Canada East Chapter

December 20 2012

One on One: Jeff Leitner

Christopher Durso

The founder and dean of Insight Labs on the three rules of his pro-bono, face-to-face strategy sessions, the importance of measuring impact over scale, and the ‘highest and best use’ of smart, talented people. 

It was after the top-gun consultants had left the room that Jeff Leitner turned to his colleagues on a committee of Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital board of directors and asked if they thought something was “fundamentally off” about the presentation they’d just heard. The hospital was in the midst of a fundraising campaign for a state-of- the-art $1-billion facility - “its most ambitious thing in nearly a century,” Leitner said in a recent interview - and while the consultants were “smart as hell,” he wasn’t sure they’d connected with the project at hand.

The other board members agreed. At Leitner’s suggestion, they reconvened for “kind of a secret meeting” at his office and, joined by the CEOs of the hospital and its foundation, spent several hours attacking the question of how Children’s Hospital could make itself heard in the “busy and loud marketplace” of nonprofit fundraising. The group made “extraordinary headway - remarkable headway,” Leitner said, “much more so than any of us had been accustomed to making in one-hour, two-hour corporate retreats or anything like that.” So much headway that they tried out the process with a local NPR affiliate and then with the YWCA. “Each time,” Leitner said, “we were able to tackle these giant business-model systemic challenges in relatively short periods of time with people that didn’t have subject-matter expertise. And we thought, hey, we might be on to something.”

From that was born Insight Labs, a nonprofit organization that conducts three-hour pro-bono strategy sessions - don’t call it brainstorming - for fellow nonprofits, government agencies, and any other organization working for the public good and grappling with “a problem related to [its] model,” Leitner said, “and not an operational challenge.” Participants are senior executives and other accomplished professionals from a variety of fields - “the smartest people we can find” - whose only qualification is being interested in helping someone else help society at large. It’s face-to-face interaction in very concentrated form, and the implications of that sort of intensity aren’t lost on Leitner, Insight Labs’ founder and dean, who is also helping conduct Future Meet, an ongoing project exploring the future of trade shows and exhibitions sponsored by the ASAE Foundation, the Exhibition Industry Foundation, Freeman, Gaylord Entertainment, and the PCMA Education Foundation.

“There are finite [programs] we can do every year - it’s just the nature of the beast. And we have said to ourselves, we’re only going to do this for X amount of time,” said Leitner, who has had a varied career in journalism, public affairs, and social work, and who just after our interview was heading to Washington, D.C., to conduct an Insight Labs program for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “People try to build organizations that last forever, and while the design principles of building something that lasts forever are interesting, they also remove urgency in a very interesting way. This has forced on us a sort of urgency. In our case, the horizon’s out there.”

How are your strategy sessions different from more traditional brainstorming sessions?

We have four rules. One of which is no politics. We take all hierarchies that people come into a room with off the table. We have had creative directors from agencies and chief marketing officers from brands, and that agency represents that brand, but for that three-hour period nobody works for nobody.

Two is, no posturing, and by that I mean you get famous on your own time. Most of these people have agencies or access to their own PR flacks, and for the next three hours, nobody holds court. This isn’t when you let people know how smart you are. We’ve got three hours, we don’t have much time, we’ve got a serious challenge facing an organization that does good; and we’ve got to get to work.

Number three is, this is not brainstorming. We don’t brainstorm a thousand ideas and narrow it to a hundred and then vote down to three and choose a favorite. It doesn’t work like that. It is much more iterative; we follow one strong idea that everybody adds onto, and at any moment in the conversation, anybody is allowed to pull the emergency brake and challenge the assertion and change the course of the conversation - our premise being that one powerful idea that all of us contribute to is more dangerous, even if it’s not perfect, than a lot of helpful suggestions.

And then four is, the reason these people are in the room is because they’re successful, and the reason they’re successful is because they deliver, and the reason they deliver is because they’re good at tactics. But for the purposes of this three-hour conversation, we’re not about tactics. I say in my setup, “For those of you who are in 12-step groups about tactics, we’ll get to that in the last half-hour, but for two-and-a-half hours you gotta stay with me up here.” And I will tell you, we almost never get to the last half-hour. Once people get comfortable up there at that altitude, they tend to want to stay there.

How do you decide on what organizations to help?

We can do about 20 sessions a year. The groups that we choose have about three or four criteria. The first is that the leadership of the organization has to fundamentally understand that what’s at hand here is a problem related to the model and not an operational challenge. This is not about Margaret in Accounting. This is, something about the model is being challenged by the environment in which it now operates; or in other cases [it] has to do with, we were successful and now what do we do?

Number two, it has to have the means by which to do something about it. While local food pantries could absolutely use our help, if we blow up the model of food pantries - they need to spend all their time, effort, and energy keeping the lights on. That’s what we need them to do.

