Driving Disruption: Melissa Beck Of Anonymous Philanthropy On The Innovative Approaches They Are Taking To Disrupt Their Industries

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Fulfillment is defined as a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction because you are happy with an outcome. For me, there is no greater, more important metric.

In an age where industries evolve at lightning speed, there exists a special breed of C-suite executives who are not just navigating the changes, but driving them. These are the pioneers who think outside the box, championing novel strategies that shatter the status quo and set new industry standards. Their approach fosters innovation, spurs growth, and leads to disruptive change that redefines their sectors. In this interview series, we are talking to disruptive C-suite executives to share their experiences, insights, and the secrets behind the innovative approaches they are taking to disrupt their industries. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Beck.

Melissa Beck is a culture nerd, math whiz, MBA, former large charity CEO, disruptor, winner of awards, and the president of Anonymous Philanthropy (www.anonymousllc.com).

While her fellow MBAs at the University of California, Irvine pursued careers in tech and finance, Melissa found herself wondering if her degree could be put to use for a higher purpose. What was possible if the rigor and acumen of her training were applied toward a non-profit or charity? Could she help make the world a better place?

Melissa became the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters Orange County, which she led to become the fastest growing, highest performing, lowest turnover BBBS in the country. The accolades and awards piled up. And still, Melissa thought to herself, can we do more?

In 2018, she joined Anonymous Philanthropy with the goal of turning the practice of giving on its head. What process could be improved? What systems were ripe for disruption? What assumptions needed to be questioned? Today, Melissa asks and answers those questions on behalf of an incredible cohort of philanthropists and the causes they champion.

Outside of Anonymous Philanthropy, Melissa continues to give back to UCI, where she serves as a trustee of the university’s foundation, chairs the alumni association, and chairs the business school dean’s advisory board.

Melissa lives in Southern California with the love of her life, Harry, and their three boys.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about disruption, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

My career started in accounting and finance, specifically for professional athletes and musicians. Realizing that the career I went to college for wasn’t where I wanted to be at the end of my career, I decided to go back to business school. At some point during my time there I asked myself if I really wanted to use all of my best skills and talents to make money for others, or if I wanted to use them to make something better.

As I headed towards graduation and the recruiters and headhunters started calling, I told them I was looking for a senior leadership position at a nonprofit. I wanted to see if my background in finance and my passion for leadership development could help create a dynamic, high-performing organization — one that made a real impact, and that people wanted to be a part of.

Shortly thereafter, I was offered the position of COO at Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) in Orange County, about eight months later, I became CEO. I also began to think about the ecosystem and the dynamics within the philanthropy industry, and asked myself if I could disrupt it the way I had with Big Brothers Big Sisters. That is when I joined Anonymous Philanthropy as President.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At Anonymous we are pioneering a new model of philanthropy. We work with our clients to identify the causes they care about and problems they want to solve, then help them to define impact metrics and goals. It’s a really engaged and collaborative approach, and as a result, our clients tend to feel deeply fulfilled by their giving. Fulfillment is such a big part of what we do, and one of our key metrics of success. We don’t think philanthropy should be measured by dollars given away but by impact and fulfillment–which are most powerful when achieved in balance.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

1. Vulnerability

I’ve always had a lot of strong females on my leadership team, and have found that women with children often believe they can either be a super engaged mom or a C-level executive. They think it’s an either-or proposition because, quite frankly, there’s a lot of messaging out there that makes us think it is. In moments when I see them struggling, I’ll open up to them about my own struggles surrounding this very issue. I’ll share stories of times when I felt that I was failing at work, or at home, and let them know that it’s okay, that sometimes you need to drop the ball in one court for a big win in another. It’s just part of the cycle of life. I’ve found that being real and showing vulnerability like this creates a real trust and bond that empowers them to reframe their struggles and excel in all aspects of their life.

2. Focus

Here’s a confession. In my perfect world, I would be able to respond to emails while on Zoom calls, all while following a podcast that’s playing on closed caption. I know, I know — rude! But what can I say? I want to do all the things, all the time! That said, in a world of endless distractions, I’ve gotten really good at focusing on one thing at a time. I set realistic expectations for how long things actually take and block my time accordingly.

3. Commitment to Family

Everyone who works with me knows that my husband and three boys are at the center of my universe. Though I have a really demanding career that could conceivably consume all of my waking hours, family time is sacred to me and I’m really good at honoring that. I drop the kids off at school, I go to the games, and we eat together just about every night. I wouldn’t be able to give my all at the office if I felt like I was skimping on family time, and I think this dedication has a positive effect on our company culture. It gives everyone else permission to do the same, which I think leads to a happier workplace. Maybe this is why we have such a low turnover rate.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

After college, I got a job as an accountant for a big firm that handled professional athletes and musicians. I had a roster of 120 athletes that ran the gamut from superstars making tens of millions of dollars per year to minor league baseball players who were scraping by. While I loved the job and was really good at it, I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do everyday for 40 years. So in my late twenties, I went back to business school where I fell in love with executive leadership development.

