In a year of memorable moments, I keep coming back to a conversation I had with my cousin Harold that is shaping my entry into 2021. Harold lives in Chicago and is an ardent student of history, particularly in the pursuit of racial justice. His observations often help me refine my own thinking.
One message stood out: we must stretch beyond what we’ve tried before. Just aligning corporate philanthropy with a company’s business interests will no longer suffice. With our nation’s health, climate, race relations, economy, and democracy under assault, our social order is quite squarely in the balance. The brand that invests in communities' own systems for survival, leverages its voice and influence to advance change, and stands up to be counted, will resonate most.
This month, President and CEO Dwayne S. Marsh has officially taken the reins from Steve Barton and Phuong Quach, senior staff who’ve served as NCG’s interim leaders for the past six months. The three took turns answering questions about the moment in which we find ourselves and the possibilities ahead. As the interview was drawing to a close, Dwayne paused to check if we were going to address race explicitly. And so, signaling the new future into which we are stepping, we did.
We no longer have to wonder what we would have done if we’d been around at the peak of the civil rights movement. Whatever it is, we will be doing it now. These words ring from our conference.
Three weeks ago, the two of us stepped into our new roles as acting Co-CEOs of Northern California Grantmakers. That was the same day the world learned we would need vigorous hand-washing and distance to protect each other and everyone in our community from a new rapidly spreading virus. A most unusual start in our roles. But, then again, these are most unusual times.
A few weeks ago I was asked to help welcome NCG’s inaugural cohort of Rising Leaders with a few words on leadership. At first I was daunted, not sure exactly what I might have to offer on this topic. So I did what I always do when I am trying to get my head around something: I made a list. In the spirit of reflection and learning, here’s what I’ve learned so far.
I have been thinking a lot about community lately. I am moved to do so by several things: the quality, character, and noise level of the current public discourse concerning policy and politics, the ongoing challenges people living in the Bay area and beyond navigate daily as they strive to live into their full potential, and the way my heart is beating as I contemplate leaving a place I have lived for over twenty-seven years.
Yesterday was a blur. Immediately after we finally hit “send” on the announcement of my departure from NCG to become the CEO of Fenway Health in Boston I was besieged with good wishes via email and text and social media. It felt good. But tonight, as I sit in my living room reflecting on the day, I am feeling some sadness. I am really, really going to miss all of you.
In her five years at the helm Ellen has overseen dramatic growth at Northern California Grantmakers, doubling its membership and tripling its budget. NCG now ranks as among the top five largest regional philanthropic associations in the nation. Leaders spoke of her outsized influence in a region with one of the largest concentrations of wealth in the world.
When I started at NCG early in 2015 I spent a lot of time listening. Like, a LOT. During close to 200 meetings in my first year, I sought to learn what was strong about our work, what members of our community wanted more (and less) of from NCG, and – perhaps most importantly – what folks needed to increase their impact and to remain connected to their sense of purpose, their agency, and their community of colleagues. The guidance I received was remarkable in its continuity – and in its vehemence.