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ONE ON ONE WITH JEFF LEITNER


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. Q 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 affili- ate and then with the YWCA. “Each time,” Leitner said, “we were able to tackle these giant business-model systemic chal- lenges 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 agen- cies, 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 so- ciety 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 Foun- dation, 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


70 pcma convene January 2012


work, and who just after our interview was heading to Wash- ington, D.C., to conduct an Insight Labs program for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “People try to build or- ganizations 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 hier- archies 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 brain-


storm 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


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