The animation studio at Pixar believes that “our decision making is better when we draw on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group.” To harness the wisdom of the collective, they developed a meeting format they call a Brain Trust. A Brain Trust is a “mind opener” session that brings together a small group of leaders to share their experience addressing a specific challenge. We are inspired at The Rockefeller Foundation by this approach of tapping into the wisdom of a diverse panel of leaders, and we have begun applying the Brain Trust concept to strengthen social impact work. In fact, borrowing ideas from other disciplines is what this approach is all about.

A Brain Trust session contains the following ingredients:

  • The session is centered around a challenging question brought by a host that has no straightforward answer. The goal is not to “solve a problem,” but rather to share insights, examples, and recommendations for greater impact. The question should be broad enough that there is no “right answer,” but narrow enough that the host walks away with new lines of inquiry.
  • 7-8 additional participants come together for one hour, each bringing a different experience not only from the host, but also from one another. They are invited to speak from personal experience and their own unique perspective on the topic – no additional preparation is required.
  • A summary is promptly shared out with all participants following the session. The summary includes concrete examples and key takeaways for the host to consider.

The Brain Trust offers a straightforward mechanism for impact leaders to tap the collective wisdom of a network for the purpose of strengthening ideas. It allows them to reach beyond their own silo and productively engage others in a mutually beneficial way. And all it requires is one hour of time. Over the last year, we’ve tapped The Rockefeller Foundation’s network, including the global network of 4,000 Bellagio Center Residency Program alumni, to share their wisdom with The Rockefeller Foundation and with one another in a Brain Trust. Today’s societal challenges require “big bets” on solutions with potential for breakthrough impact – bold efforts to establish a new paradigm for what is considered possible. On the long road from idea to impact, there’s a critical need to sharpen and pressure test emerging solutions. The Brain Trust is a mechanism for strengthening ideas that also draws on a tested approach for creating positive societal change – network engagement.

The Three Ways Brain Trusts Strengthen Ideas

Through our experimentation with the Brain Trust model, we’ve learned that it can strengthen ideas and solutions in three distinct ways.

  1. Identify leverage points for even greater impact. As The Rockefeller Foundation increasingly directs our focus towards reversing the climate crisis, we are exploring issues at the intersection of climate change and health systems. Since this topic is not yet broadly discussed or funded, a colleague sought advice from a Brain Trust on, what are effective strategies to elevate an issue, like climate and its impacts on health, on the global agenda?We curated a group of participants who could speak to analogous experiences – each had successfully put a different topic or issue on the global agenda. Invitees were hand selected to bring a unique perspective from a different corner of The Rockefeller Foundation’s network, contributing different information to address the central question. The result was an impressive range of leaders, from the founder of global anti-poverty campaign to a MacArthur Genius Award winning non-profit CEO, all sharing real experiences of how they elevated different issues – from extreme poverty to homelessness – into the global development agenda.While there’s no easy answer to the central question, the Brain Trust helped our colleague reframe coalition building around a positive narrative, focusing on hope of abundance rather than fear of austerity and competition for resources. This insight was surfaced by multiple coalition leaders with decades of experience developing a shared “guiding star” that unites all parties around a common vision. Examples were shared from issues as wide ranging as gender equality, education, poverty alleviation, and disaster response. According to this colleague, “The Brain Trust sessions energized and challenged our thinking in a provocatively productive way. We took to heart the idea to build a climate and health coalition around a positive frame to encourage and inspire new actors and avoid past unsuccessful experiences of doom-and-gloom to gain attention and momentum.” The discussion surfaced a fresh coalition building narrative that is more likely to be impactful, and equally importantly – which approaches to avoid.
  2. Share learning on “where this has been done before”. Daniel Wolfe collaborated with The Rockefeller Foundation on a Brain Trust following his 2023 Bellagio Center Residency. He had become frustrated by the same story repeating itself time and time again – new AI technology is developed with enormous potential to have positive health impacts. Then in securing the funding required to bring the tool to market, a team ends up captured by investor interests and loses the public benefit envisioned for the solution.Shortly after taking on a new role leading a joint center on computational precision health at University of California Berkeley and University of California San Fransisco, Daniel decided to pose this question to the Brain Trust. He asked, what strong business models exist for technology for public good that might be applied to produce, regulate, deploy, and sustain safe, effective and open-source health algorithms?Daniel walked out of the session with dozens of examples. A founder and CEO of multiple tech non-profits spoke to Open-Source Foundations as a potential model. Specifically, he shared an example of how NextLeaf Analytics (in the global vaccine IoT space) is working with Gavi (The Global Vaccine Alliance) to push the health ministries of 60 countries to shift to an open-source platform for handling medical equipment data, in a model where the ministries own the data. A development finance executive surfaced a government funding model. She cited the example of IndiaStack, a government-built platform (a set of open APIs and digital public goods) that support identity, consumer protection, and payment functions. IndiaStack created a foundation for private innovation on top, for example with credit algorithms.The direction of Daniel’s work will be better informed by these real examples of what’s worked and what hasn’t, surfaced from very different corners of The Rockefeller Foundation’s networks. The Brain Trust participants drove home for Daniel the reframing of a key threshold question – “is innovation imagined within the framework of market needs/values (return on investment, incentives for scale, use cases recognizable to VC investors), or situated in a framework that relies on public/common-good minded foundations and governments to pursue when market incentives are insufficient? The latter is possible and inspirational–but also rare.”
  3. Surface blind spots in understanding a problem or implementing a solution. As The Rockefeller Foundation implements our strategy to reverse the climate crisis, we are considering how to best deepen our presence in Latin America and the Caribbean. The region is critical in the fight against climate change, given that the Amazon rainforest stores over 150 billion metric tons of carbon – roughly 20% of the carbon captured by vegetation globally – and 84% of the region’s population lives in cities already feeling acute climate impacts. In this context, we invited network members from the region join a Brain Trust to inform our thinking about what and how The Rockefeller Foundation might do more work in the region. Participants included multi-disciplinary leaders such as a gender equality expert from the World Bank, a prolific legal scholar and policy institute director who is shaping the global conversation on AI, and a retired diplomat and former ambassador.Through dialogue with the Brain Trust on the question, “How can The Rockefeller Foundation most efficiently advance climate mitigation and adaptation in Latin America and the Caribbean?” we surfaced nuanced insight on barriers to regional climate action. We learned that beyond deforestation, extraction of strategic minerals for the global energy transformation is a major unintended consequence already impacting local communities socially and economically. We learned that risk communication and adaptation efforts more broadly face barriers, and that better data is needed on human consequences – for example, disaggregated data that surfaces the unique effects of climate change on women. We heard about the importance of celebrating the uniqueness of the region, centering local and indigenous voices, and developing an approach that reflects the region’s heterogeneity.

