When Randa Grob-Zakhary, a neuroscientist by training, took the position of CEO of the Lego Foundation a year ago, she had the weighty task of overhauling the charitable arm of a brand that is loved around the world for pretty much one thing: toy bricks.
So Grob-Zakhary decided that the foundation should stop making its mission about giving away its namesake toys.
The Lego Foundation is 26 years old, but is in the midst of a strategic shift that reflects a new influx of cash and a desire to focus on having an impact that can, like a business, scale up and fully utilize the organization’s resources.
"The foundation has always done good work. But we’ve gone from a position of simply giving donations of cash and mostly bricks ... to really focusing on 'changemaking,’" Grob-Zakhary says. "We will not aim to do 100 projects. We will aim to work in limited projects in a very big way. In the past, the team had been given the mandate to reach as many children as possible. And we’ve eliminated that. We’ve changed it to impacting as many children’s lives as possible."
The impact she wants to make involves nothing less than cultivating a major mindset shift in schools across the world.
A growing body of research shows that testing-focused education systems are stifling children’s creativity and critical thinking skills—the exact skills many CEOs say will be critical for success in the workforce in the years to come (see our related story "Why Solving The Creativity Crisis Means Looking To 3-Year-Olds"), not to mention the skills needed to solve looming societal challenges such as extreme poverty and climate change.
Grob-Zakhary believes the Lego Foundation can help preserve these skills by paving a path for more structured "hands-on play"—whether that is with a Lego brick, an Erector set, or a robotics kit—to be incorporated directly into school curriculums. That means science class, clearly. But to Lego, it also means in literature and history, too, and from the earliest pre-school programs right on up to high school and college.
Today, the Lego Foundation is in the embryonic stages of its new mission. One of its goals is to organize a network of academics, educators, business leaders, and policymakers who can take action on existing and new research that demonstrates how play can be used to improve education. It is also in the process of shutting down some projects that won’t be able to grow beyond a local area, while expanding and starting new ones—such as a play curriculum program in South Africa that already includes 25 schools—that can become "models of success."
All of this will take clout and money. The new wealth of the foundation is directly tied to a unique funding model from the Lego Group, a private family-owned company started by a Danish
farmer carpenter 81-years ago that today has 10,000 employees around the world. The Lego Foundation was set up to own 25% of the Lego business and receives a corresponding amount of its profits (Grob-Zakhary says these are after-tax profits, so the structure isn’t for the tax benefits). When Lego came close to bankruptcy a decade ago, the foundation was pretty sleepy. But the company’s major turnaround in the last eight years, she says, has meant a "tremendous" influx of resources.
To Grob-Zakhary, one of the biggest challenges facing the foundation is the weight of the Lego brand. "As any corporate foundation, our actions reflect on the brand. We’re really on a new course, which is both a wonderful opportunity and a little bit frightening."