Interview with Carrie and John Morgridge

These enthusiastic donors believe every gift matters

If you’ve never been snowshoeing, Carrie and John Morgridge can show you how, high in the Rockies. If you’re lucky they’ll take you to dinner afterward, tasting a new vegetable dish and salmon tacos at their ranch, with an unobstructed view of the mountains and a pile of chew toys for their miniature Australian shepherd stretched out in front of you. The most excited talk from John and Carrie centers on people. There are stories about John’s father building Cisco Systems from a startup with 34 employees into one of America’s great companies. You’ll hear about Carrie’s childhood in Santa Barbara, working at a grocery store and pinching pennies. You’ll learn about the Morgridge Family Foundation’s work focused on education and worker training. And you’ll discuss the impact a donor can have through ­well-considered charity, a central topic of Carrie’s book, Every Gift Matters.

Philanthropy:  Carrie, you often mention that you’re the low-income kid you’re trying to help today. What do you mean by that?

Carrie Morgridge:  I was low-income with high potential. I had a burning desire to be something more than what I was, and I knew there was greater opportunity for me. So it’s easy to spot those kids when I do site visits. But in comparison to many of them, I’m really blessed. We were ­low-­income but I had two parents who loved me. After working in foster care, I understand the importance of that even more. I had a mom and a dad who loved me, and when they divorced and remarried, I had four parents who loved me.

Philanthropy:  How did you two meet?

Carrie Morgridge:  I was a cocktail waitress at a bar in San Francisco and John was a patron; it was pretty much love at first sight. I still have the original napkin I put my phone number on. Our first date was just incredibly successful. We found out that we share the same values, both wanted a family. My criteria at that time, and this may sound shallow, was that I needed to marry a gifted athlete. “If you can water ski and snow ski, we are going to be a good pair.” He passed the test for me. John, did you have a test for me?

John Morgridge:  I’ll just say we’ve been married for 24 years.

Carrie Morgridge:  But in all seriousness, getting outdoors is a huge part of our lives. One of the things that helps us balance is our connection to nature. When we built our home in Steamboat, we lived on the property for 36 days camping. We got our own porta-potty and I bought a sun shower from Target. It was so much fun. And to this day we remember those 36 days of summer more than living in this house. I’ve never met somebody who isn’t awed by a shooting star. Sunsets, stars, these don’t cost any money. They happen daily. It’s opening your eyes to really see what’s out there.

Philanthropy:   Another big part of your life together is philanthropy. How did that begin?

Carrie Morgridge:  When John and I were 30, with two small children, John’s parents asked us if we would like to be involved with their foundation. At first we gave away their money, and then we established a Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund account. Then we grew into a donor-advised fund at Aspen Valley Community Foundation and a fund at the Denver Foundation. These were all growing steps for us. So we explored all of the options for our next step and started our own foundation in 2008.

Philanthropy:  Where did you start giving?

Carrie Morgridge:  We had a two-year-old and a four-year-old, so going into education was clear. Our first grant was at a school. We walked in with 10,000 shares of stock in hand and said, “We want to help and we have this stock.”

Can you imagine the principal? She said, “What?!” Some of the parents got involved and helped us liquidate it. We have since evolved and don’t do it that way anymore. But even then we saw the power of giving—it was a $20,000 or $30,000 grant to give that school Internet back in the early ’90s. We also saw the parents come together, and the power of collaboration.

Philanthropy:  How did you find this school?

Carrie Morgridge:  It was a ­neighborhood school. I’ve been known to walk into schools and say, “I’m here to help. How can I help?”

Philanthropy:  How do they respond to that?

Carrie Morgridge:  Shocked at first. Now it’s become more common. But 15 years ago, it didn’t happen. Giving was for higher ed, not the K-12 sector.

Philanthropy:  When you look at K-12 giving now, what are some of the changes you see?

Carrie Morgridge:  One big change is the transition from whole group instruction to personalized learning. You can go through a quick lesson plan and then immediately dive into individualized learning, made possible with affordable technology, so that every kid is progressing at his or her own pace.

