For most of my career, I have worked in eleemosynary organizations. These organizations are dedicated to improving the lives of others in various ways: reducing poverty, strengthening democratic values, minimizing the threat of war, supporting the arts, promoting human rights, and improving quality education. These institutions have kept human connection at the center of their work. Those of us who manage the capital of these institutions are also committed to using our talents in service to these causes, and the people that they help. Adam Grant, the Saul P. Steinberg professor of management at the Wharton School, in his New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling book Give and Take, states that focusing on the contribution of our work to other people’s lives has the potential to make us more productive than solely thinking about helping ourselves.
Whether you are an allocator at a pension fund, an endowment, or a foundation, your career is devoted to bettering the lives of others. This human connection influences how I approach my work, and I am sure this is true of most of my peers from mission-based organizations. We are charged with maximizing risk-adjusted returns for our organizations in an environment where expected returns are declining and where alpha is increasingly hard to capture. The enormity of that responsibility can be daunting.
We all have the same contract to serve the humans of our institutions and the service to humanity that they in turn provide.
At the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, the causes I supported were clear and I felt passionately about them, but I seldom had the opportunity to interact with the recipients of the grantmaking. Now that I am managing the endowment of Columbia University, I can connect regularly with the people whom my work impacts. I meet talented students on financial aid who are poised to become transformative leaders. I meet professors throughout the university who are doing research that will change the way we think, live, and understand our world and who contribute to the development of these future leaders. These touch points help center the importance of the work that I do.
The significance of my work can be intimidating, but connecting to those who will benefit gives me clarity around choices. My connection to these constituents helps me understand the university’s risk tolerance, its values, and the unique insights and relationships that can be leveraged in service to returns. Emma Seppala, of the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and author of the book The Happiness Track, wrote, “People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression.” Perhaps this connection to the humans of Columbia allows me to remain focused on making good long-term decisions in the face of all the volatility in the market.
Further, research has shown resiliency is strengthened when you give and receive support. The more positive your relationships, the better you will be at facing life challenges. The markets can definitely feel like one of life’s challenges, so the resiliency built from having positive relationships with the people that I support allows me to continue to make thoughtful decisions. It is never lost on me that the work that I do impacts people. It’s not amorphous, but rather a tangible set of current and future Columbia affiliates who will be better because of the work that I do, in partnership with the team and the board of the investment management company.
My peers in the endowment space are equally tasked with doing the best for the institutions that they serve. We all have the same contract to serve the humans of our institutions and the service to humanity that they in turn provide. Although there are many who try to pit us against each other, I never feel that way. I root for their success and offer support wherever and whenever I can. Instead, I compete against the work that I did the day before because the humans of Columbia deserve my best. Giving them my best allows me to celebrate the power of human connection and all its related benefits.