Lessons From Restore

Hello, GOSW members…

It has been a couple of weeks since we gathered for Restore: A Virtual Gathering for Philanthropy, and truth be told, I am still buzzing from our time together. I knew this in the back of my mind, but I have to say out loud that it was really nice to see your faces. We all have a certain awareness about how much our lives have shifted during the pandemic, but it takes a moment of recognition, of coming face to face with those people who are a part of your daily existence to realize just how much you miss them. I felt that way about seeing you. For those of you who were able to join us for Restore, thank you for showing your faces and for being so present during our time together. And for those of you who couldn’t be there, please know that you were missed. 

 We were able to accomplish so much in a few hours each day, and while I loved every one of our presentations, I was particularly awestruck by my conversation with Dr. Carmen Rojas, the President & CEO of the Marguerite Casey Foundation. Of course, we were thrilled by the fact that GOSW had caught the eye of a large, national foundation, but it was the dynamic way in which Dr. Rojas spoke about Casey’s commitment to equity that made this conversation even more invaluable to us. In her words, we were able to see in real terms, exactly what we have envisioned for GOSW as well as how we can best support, share, and enhance the efforts of our members. 

As I reflected on her words, there were three things that she shared that moved me, and I would like to share them with you.

Dreaming Big

Carmen shared many pearls of wisdom with our community, and she began with something that still sits with me today. She said, 

“In philanthropy, we have the room to dream as big as we want to and any constraint that we make is a constraint of our making.”

We saw examples of this in the Bold Moves in Philanthropy session where we heard Toya Fick, the Board Chair of the Meyer Memorial Trust Board of Trustees discuss the critical decision-making that brought the Justice for Black Lives Fund to life. It is not often that we have the opportunity to hear from people representing the Trustee level of our membership, and hearing Toya share about their process from the Trustee’s perspective was so important to understand why they committed so deeply. It was evident that the process happened at all levels, and every detail of the development of this fund had to be tied to their foundation values, most notably the removal of institutional barriers that would inhibit its creation. This was the only way that a $25 million-dollar investment in the Black community would work–everyone had to imagine the possibilities, and everyone had to free themselves from how things were always done in order to dream big.

Systems and How Philanthropy Views Itself

In a similar vein, Carmen talked about systems, and in particular, those systems that have become staples in philanthropy that can dilute what are our true goals. She said: 

“In order to uplift communities, we have to be true to who we are. We have to narrate our true work. And we have to own the fact that it is our job to give people money. But, instead of just giving people money, we create all of these extra jobs for ourselves like: let’s all be experts on everything…and then let’s hire people to manage the people that we call experts…and then let’s hire people to manage those who are managing our experts…instead just giving away the money as we promised to do.” 

Carmen also talked about the importance of maintaining the greatest proximity to the communities who need it most. 

Foundation leaders can trick themselves into being ‘in community by payment’. We pay other organizations and leaders so that we can have proximity to communities instead of just being a part of communities. The organizations and leaders that we support need to know that we are servants to their dreams, not our own systems. We all know that money is a big part of what we do…but I am challenging myself to decide what it looks like to not use that in my favor or the favor of my organization versus simply investing in and being a part of our community.”

Being a Woman of Color in Leadership

As I reflected on Carmen’s presentation, I couldn’t help but linger on how listening to her made me feel. I knew that my brain was activated by her analysis, but somewhere in those words, I also felt something significant. And then it hit me: I was watching a woman of color, soaring freely without fear or remorse, in her role as a leader in philanthropy. It was her unbridled sense of empowerment to do her job, speak her truth…and be her authentic self as she did it that was absolutely electrifying.

“Being a woman of color in leadership always had constraints for me. I always felt that I had to tuck a part of me away when I worked for largely white-run organizations that had the ability to position themselves as being the experts. And there were ways that every professional decision that I made felt like jumping off of a cliff. If I was going to move from one job to the next, I had to think about what bridges would I burn if I left? It felt like such a huge decision and there is a trauma that comes with holding back like that all the time.”

Hearing Carmen speak about this was like hearing someone exclaim what is normally whispered. She named what many BIPOC staff experience as they traverse the systems unaccustomed to the variables that arise when our work environments are not so homogenous. She offered herself as an example of what can happen when a woman of color is not only allowed to…but is encouraged to fully embrace her leadership without fear. 

“Once we get these positions, we have to work so hard to keep them and to keep ourselves as individuals safe that we forget that we are here to be in service to the community and that we are stewards of resources that are meant to support the public good.”

Carmen is a leader of a national foundation, and yet she still has to think about how she presents herself to her counterparts who for the most part, don’t look like her and don’t share the same experience that she has. But what was crystal clear was that she presents herself fully as a model for what BIPOC people can achieve when the investment in their leadership is generative and supportive.

Generative and supportive leadership is at the root of many Casey Foundation strategies, and Carmen leads with the notion that talent is cultivated and not necessarily innate. Their investments are made in people and leaders just as often as they are in programs or issue areas. People, especially BIPOC, are an asset to their grantmaking process—especially when their talents are nurtured. They want BIPOC leaders to “have the room, the oxygen, and when they need it, the respite in order to win. And they are harnessing the full weight of their resources to make that happen.”

As I am always seeking out inspiration in my work, this made me think about Jesse Beason, who also shared his wisdom in the session, Leveraging Philanthropy’s Power for Policy Change. Jesse is someone whom I have watched grow into his leadership for years, and I have had the pleasure of engaging with him in his work at the Northwest Health Foundation. He truly is an example of the good that happens when we invest in, nurture and support BIPOC leaders in philanthropy, and it is important to note that he also exemplifies where the opportunities for growth are in the philanthropic sector.

 As the current President and CEO of NWHF, Jesse followed in the footsteps of another strong leader of color who helped carve out what is now his leadership platform. Yet today, Jesse is the only Black (and LGBTQ+) male leader of a foundation in our community of over 120-member organizations. As I reflected on Carmen’s thoughts about garnering and maintaining these positions while keeping oneself safe and supported, it made me feel even more proud of Jesse as he too, leads with grace as a steward for the public good. His journey is the perfect nexus between the gifts that he was clearly born with, and the cultivation and investment in his leadership that we all witness today. It is important to note that while he is not alone as a Black man in philanthropy, he is still the singular voice of Black men at the top tiers of leadership in our sector. It is clear that while we are fortunate to watch Jesse soar, identifying and investing in others who are talented and can join Jesse in his flight, is still ripe with possibilities. 

There were so many wonderful moments like this in Restore, and as you can tell, my heart is full and my mind is ablaze with where we can go with what we learned during our time together. I want to thank our sponsors for being present and standing with us as we brought Restore to our community. We couldn’t have done this without you. And for all of you who joined us for Restore, we deeply appreciate you too.

Thank you…