority for the foundation, committed to a free, fair, just, and pluralistic democracy for all. Boy, that’s a big goal and not necessarily one where we always feel we’re going in the right direction. What’s your strategy to tackle that right now?

Fay Twersky:
I think the good news is that there’s a lot more funders focused on democracy. You just see a lot more philanthropic engagement, which is great. We are focusing our strategy for democracy currently in two places, in Georgia and in Montana. That’s where Arthur Blank has the base of his businesses. So that’s where we’re focused. And we’re focused on decreasing polarization in the political sphere, which means increasing effective responsive governance by elected leaders in Montana and Georgia. We have three pathways that we are pursuing in that strategy. One is related to electoral reforms, things like ranked-choice voting and open primaries. Those are the kinds of approaches that have tended to provide different incentives for elected officials to be more moderate and less extreme. Our second pathway relates to once people are in elected office, to create more bipartisan relationships.

So there are organizations that work on creating caucuses like the.... Well, it’s now called the Future Caucus, was before, the Millennial Action Project, of young electeds who want to get something done. They’re very idealistic, want to get something done, and they come together in this caucus to work together and build those relationships. There’s a similar program in Montana. And then the third area of our strategy is focused on creating a pipeline for prodemocracy candidates, small-d democracy. Our strategy is nonpartisan, but we want to encourage people to run for office who care about our constitution, who care about serving their constituents more than they care about party. So we’re trying to put in place the building blocks to reduce the hyperpartisanship that has been so polarizing and destructive for our politics.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
Well, those are inspiring and hopeful ideas, and I’m glad to hear about hopeful ideas. We struggle in this space because whereas once, even if someone disagreed with a recommendation from us, the facts and analysis was always seen as a trusted, reliable piece of evidence that people could use in a whole array of dialogue from left to right across the spectrum. I want to go back to what you talked about, how you started your career after city planning and this focus on analytic work that led you to the efforts on effective philanthropic programming, on measuring effectiveness of nonprofits. How has the way you think about measuring effectiveness changed with all of the changes that we’ve been talking about for the last hour?

Fay Twersky:
Well, my own evolution in this area was that I started very much focused on data and evaluation and, much like you said, really bringing data to decisionmaking. But my own journey went from starting with evaluation to actually starting with strategy. If you don’t have a clear strategy of what you’re trying to accomplish in a program and a portfolio, then you can’t measure it. Measurement likes precision. You need to be clear about what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Otherwise, your measurement is all over the place. It’s not helpful. That’s what gives evaluation a bad name. So my practice actually moved from evaluation to strategy and really helping organizations and programs think through what their strategy was, and why was that their strategy? Was there evidence to support that? What did they know and what didn’t they know that they needed to really inquire about it in a systematic way?

And then the third part is organizational health, that you can have a great strategy that’s well thought through, but if you don’t have a strong, healthy resilient organization, it doesn’t really matter. It’s like that Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch notion. You really do need a healthy organization, one with strong staff, strong volunteers, strong board, good systems, all of that, good institutional backbone, as we were talking about at the very beginning of this conversation, in order to effectuate your strategy really well, in order to measure progress, have a virtual cycle of learning and improvement. So really, those three parts that I went through personally, I think are really important for all of nonprofits who are wanting to be effective organizations and also foundations who want to be effective philanthropic partners.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
So there’s a question I usually ask each guest on this show, and I maybe am going to have to modify it slightly for you, with that in mind. The question that we ask everyone is: Can you provide an example of a place where you think evidence has led to change, that made a meaningful difference in people’s lives or in a community? It’s very helpful and inspirational to be able to look to cases where the insights have actually made that kind of difference. And maybe you need to amend it to say, is there case where a clear strategy in a healthy institution using evidence has led to change in people’s lives?

Fay Twersky:
I will leave you with just a very simple example. The example I’m going to give you is one about children. It’s one area that we haven’t talked about yet in this podcast that the Blank Foundation is very committed to, is mental health and well-being. And one of the organizations that we support as part of that portfolio is called Inner Explorer. And Inner Explorer is a 10-minute guided practice. It’s a meditation practice for young students in the classroom, like third- or fourth-graders who have experienced a lot of trauma in their lives. And it’s either an in-person meditation, usually led by an African American male, either in person or recorded voice, walking the students through this very calming 10 minutes to just help them regulate, relax, and get them ready for learning in a different way. So it’s just 10 minutes.

There’s been a lot of research about this program. We helped fund it when it came to Georgia, and it has tremendous outcomes. It reduces stress, which improves brain development and function. It improves mental health and well-being, and it has resulted concretely. Because sometimes people say, “Well, what’s the concrete result?”—28 percent higher grades in reading, math and science, and a 43 percent decrease in teacher stress. So this is one small program, but helping young people at a really critical time of their lives be able to self-regulate, be able to open their minds and hearts to learning, be ready to learn, and really help prepare them for a better future and help support our teachers who are so beleaguered with so much increasingly on their plates to do and accomplish in a classroom, there’s nothing more important than really helping our young people.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
Well, that’s a wonderful story of, it sounds to me, evidence helping you scale what’s clearly a very effective intervention, sounds clinical as opposed to experience that is changing people’s lives. I love that story, and it’s a perfect way to end. Fay, it’s been a huge delight to be with you. I’m enormously grateful to you for taking the time for us to join us on our podcast. Thank you for being on the show, and to our audience, let me ask you please to join us next time on Evidence in Action as we have more conversations about important ways to drive change with fabulous guests like Fay.

If you’d like to learn more about us, go to our website at urban.org. You can also follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts. This has been Evidence in Action created by the Urban Institute and Pod People. I’m your cohost, Sarah Rosen Wartell. Thank you.


Tune in and subscribe today.

The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.