Tapping into Team Wisdom at Nathan Cummings Foundation

The work in this case study was completed during Michelle Moore's tenure as Grantbook's Managing Director. This case study can also be found on the website of MindEQuity, where Michelle continues her work in social presencing and embodied wisdom.

Case Background

The Nathan Cummings Foundation (NCF) is a New York based family foundation, working to create a more just, vibrant, sustainable and democratic society. They are pursuing justice for people and planet and supporting social movements and catalytic solutions for climate change and inequality.

In October 2017, the foundation was embarking on the selection and implementation of a new Grants Management System (GMS).  To facilitate team alignment on the future state of grants management, part of the project team (10 people) spent a half-day applying embodiment practices to inform their project from a different perspective.

The Challenge

A highly motivated GMS project team, keen to optimize technology, processes, and their ability to collaborate, was nevertheless feeling frustrated, overwhelmed from lack of time, and stressed.  There had been many changes to process in a relatively short time as new staff joined during the previous year.   Internal communication and coordination was a challenge resulting in a desire to include a broader program team to shape the future-state.

Tapping into Team Wisdom

The NCF team was interested in exploring a new method of tapping into their team’s wisdom.  The highly intelligent group was used to meetings, discussion, and analysis for addressing their challenges.  Instead of a half day talking meeting, the team invested an afternoon exploring an experiential group dynamics modelling approach developed at MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Presencing Institute called Social Presencing.

Social Presencing – Definition

Social Presencing is a sensing practice whereby members of a group embody (i.e. give a concrete form to; represent or exemplify within the physical human body) a Stuck, i.e. something a team is trying to create, change or innovate.  A group does this by allowing shapes or gestures to arise in their bodies that represent or model a system or challenge they are currently in.

The practice is social, i.e. is done as a group activity. Participants allow movement to arise in the body, together, to form social sculptures or models.  During the activity, the principles of presencing are applied. Presencing is a hybrid of presence, the state of being in the present moment, and sensing, feeling the future possibility (Scharmer, Kaeufer, 2013, p.19).  The social sculptures reveal something of importance in a system where it was not visible before.

Social Presencing may also be referred to as a body-based, experiential learning toolkit, currently consisting of eight exercises, which contributes to organizational learning.  “It is a method for helping organizations and larger social systems get in touch with the knowledge they already have about the deep interpersonal structures that inhibit real changes from happening,” stated Otto Scharmer in a recent interview in Strategy & Business.

The NCF Social Sculptures

During the workshop, NCF participants prepared with meditation and a warm-up exercise for noticing physical sensations in the body.  Then the team formed social sculptures (models) via two exercises, Group Stuck and 4D or Ecosystem Mapping. Please click here for an example video of Stuck and 4D Mapping.

NCF defined their team Stucks in advance of the workshop as follows.  

  • Group Stuck:  “NCF has been trying to change and innovate the grants management process for several years…but has been unable, collectively,  to move toward a future state vision for grants management.”
  • Ecosystem Stuck (4D Map): “NCF’s work enables grantees to achieve incremental, point in time impact…but long term impact goals, i.e. long term systems change, is not enabled.”  
  • The stakeholders in the 4D Map included: NCF leadership team and board, similar Foundations, Grantees, Corporate sector, NCF grants/programs department, Government.

Main Insights Arising

The NCF participants shared feedback after practicing Social Presencing for the first time via a post-workshop survey.  Some of the main insights are summarized below.

  • 71.4% responded 4 or 5 (scale 1-5) that: "The quality of my attention was higher than usual."  "I was fully present with the group and in the moment." "My intention for the day was set and top of mind for most of the session." "When body and mind are synchronized, we have access to additional information."
  • At the end of the session I felt: Energized and motivated (71.4%), More connected to the group (71.4%), Tired or neutral (28.6%)
  • Some participants noted what surprised them during the workshop: “How much movement spoke to a different part of my experience.” “The level of mutual respect and equality in the room.” “It brought out some unexpected tensions.” “The emotional response I had to others’ movements.” “The empathy I experienced during the session.” “The lack of connection I felt between our overall mission, work and purpose of the activities."
  • Some participants noted “aha” moments during or after the session: "Increased sense of empathy and shared responsibility with the team.” “It was obvious how incredibly stressed out everyone was.” “The recognition that we need more time for play.” “Physical expression can lead to greater understanding.”
  • The Individual Stuck left most participants unsure about new realizations or how to overcome their Stuck.  
  • The Group Stuck in contrast, resulted in 100% of participants realizing something about the group, their role or themselves they did not know before.

New Actions

Participants expressed the following changes in behaviour since the session:

  • Paying attention to others differently (28.6%)
  • Noticing how you are in your body (14.3%)
  • Paying attention to the feeling of the body on the ground (28.6%)
  • Paying attention to the body as a 360° sensing organ (0%)
  • No change in behaviour (28.6%)

85.7% participants recommended Social Presencing as a useful tool for building empathy and insight and/or would want to practice Social Presencing again.

Michelle N. Moore, Founder, www. mindequity.ca, facilitated the session.  Janet Disla, Senior Grants Manager, Nathancummings.org, provided content.


Michelle Moore

Board Member

Strategy, Transformation, Process Optimization

Transformation work is my passion. I have helped former Soviet enterprises transition to a market economy, consulted companies on innovation performance, optimized business processes and implemented new technologies. Today, authentic transformation for lasting positive impact is faster and more accessible to all individuals, organizations and systems. Tapping into the collective wisdom of our teams, through high quality attention & intention, presencing, and embodiment is the new source for insight and innovation.