When I came out of business school I had offers in tech and finance that were double what I would make if I took a job with a nonprofit. Taking a risk with a new industry that I had no experience in was a huge decision, especially since I had some other great options. But the pay discrepancy actually motivated me.

Why did the pay have to be significantly less? And how does that change the available talent pool? How can nonprofits, which are all about changing the world and solving complex problems, do so if they are underpaying their entire staff? It didn’t make any sense, and it became a goal for me to change this.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. In the context of a business, what exactly is “Disruption”?

For me, disruption means radically changing the way people think about and approach something.

How do you perceive the role of ‘disruption’ within your industry, and how have you personally embraced it? Is it a necessity, a strategy, or something else entirely in your view?

I think a lot of donors would agree that the traditional way of doing philanthropy isn’t very fulfilling. Not that there’s anything wrong with writing checks to charity, but oftentimes the donor feels pretty detached from the work. At Anonymous, we strive to help philanthropists unlock new levels of fulfillment through their giving, and we do this by engaging them in the process and designing custom solutions to the causes they care about.

What lessons have you learned from challenging conventional wisdom, and how have those lessons shaped your leadership style?

Disruption is hard. It’s challenging the status quo. Not everyone is going to agree with you and you may ruffle some feathers. I’ve learned that our intentions must be pure, and we need to have conviction in what we’re doing.

Disruptive ideas often meet resistance. Could you describe a time when you faced significant pushback for a disruptive idea? How did you navigate the opposition, and what advice would you give to others in a similar situation?

At Anonymous, some of our hardest decisions are about the tactics we take to accomplish our clients’ philanthropic goals. Sometimes we’ll spend months researching a problem and strategizing solutions. We’ll design a plan that feels compelling, doable, and that will move the needle, but for whatever reason, it just doesn’t land.

Here’s an example: A few years ago we designed a Signature Philanthropic Initiative for a client who wanted to end childhood drowning, the leading cause of death for kids ages 1–4.

During the discovery phase we met with hundreds of parents who had lost a child. A huge percentage of them talked about puddle jumpers. They believed these popular flotation devices created a false sense of security that contributed to their child’s death.

We brought this finding to the American Academy of Pediatrics, Center for Disease Control, and Consumer Protection Bureau, in the hopes that they would ban these floaties. Instead, we received a lot of pushback. They said there was no way to prove puddle jumpers played a role in drownings, and that we couldn’t lay blame or responsibility without proof. I saw where they were coming from, but we couldn’t just tell all these parents they were wrong and ask them to let it go. So we took a different approach.

While strategizing solutions we noticed that many popular floaties were being billed as “learn to swim” devices with online product descriptions overtly selling confidence and peace of mind to parents. Their messaging was misleading at best, deadly at worst, so we developed a public awareness campaign to “End the Misinformation.” We kicked it off with a powerful video featuring Nicole Hughes, a grieving mother, who calls the industry to task. The video inspired thousands of impacted parents to sign an online petition. Fortunately, Amazon, Walmart, and Dick’s Sporting Goods all took note and have since updated their marketing messaging.

In addition to realizing the change we were after, this initiative reminded us how important it is to put yourself in the shoes of your various stakeholders. By seeing the situation from their point of view and understanding what was important to them, we were able to break through.

What are your “Five Innovative Approaches We Are Using To Disrupt Our Industry”?

1 . Start with curiosity.

To get to the heart of what really stirs someone’s soul, you need to be curious about who they are, their history, their dreams and what drives them.

In the case of philanthropy, charity typically begins with a grant request. We prefer to start by asking questions like: What’s most important to you? Where do you find fulfillment? What keeps you up at night? Ultimately, after many conversations, we are able to identify the causes our clients care most about, which then helps us develop strategies to create the change they want to see in the world. This approach, where the donor comes first, represents a really radical shift in how philanthropy is done.

Here’s a great example: when I was the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters I never once thought to ask what my donor’s philanthropic goals were. The only thing we ever talked about were our goals and the things we could accomplish with their money. At Anonymous Philanthropy, we’re completely flipping that script, and that feels really good.

2. Take an entrepreneurial approach.

Thinking like an entrepreneur can often lead to innovative thinking and problem-solving.

For instance, sometimes our clients will come to us with issues they wish to solve that have no obvious solution.

In these cases, we will build one from the ground up. We call these programs Signature Philanthropic Initiatives, and they’re what set us apart.

We work with clients to develop custom plans based on their goals. Over the years, our signature initiatives have focused on addressing a wide range of problems such as childhood drowning, the skilled labor shortage, and gender inequality in the music industry. Some initiatives have been built around public awareness campaigns, others on the development of a new technology. Regardless of the path taken, it’s that beginner’s mindset that helps supercharge our thinking.

3. Fulfillment is a fundamental metric for success.

Fulfillment is defined as a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction because you are happy with an outcome. For me, there is no greater, more important metric.