Finally, we took away learnings that informed our approach to new initiatives, such as the Big Bets Climate Fellowship, which is a part of The Rockefeller Foundation’s overall commitment to invest $1B to reverse the climate crisis. This Fellowship is being designed to equip leaders with the mindset and skills needed to advance climate solutions with breakthrough potential, betting on those who will make the biggest impact on communities that have traditionally been underserved. The inaugural year of the fellowship (2024) will focus on leaders having impact in Latin America and the Caribbean.


The challenges our world faces are too great, and the solutions we need are too important, to be developed in silos. In addition to the new connections that the Brain Trust “host” makes with attendees, the right structure also facilitates connection among participants. We’ve seen many Brain Trust participants reach out after a session to continue learning from one another, as all work to advance their own ideas in the world. Furthermore, we’ve received dozens of comments from participants about how this felt “different” from a usual meeting, and that network members found sharing their hard-earned experience to be gratifying. No leader or organization can tackle the challenges of our world alone. The Brain Trust is one small way to bring people together to share their experiences so others can learn and new connections can form. Brain Trusts are a useful tool for moving great ideas one step closer to real impact, by tapping into the wisdom of a diverse network.


We’d like to thank the network members who contributed to brain trusts, including: Silvia Alonso, Walid Said Ammar, Ana Carolina Arroio, Shahzeen Z Attari, Banny Banerjee, Naina Subberwal Batra, Mamadou Biteye, Mayra Buvinic, Amy Chester, Aron Cramer, Jamie Drummond, Laurette Dube, Jim Fruchterman, Anna Gincherman, Lesly Goh, Maja Groff, Christopher Graves, Rosanne Haggerty, Alfredo Hardy, Elizabeth Kolbert, Ronald Law, Ronaldo Lemos, Alan McClay, Danil Mikhailov, Gabriella Gomez-Mont, Emiliano Rodriguez Nuesch, Alfonsina Penaloza, Ben Phillips, Kathryn A Phillips, Paula DiPerna, JP Pollak, Els Torreele, Bapu Vaitla, and Daniel Wolfe.