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Partnership for Excellence Conference in Santa Barbara Trains Its Attention on Mindfulness

Led off by Stanford University’s Leah Weiss, the annual gathering of Santa Barbara County’s philanthropic and nonprofit players explored how to strengthen focus and purpose

Leah Weiss of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and HopeLab gave the keynote speech at Tuesday’s conference.
Leah Weiss of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and HopeLab gave the keynote speech at Tuesday’s conference.  (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

Several hundred philanthropic figures and nonprofit service providers from around the county convened Tuesday at The Fess Parker Hotel in downtown Santa Barbara for the 23rd annual Partnership for Excellence conference.

By introducing new ideas and strategies based around a particular theme, the conference aims to improve nonprofits, foundations, and businesses organization, relationships, and practices to improve and strengthen their impacts on their communities.

This year’s theme was “mindful leadership: strengthening focus and purpose.”

Highlighting the conference was keynote speaker Leah Weiss of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and HopeLab, a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit that researches and develops technologies aimed at improving the well-being and health of youth.

Mindfulness, she explained, was the intentional use of attention.

“Really what it comes down to is awareness and self-awareness,” she said. “So mindfulness is a way of increasing our awareness about what’s going on with the people around us, so we can better attend to and serve them. And self-awareness about what’s going on within us, so we can be better leaders.”

Steering-committee chair Palmer Jackson, Jr. said the day-long conference was sold out for the first time since 2012.

Philanthropic and nonprofit leaders, educators, and consultants led group discussions on topics like self-awareness, work overload, and leadership transitions.

Weiss’ keynote speech resembled a grad-school lecture in mindfulness (a topic she teaches at Stanford), which she said comes down to a handful of factors: intention and purpose, attention, and attitude.

Neuroplasticity, “the idea, in short, that our brains can be rewired,” she said, is one of the ideas that mindfulness hinges on — that adults can still train themselves to become more mindful.

Self-exploration, self-regulation, and listening to others are a few methods for becoming more mindful, she said.

Weiss introduced the concept of mindfulness through experiments with the audience, asking people to write down their present distractions and throw them away, draw a sketch of how they perceive their mind, take a minute of silence, and meditate on a calming scene she described to them.

Weiss grounded the rather intangible nature of mindfulness in science, introducing studies relating to psychology, biology, and genetics.

Attendees wrote “mindful practices” on a window during the Partnership for Excellence conference. Click to view larger
Attendees wrote “mindful practices” on a window during the Partnership for Excellence conference.  (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

Citing one study examining zookeepers, who were overwhelmingly found to do their work because of their passion for it and the purpose it gives them, Weiss explained that recognizing and honing this sense of purpose is key to getting through less-pleasant work tasks.

“If we can find ways to really come into those activities drawing on our deepest values and our deepest purpose, that has the opportunity to transform our experience of our work and the effectiveness of our work,” she said.

The popularity of mindfulness strategies has taken off in a wide variety of industries, she said, including in the health and financial sectors and in university curriculum.

“The interesting thing is that people are tying it in with whatever their context is,” she told Noozhawk after her address.

“So if it’s health care, they’re looking at what is the impact on safety. If it’s a finance company, then they’re more interested in how is it impacting good decisions and productivity.”

Despite the seeming win–win nature of being more mindful, the subject is not without its critics.

“Is mindfulness about making people healthier or happier — or what if you’re using it to get more productivity out of them,” she said.

“The end game is different in different contexts, and is that in some way harmful?”

The conference was founded and sponsored by The Foundation Roundtable, a body of representatives from local philanthropic organizations.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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