Editor's note: This is part of our blog series featuring current participants in the Career Pathways program. Applications for the 2019 cohort open in September.
I believe that it is pretty well understood in the sector that we have an imperative in foundation offices and board rooms to ensure our decisions and behaviors are guided by and lift up the people in the communities we serve. However, foundation leaders continue to grapple with taking appropriate and sustained action toward promoting equity, particularly dealing with racism and power both inside and outside their organizations. I applied to the Council on Foundations’ Career Pathways program to strengthen my skills in leading in this space. My hope was to both expand my peer network of senior leaders dedicated to promoting equity as well as to deepen my understanding of how I should and could be showing up at my foundation and in my community differently.
Oftentimes, foundation leaders can feel isolated, pulled between grantees and program beneficiaries, community partners, colleagues and peers, and boards. The Career Pathways program has been special for me in that it creates space for reflection (which is extremely difficult to carve out during my work day) and reminds me that I am never alone. We carry our influencers’ voices with us, and we have a trusted Pathways cohort that we can rely upon and who will share their wisdom and guidance. Each member is surrounded by people who are only interested in our success. The honesty and vulnerability shared within the group has been an incredible gift.
Graciously hosted by the Skillman Foundation, the cohort recently met in Detroit, Michigan for the third of four meetings. This session focused on organizational leadership. Early on, each was asked to figuratively invite an influencer in our lives into the room. Although I do not recall any of my colleagues summoning Peter Drucker, the phrase he coined “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” seemed to be a touchstone throughout our time together. Specifically, we recognized that healthy organizational culture—and leadership’s influence on values and behaviors—is a precursor for achieving the equitable outcomes we seek through our foundations’ programs and investments.
Experts and executive leaders within philanthropy led curated, candid conversations addressing what C-suite executives should know about foundation functions; leading with an equity lens; developing internal talent and leadership, particularly for staff of color and women; working with a board; and acknowledging and holding in check the privilege and power that come with leading a foundation. Discussions made clear the many hats senior leaders are required to wear, as well as resulting tensions. To that end, speakers encouraged us to keep front and center the joy, compassion, and love we gain through helping others in order to make bearable the less sexy administrative activities, leading teams and managing relationships, and, in some cases, navigating egos.
In preparation for the Detroit meeting, search firm professionals interviewed each of us independently, shedding light onto the executive interview process and providing feedback on our strengths and areas for improvement. These experiences along with the insights gained through our guest speakers pushed us to further hone our visions for philanthropy as well as share how we expect to contribute to our organizations and the field. Examples of this and the culmination of what we learn throughout the program will be reflected in our home institution case study presentations in November. My project, for example, is focusing on erasing the barrier between the foundation program team and external investment advisors, ensuring that the Jessie Ball duPont Fund is thoughtfully and intentionally allocating the resources we steward toward mission and achieving equitable community outcomes.
On a closing, personal note, as a white male who grew up in Mississippi and worked in foundations in the American South for 15 years, I have witnessed the highs and lows of humanity and how we care for one another. Despite my best intentions, I only understand my own lived experiences and will never fully appreciate the systemic barriers and discrimination that have affected the social and financial trajectory of people of color and women. I am honored to participate in and learn from this exceptional group, acknowledging the privileges I inherently possess—although unearned—in our society as a result of my skin color and seeing how I can best use them as an ally and advocate to address and undo racism and inequity. And, more so, I hope that what I hear and synthesize further informs how I show up in conversations and communities, particularly how I listen to and empathize with grantees and residents and, importantly, how I will take action. I am grateful for my colleagues and the facilitators who are feeding my head and shaping my heart.