Joan Steinberg On How To Leave a Lasting Legacy With a Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

Passion. It’s mission-critical that you, your team, and the enterprise you support are passionate about the work you’re doing to seek and achieve success. For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this […]

Thrive invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

Passion. It’s mission-critical that you, your team, and the enterprise you support are passionate about the work you’re doing to seek and achieve success.


For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joan Steinberg.

Joan is the Global Head of Philanthropy and President of the Morgan Stanley Foundation, which is now in its 60th year. After nine years in the nonprofit sector, Joan joined Morgan Stanley in 1997 and currently oversees the firm’s global philanthropic programs, including strategic planning and execution, employee engagement, and corporate and Foundation grantmaking, totaling more than 100 million dollars annually. Since joining the firm, Joan has more than quadrupled the company’s giving; created programs for more than 70,000 employees; and expanded the Firm’s geographic outreach so that more communities could be served.

As part of her role, she serves as the CEO of the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health Advisory Board. The Alliance brings together key leaders in the children’s mental health space.


Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?

Funny enough, one of the most important “life-shaping” experiences for me was my first job out of college. It was absolutely awful. Crying in the bathroom stall, working on projects that didn’t resonate with me, feeling adrift. But that experience propelled me to take up nonprofit work and to insist on working for an organization with a positive culture. I don’t know that I would have come to understand what motivated me as much had I not had that experience. In the “what doesn’t kill you …” mode, that experience genuinely set me down the right path.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.

The three character traits instrumental to how I got where I am today are:

Integrity: My entire career is built on this. You are asking others to trust you to do the right thing with their money. Even the best grant makers cannot always point to a bottom line or numeric indicators to show their success. Gut calls and intuition are equally important and that’s why a relentless focus on doing the right thing is so important to the work.

Passion: Seems trite to say you should feel passionate about your work, but to be successful in philanthropy you need to have enough passion that it infects others.

Fearlessness: As a girl growing up, I had a very different childhood than many of my peers. My Mom never told me to smile and be nice, she told me to go for what I wanted and never let anyone stand in my way. I think she gave me a running start that other young women at the time might not have had — trusting yourself and accepting you are accountable for yourself. Those traits really translated into fearlessness as I progressed in my career. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel afraid, but it doesn’t prevent me from making hard calls and speaking up and fighting for what I think is important.

What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?

Just how important collaboration is in any successful philanthropic endeavor. Take tackling the issues of children’s mental health. In my time at Morgan Stanley, one of the launches I’ve been most proud of is our Alliance for Children’s Mental Health. Even before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a mental health crisis amongst young people around the world as they struggled with challenges like anxiety, stress, and depression. Mental health can affect anyone, reaching people of all different ages, races, and cultural backgrounds. We felt it was our obligation to play a critical role in advocating and improving the outcome for all children.

But — we knew we couldn’t go at it alone. That’s why we decided to team up with a group of U.S. and global nonprofit members. Together, we’re able to harness the power and resources of the Morgan Stanley Foundation with the knowledge and experience of these partners. In a mission to address mental health, we are stronger when we work together.

Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?

For the Foundation as a whole, we’re focused on three major goals: giving children a healthy start, supporting diverse communities, and fostering employee engagement. Looking closer, for the Alliance, we’re making an impact through:

  • Growth Capital — funding strategic nonprofit partner organizations to bring to scale proven methods of helping improve children’s mental health outcomes.
  • Capacity Building — helping ensure that effective organizations can sustain their practices.
  • Seed Funding — bringing emerging and innovative ideas to fruition. That included the first-ever Innovation Awards, a program that awarded five finalists a total of 500,000 dollars in grants to help scale their transformative mental health solutions and connected them with additional funding resources.
  • Thought Leadership & Resourcing — using our voice and deep global connections to raise awareness, drive advanced thinking and reduce stigma. We’ve produced and funded numerous studies and resources to help address areas of concern for children’s mental health — including a comprehensive reemergence program supporting the return of students and educators to in-person learning this back-to-school season.

What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?

