Blog: Amplify

Member Week 2021: Foundation Leader Q&A with Peter Dunn

Peter Dunn, Central New York Community Foundation

Question: What drew you to the field of philanthropy?

Answer: I landed in philanthropy by accident. In my late 20's, as a young and disgruntled litigator, I helped to handle a civil case involving embezzlement by a private foundation trustee. This exposed me to foundations and nonprofit governance issues and prompted me to look more closely at ways that I could use my legal training for the common good. I ended up leaving private practice for a fundraising position at the United Way in Buffalo, then went to the Council on Foundations to work with community foundations, to the California Community Foundation, and then my current role in Syracuse.

Q: Collaboration is often the most effective way to tackle key issues and drive sustainable change in philanthropy. Share an example of a successful philanthropic collaboration or partnership that you have been a part of. What issue brought the organizations together? Why was a collaborative approach the right way to approach the issue? What were the results?

A: For about a dozen years, we have been a partner in our local college promise initiative, Say Yes Syracuse, along with our city and county governments, the school district, Syracuse University, and other partners. Initially, the community foundation was the 'bank' - we helped to build and administer the endowment for this scholarship and family support initiative benefiting kids in our city school district. Our work prompted the State of New York to make a $20 million grant to our scholarship endowment which, when combined with private gifts, fully endowed the scholarship program. These scholarships are supplemented with a series of surround supports for families, including amplified legal services and mental health clinics. Over the last decade, the graduation rate for the Syracuse City School District has risen from 48% to 71%. The rates of success for all students, regardless of racial background, have increased - so much so that graduation rates for Black and Latino students now match or exceed that of White students. Today, the community foundation administers and staffs the program, in addition to holding the endowment. For a city with the highest rates of concentrated poverty among Black and Latino populations in the country, this is a notable achievement. I think it is also a great example of resilient and enduring collective impact.

Q: Reflecting on how COVID-19 and the movement for racial justice have impacted philanthropy, in what ways has the sector changed its approach to work since spring 2020? Share any examples of how your organization changed its operations or strategy.

A: Among the key changes I have noted are simplifying the application and grant process, engaging more authentically with residents, experimenting with trust-based models of funding, and the importance of communications across all the work that we do. For the Central New York Community Foundation, these trends were crystallized with our $1 million funding commitment to Black-led and -governed nonprofit organizations through our Black Equity & Excellence Fund. Our board devolved authority and oversight of the grants process and decision making to an advisory council of Black community members. We completely blew up our application process to make it much simpler. One key data point for me: after three funding rounds, we noted that two-thirds of the grant applicants to this fund had never applied to the community foundation for funding support before. This told me we were breaking through, creating new relationships, and helping to build capacity for a whole group of nonprofits and projects serving the Black community in Syracuse.

Q: How do you think philanthropy can become a more trusted partner in advancing the greater good?

A: I think telling the story is important - communications has been so key to our work, especially given over successive recent crises. It is one thing for us to make a statement, it is quite another for us to do and fund the work, and then to close the loop and share what we've done and what we've learned. I think in our case we've also been really devoted to data and measurement - which has enabled us to talk across all sorts of divides and build allies on common goals in some new ways.

Q: Share one or more ways that your Council on Foundations membership has benefitted your organization.

A: I'm one of that small group of Council staff alumni strewn across the sector, so I might be a bit biased. I am a great believer in networks and the Council provides the platform to help our sector be a more effective force for the common good. I'm enthusiastic about the Council's new direction and its importance to support impactful work by philanthropy going forward.