Sal Khan is a leader in this field, with Khan Academy. The second we discovered him ten years ago, I started saying education needed a thousand Sal Khans. Soon after, Hadi Partovi of Code.org appeared. Right now in America there are great job opportunities in computer science yet only a tiny fraction of our schools teach it. Hadi has trained over 700 high schools and thousands of elementary schools. And coding is fun!

We played a role in bringing technology to KIPP classrooms. At first, only ten schools in the network were interested; we gave them a $750,000 grant. Now we have 30 schools. Last year we received $10 million worth of grant requests from KIPP.

Philanthropy:  You’re often talking about investing in leaders. How do you know whom to support?

Carrie Morgridge:  When you meet a great leader, you immediately know. Sal Khan, for instance, has a vision: “This is what we’re going to do, and this is how we’re going to do it. Now we just need your help with funding and this is how we’re going to get things done with your partnership.” Hadi does the same thing:  “These are the kids we need to touch. This is my expansion model.” Great leaders know the path and where they’re headed.

Our first motto is “feed the hungry.” We look for a principal, a teacher, an organizer, who is hungry for change. From there, we have meetings on what we could do as a partner. 

Philanthropy:  You’re supporting policy efforts as well?

Carrie Morgridge:  The funny thing is we always said we wouldn’t. We realized we couldn’t do everything, so we focused even our education down to this little slice of pie. Our slice used to be literacy. Then once we discovered Sal Khan we went into math too.

But investing in Sal Khan meant investing in technology in the classroom, and we learned that schools had all these old, outdated computer labs. That led us to policy. As Rick Hess puts it in his book Cage-Busting Leadership, there are all of these bars around a school preventing flexibility and innovation. Recognizing that compelled us to get involved in policy. We don’t do much and it is behind the scenes, but we have done some advocacy to help school districts open themselves to new ideas.

Philanthropy:  What are you most proud of in your education work thus far?

Carrie Morgridge:  I’m proud of our efforts in literacy in low-income areas. Through our partnership with Book Trust, which targets kids grades K-5, we’ve given away 615,000 books over the years. The other program we’re longtime partners with is called Reading Plus. Imagine being passed through school and not being able to read. Reading Plus can help you learn. I’m also pleased with what we’re doing at Share Fair Nation, training teachers to integrate technology into their classrooms.

John Morgridge:  I’m most proud of the accelerant we’ve been able to pour onto individuals when we tell them, “We’re with you, and we are here to support you financially in our collective mission.” It’s meeting people with the same passions, from kindergarten teachers who cry when they see their class receiving Book Trust books, to the superintendent who is able to get technology into his classrooms.

Philanthropy:  Recently you’ve shifted some focus to helping people find good jobs.

Carrie Morgridge:  Our foundation has been growing up while our kids have grown up. We went from literacy when they were young to discovering Sal Khan and math when they were in middle and high school, and now they are graduates looking for jobs. When our son graduated he couldn’t find a mechanical engineering job right off the bat; employers were looking for people with three to five years of experience. We hear all the time that if you’re an ­engineer, getting a job is a slam dunk, but in reality even that is not. So we wondered, what else? What if you’re not a college graduate?

At The Philanthropy Roundtable’s annual meeting in Utah we heard good things about Catholic Charities Fort Worth, and followed up with a site visit. Its leader, Heather Reynolds, knew where she was going and what she wanted. She just needed funding. Her work could be a national model for how we help ­low-­income families—surround them with services that steer them toward housing, jobs, or college, and from a first job to a better job, and off government subsidies. We started to ask ourselves: Is our end goal really to get kids through high school? We re-evaluated, and now say our goal is a livable family wage. 