Most of the time philanthropy is measured by dollars given away. For us, success is defined by the impact we make, and the fulfillment we create for our clients.

One of my favorite reflections of the work Anonymous does comes from a client who said that before she started working with us she felt like she was just a grantmaker. Now she feels like a philanthropist. That is exactly what we’re going for.

4. Start with a no-budget mindset.

Some people like to apply the “if money were no object” way of thinking. I think starting with a no-budget mindset holds more potential for creative problem-solving.

For example, even though our clients have access to a seemingly endless amount of resources, we prefer to get really clear on the desired impact or outcome, and then ask ourselves over and over how we could solve this problem if we didn’t have any money to spend.

What people and organizations are aligned? Who might be in it for the cause and not the money? This forces out-of-the-box thinking, and leads to creative solutions, amazing partnerships, and the ability to spend resources wisely for maximum impact.

5. Make the knowledge and expertise of others your superpower.

Whether within or outside your organization, always leverage the insights and knowledge of the best and brightest minds for maximum results.

In our case, we excel at connecting dots. By tapping subject matter experts, thought leaders, celebrities, donors, and difference-makers, we can significantly amplify our impact.

Here’s a great example: we had a client who wanted to promote kindness.

We knew three other people who had the same goal: then-Mayor Tom Tait of Anaheim, Lady Gaga, and The Dalai Lama.

So, at the United States Council of Mayors in Indianapolis in 2016, we brought all of them together to talk about the power of kindness. It was a huge hit. The event gained tons of media attention and sparked the City of Kindness, a broad coalition of organizations working together to spread kindness across the country.

Looking back at your career, in what ways has being disruptive defined or redefined your path? What surprises have you encountered along the way?

Coming out of business school, I had a lot of really incredible offers for leadership roles in business and finance. These would have been absolute dream jobs by most people’s standards — including my own — but at this point in my life, I felt a really strong call to nonprofit work. Specifically, I wanted to know if it was possible to shake up the sector by applying entrepreneurial strategies.

What would happen if I brought business savvy to a nonprofit? Could I create a super-high performing organization that attracted the best talent, that was voted best place to work, that served more people, and in turn, also brought in exponentially more fundraising dollars?

The answer, I’m happy to report, is YES!

I took my MBA to Big Brothers Big Sisters Orange County and one of the first things I did was increase pay across the board. I knew we couldn’t bring in the kind of talent and critical thinking we needed if we didn’t pay market rate. So I fundraised on the promise that we would invest in people and bring in the best and the brightest — and we did.

We brought in talent with a broad range of backgrounds and skill sets. I hired just as many people with zero nonprofit experience as I did people with deep sector experience. My leadership team, for instance, came from aerospace, advertising, marketing, as well as nonprofits. I figured this mix of perspectives would catalyze growth and impact, and fortunately, I was right.

During my time at BBBS, we tripled in size, served thousands more kids, won a bunch of really awesome awards, and raised millions more dollars each year. We really moved the needle.

If anything, the biggest surprise for me was in just how well a big nonprofit like BBBS responded to risk and innovation. It really opened my eyes to the world-changing impact that’s possible if we bring business savvy to the nonprofit sector, and set the stage for what I’m now doing with Anonymous Philanthropy.

Beyond professional accomplishments, how has embracing disruption affected you on a personal level?

I like to think that my career has had a really positive impact on my kids. They ask tough questions, they think deeply, and I trust they are learning to approach problems and challenges with creative solutions. The world needs a lot of help, and I hope they feel empowered to be of service in whatever way feels right for them.

My oldest is a sophomore in high school and we are going through the process of thinking about where he would like to go to college, which he wants to do. We went through an exercise of listing what is important to him and when we looked at it, what he values most is community and making others feel supported and that he is there for them. That is more than I could have ever hoped to accomplish.

Also, I would like to add, for the record, that I don’t believe everyone needs to go to college to be successful. Our country is facing a massive labor shortage and there is a lot of money to be made in skilled careers that don’t require a four-year education.

In your role as a C-suite leader, driving innovation and embracing disruption, what thoughts or concerns keep you awake at night? How do these reflections guide your decisions and leadership?

Our clients trust us with their philanthropy, and in many cases, their legacies. And that comes with a lot of responsibility. We are deploying hundreds of millions of dollars, oftentimes I lie awake at night running through our strategies, asking myself if the things we are doing are going to maximize impact in the shortest amount of time.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Ha. This varies day by day. We have an incredible roster of clients with a wide range of interests. I’m constantly learning about new causes that I’d never given significant thought to. That said, if there’s one thing we could tackle that would accomplish the most amount of good, it would be eliminating poverty, and its various causes (ie. lack of access to education, racism and discrimination, mental health challenges, childcare and healthcare costs, etc.).

We can’t thrive as a nation with 40 million people living in severe poverty.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

They can go to our website and follow our LinkedIn.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.