I — alongside the team at Morgan Stanley — feel so passionately about bettering the mental well-being of young people because of the magnitude of the situation at hand. Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in children’s mental health, citing rising suicide rates, increased disruption from the pandemic, and the impacts of racial and social injustices. It’s hard to imagine the situation getting more dire than it already is — but without proper action, it will.

But even beyond our children, the journey toward mental well-being is something we should all be prioritizing. I remember once in a blue sky brainstorming session to determine community investment strategies, one senior officer shared that he had spent his life whispering about his father’s mental health issues. Though he originally was advocating for a completely different cause, his attitude and enthusiasm were game-changing, and I saw more clearly that mental health is health, not some separate issue.

We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?

There are three easy ways that folks can get involved in bettering the mental well-being of today’s youth:

  1. Learn about children’s mental health and start a conversation. Understand the warning signs and help lead people to professional help early if needed. Fight stigma with your own openness and understanding. Encourage others to talk openly about mental health issues and ask for more mental health services.
  2. Take care of yourself. If you are like me, this might be the hardest one! As a working mother with a young teenager and my Dad’s primary caregiver, I experienced a challenging year as many others did — trying to stay focused on work but taking on significantly more work at home — all while coping with the uncertainty arising from the pandemic itself. Finding time for me felt impossible until it became obvious that I simply was not of use to others until I was well myself.
  3. Look at whether mental health is a contributing factor to the issues you are funding? Education, health, drug addiction and criminal justice, for instance, are all deeply affected by rates of poor mental health. Despite affecting 20% of the population, philanthropic giving for mental health is only 1.3% of the total funding. Need a place to start? Check out the recent award winners of Morgan Stanley’s Innovation Awards here — composed of groundbreaking mental health programs that are on the hunt for funding to scale their initiatives and reach more young people.

What it comes down to — just start talking. Open, honest, and non-judgmental dialogue about how we’re all coping mentally is the easiest place to start and can make a huge difference in destigmatizing mental health challenges.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Charitable Foundation That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.

From my experience, the keys to running a successful foundation and philanthropic program that leaves a legacy are:

  1. A focus on the result. Remember at the end of the day who is benefitting from your work. What do they need? Think beyond giving funds, what can your skills and network provide that they aren’t getting elsewhere?
  2. Creativity and innovation. Many of the problems philanthropic organizations are working to solve have existed for a long time. Don’t settle for the status quo. Take our Alliance’s Innovation Awards. We knew that mental health isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, so we looked for new, bright ideas that can scale and are working to uplift them.
  3. Collaboration. As I’ve mentioned earlier, we must work together across the public, private and nonprofit sectors to truly enact change. Reach out and build your network to scale your success.
  4. Measurement that goes beyond dollars. Although it’s significant to note the monetary contributions of your organizations — for example, the Morgan Stanley Foundation has granted more than 200 million dollars — it’s great to see your success measured in other ways. In our pursuit to give children a healthy start, we’ve seen 3 million children, parents and educators reached by the Alliance in the first year, had 327 million meals delivered to children in need, and served more than 30,000 children through 25 playgrounds and 30 playsets built. That’s the impact.
  5. Passion. It’s mission-critical that you, your team, and the enterprise you support are passionate about the work you’re doing to seek and achieve success.

How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?

I don’t think the pandemic has necessarily changed my definition of success, but rather increased the urgency — and my drive — to deliver it. This pandemic has incredibly presented immense mental challenges and setbacks for youth around the world, and I am now more determined than ever to make sure our Alliance and Foundation programs can help deliver resources and services where needed.

How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?

Deep breaths to give me clarity, then right back to it. If solving the world’s problems was easy, we would all be out of our jobs. You must take stock of where you are making progress and let that fuel the places where you are stagnating. Use the failure or setback to help you reframe and retry and never underestimate the power of your networks and alliances who are amazing sounding boards to get you on the right track again.

You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?

Readers can learn more and follow along at https://www.morganstanley.com/about-us/giving-back.

Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.

You might also like...

Community//

Lisa Swift-Young On How To Leave a Lasting Legacy With a Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

by Karen Mangia
Community//

Peter J Klein On How To Leave a Lasting Legacy With a Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

by Karen Mangia
Community//

Amy Gray On How To Leave a Lasting Legacy With a Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

by Karen Mangia
We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.