The third is, the problem has to be interesting to us. That is not pure hubris on our part; it is helpful that it is interesting to us, because we have to spend many months with the problem in preparation, through the session, and then all the work that we do afterward. What we’re trying to do is improve or strengthen organizations that serve the greater good. We need to do so in a way that will allow us to take the learnings from that session and get them out to as broad an audience as possible. We have to be really interested in it in order to carry it forward. That’s just the way it works.

What are some sessions you’ve done that you think have gone particularly well?

I’m our worst critic, so I don’t think we’ve cracked this code at all yet. So I don’t think I could tell you what went particularly well. The next one we’re doing is in D.C. with the U.S. National Holocaust Memorial Museum. They opened on the [National] Mall in D.C. in ’93. It has been by all accounts extraordinarily successful; not only is it a remarkable place, but since its founding there are now a hundred Holocaust centers and museums across the United States. And the Holocaust is now taught in junior highs and high school throughout the U.S. That is a success, right? But now what?

It’s a really interesting question. If you can take it out of a really noble organization, look at something like Coke. So, Coke invents, essentially, the soft-drink industry. Now there are all these other people in the soft-drink industry. So what do you do? Does the Holocaust museum turn around and protect market share? Well, that’s not really its job. Its job is to, not turn around and look at the vertical it created and see all the people competing with it, but to turn to the future and say, “Okay, now what? Now what do we do for the next 20 years that all these people will follow again?” That’s a very hard conversation to have. It’s a hard conversation to have with your board, because you have schooled them in the status quo and incremental improvement. It’s a hard conversation to have with your staff.

So we convene a group of the smartest people we can find and put them in the room. We’re not subject-matter experts at all - that’s central to this. We don’t have a direct stake in what’s going on, and that allows us the objectivity to have a fundamentally different conversation.

How do you choose the people who participate?

It’s more art than science. When it first started, I reached out to my smartest friends and then a couple of people I wish were my smartest friends. After that, it was people that I had admired. As we do this more and more and I have a higher and higher profile, obviously we have a broader and broader pool. I’ve been traveling a lot more lately and speaking at conferences and the like, and in doing so I inevitably meet several people that I think ought to be [part of a session].

Where do you see this model going?

When you spend a lot of time around businesspeople, they ask that question all the time. What they’re really asking is, how do you scale? Because in business, the conventional move is that if you have a hamburger joint that does well, then you should open eight others. And that isn’t the answer in this case, we don’t believe. We believe that what we need to scale is the impact that we’re having: When we started we had 20 people in the room and we made an impact on an organization. Now we still have 20 people in the room, but we have the opportunity - a bully pulpit - to reach a much broader audience, because our profile is higher, because the folks in the room have their own bully pulpits.

We have [a director of content] who produces content every day for Insight Labs by interviewing participants, by interviewing the people we work with, by interviewing thought leaders out there in social change about specific questions. And this allows us to ratchet up the impact that we have. So for us, scaling is about impact. It is conceivable that we could do one lab in a year but have it be so impactful, have it address and begin to untangle a problem that faces everybody, and have it be the most impactful thing we’ve ever done. It’s not frequency; it’s not quantity. It’s impact. So that’s how we think about it.

There are finite [programs] we can do every year - it’s just the nature of the beast. And we have said to ourselves, we’re only going to do this for X amount of time. It has forced on us a thoughtfulness, a seriousness, that we don’t have time to screw around here; we’ve got to get it right. And that’s a really interesting exercise. You don’t see organizations form themselves to say, “[We’re] going to be around for eight years. We’ve got to make it count.”

We are a nonprofit foundation, and our goal is to put ourselves out of business. I’ve had a major foundation that you’ve heard of come to me and say, “Listen, in the interest of full disclosure, we want to steal your idea.” And my answer is, I will write down all the rules and everything I know about it, and give it to you; you don’t have to steal it.

I believe that this is a form of philanthropy that is sorely missing, and by that I mean that the highest and best use of the best and the brightest may not be simply check-writing. It may be being the best and the brightest to solve social challenges. That is the fundamental premise on which this sits. There is a very high-profile corporation out there that I met with several years ago who bragged to me about their [community-service] day, when all 11,000 employees across the country put on matching T-shirts and got on buses and went downtown and cleaned up parks in their various cities. And I said, “That doesn’t strike me as the highest, best use of all of those MBAs. I think that’s great that you cleaned up parks. I think they ought to clean up parks in their free time. If your company wants to change the world and wants to make an impact, then you ought to do it by leveraging all that talent. You ought to pick a problem like the Ninth Ward [in New Orleans] - I don’t care what it is - and then say, ‘We’re going to fix that.’ Don’t worry about parks. Because there are a lot of people that clean up parks, but not everybody knows how to do what you guys know how to do.”


For more information about Insight Labs, visit To learn more about Future Meet, visit

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