I’m especially excited about CCFW’s bold vision of moving people from welfare to a W-2 pay stub. They believe everyone can move beyond poverty, given the right kind of support and motivation. What Catholic Charities has taught us is that a small amount of wraparound services can secure a family and break the poverty cycle. I’ve never been so excited about a new sector for the foundation as I am about workforce development. When you help a family get jobs they have more choices: where to send their kids to school, where and how to live. But when you’re living in high poverty, many of your choices are gone. We want to give people choices that lead to them being self-sufficient and earning their life.

John Morgridge:  For us, just giving people a place to live and feeding them isn’t enough. Even getting people a great education isn’t enough unless it enables them to pursue satisfaction. That’s the bottom line: earned happiness. Not just to graduate from high school or college, but to find a fulfilling career, a fulfilling partner, a fulfilling life.

Carrie Morgridge:  We’ve had some great successes with food banks, which have grown along with us too. Our number-one food bank in Orlando, Florida, has now gone into job creation; they say food is the hook for deeper assistance.

Philanthropy:  You recently created a position for Robert Doar at AEI to study poverty.

Carrie Morgridge:  We approached AEI about working with us on foster-care policy. Arthur Brooks suggested that we broaden the focus to extreme poverty, and he knew just the guy. Robert Doar ran New York City’s welfare system and decreased welfare claims by 500,000. He shares our values. Robert has been with AEI for two years now, and has produced impressive scholarship. We’re working with a pilot program for Colorado’s foster kids based on some of his research.

Colorado is the first state in the country that allowed the departments of education and public health to look at each other’s data. If your student is in foster care or homeless and you don’t understand what he or she is going through, it may not be a teachable day for the child. Now, there is a woman whose job is to go into schools that have homeless or foster-care kids and train teachers on how to help; she’s doing amazing work keeping these kids in school. 

We did a study with the University of Northern Colorado on a foster child’s chances of graduating high school: 27 percent. It’s lower than the chances of a homeless child graduating. Family support is the most important influence on the course of your life, something Robert understands.

Philanthropy:  How do you find philanthropic work worth doing?

Carrie Morgridge:  The first advice I would give is to accept invitations to those conferences that sing to your heart. If it’s an education conference, go. If it’s a church conference, go. When you see great leaders and great things happening, meet them. I always say that we chase people. You have to partner. I can’t stress that enough. We never do anything alone.

Our motto is “Today Is a Yes Day.” I’m working in Florida with Project L.I.F.T., a ministry for troubled teens. I identified the leader and all the players I hoped to see at the table. At our first meeting, anyone who was negative was left out of the next meeting. New people came in and filled those chairs. Now we’re all moving forward together, and their attitude is, “Of course, we can make it work. Let’s figure it out.”

Philanthropy:  How have your parents encouraged giving and how are you ­thinking about that for your children?

John Morgridge:  I’ve been on my parents’ foundation board for nearly 20 years. My late brother and my sister and I are similar in many ways but also different, and we each went about philanthropy and working with my parents on their foundation differently. My parents were smart enough to let us go down our individual roads, with parameters. They tried to make sure that the grants made sense. We’ve tried to pass that thinking on to our children. They both understand that philanthropy is extremely important in our lives and very fulfilling, very challenging. We want to help them reach for their own sense of accomplishment.

Carrie Morgridge:  John and I didn’t get involved with his parents’ foundation until we were both in our 30s and had some life experience. We think 30 is a good age to fully engage our kids too. Are they involved now? Sure. We ask them their opinion. We take them to a lot of the places that we’ve supported. We want them to be exposed but not carry the responsibility on their shoulders. Being a philanthropist means that you’re trying to solve complex problems and help people. You need to be secure and comfortable with who you are to do that well. It’s an honor not to be taken lightly. We never want the kids to take the foundation for granted. 

John Morgridge:  We work with other kids too, via a high-school philanthropy group called the Student Support ­Foundation. We give each club $4,000 a year to grant within their school community. As the money dwindles and their budget tightens up, they begin to really look hard at proposals and revisit grants they gave earlier in the year. Sometimes they say, “I wish we had that $80 back because this is a much more worthy grant.” Every donor goes through the same process they do. Every penny matters, and organizations need to look at money that way.