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Meet the Moment Series: 6 Philanthropic Leaders Share their Perspectives


We wanted to explore some key questions for the sector and created a series fueled by curiosity and questions, not answers. We spent some of 2021 talking with leaders about racial equity, the strategies and practices we should lean into, and what is holding us back from transformative action. NCG's President & CEO, Dwayne S. Marsh, and GEO's President & CEO, Marcus Walton began by handing off questions they had to other leaders in the field: Cathy Cha, Dimple Abichandani, Eddie Torres, and Janine Lee. Read below to see where it took us. 



1. Meet the Moment: Demystifying Bold

by Dwayne S. Marsh, President and CEO, Northern California Grantmakers 

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’ve arrived as NCG’s CEO on the shoulders of many others that came before me. Two of the strongest shoulders belong to my first professional mentor and a heavyweight in philanthropic circles, Joe Brooks. During my seventeen years as a work partner and friend at The San Francisco Foundation and then PolicyLink, I learned more from him than I could ever adequately describe. He had a habit of saying things that were increasingly profound the more you thought about them. One of those sayings was, “how much do you need to know to act?”, often dropped in a setting surrounded by other foundation colleagues where he was about to propose bold action to engage some of the Bay Area’s most vexing social challenges.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, as we are at a pivotal moment in this global pandemic experience. We can no longer see the shore we departed before the upheaval began, nor are we certain to what shore we are bound for as society evolves to a new set of conditions. We are truly at sea, desperate for direction, anxious to know the nature of our destination, and searching for tools to guide our journey.


2. Meet the Moment: The Greatest Barrier to Racial Equity is Leadership

by Marcus Walton, President & CEO, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations

Recently, Dwayne Marsh, CEO of Northern California Grantmakers, and I were reflecting on how many foundations in our memberships are looking to change direction and move toward racial equity. In an ice-bucket-style challenge, Dwayne posted his thoughts and then tagged me with the question, “How best does philanthropy choose courage in the face of the unprecedented complexity the moment offers?

I’ll post my answer here (minus the ice and the bucket) and tag one of my favorite thinkers at the end. The answer, from where I sit, begins with leadership. I’ll reflect on my own, as a start.  


3. Meet the Moment: Let's Try to Test and Learn

by Cathy Cha, President and CEO, Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund

Thanks, Marcus and Dwayne, for your inspiring words and your leadership. As good discussions go, you’ve both got me thinking. And thanks to Marcus for tagging me and inviting me to jump into the conversation. Marcus’s “meet the moment” question for me is a good one: How does philanthropy need to work differently in these complex and turbulent times?

I stepped into my current role at the Haas, Jr. Fund in 2019. Within a few months, we were deep into a strategic visioning process with our board and staff to imagine the next chapter for Haas Jr.’s work. Then 2020 happened. The strategy was approved during our first-ever Zoom board meeting last March — just six days after the staff team started working from home. 


4. Meet the Moment: It isn't enough to fund change. We must change too. 

by Dimple Abichandani, Executive Director, General Service Foundation and NCG Board Member

Thanks, Marcus and Dwayne, and Cathy, for your wisdom and your leadership. And Cathy, thank you for inviting me to jump into the conversation. 

I’ll be honest: I’ve been putting off answering your question “How do foundation leaders stay clear-eyed in this moment?” As I sit to write, our Northern California skies are hazy with wildfire smoke. It strikes me as a metaphor for this moment, 19 months into COVID, when our visions of a post-pandemic future are shifting yet again. I definitely don’t feel clear-eyed.

I am learning that being clear-eyed is not about being able to see the hills on the horizon on a crisp, blue-skied day. Rather, it is knowing who you are, where you are, and where you are going, even in the midst of the densest fog. It is about knowing what lies beyond the haze.


5. Meet the Moment: Transcending Limiting Beliefs

by Eddie Torres, President and CEO, Grantmakers in the Arts

Thank you, Marcus and Dwayne, and Cathy and Dimple, for your courageous leadership. And Dimple, thank you for inviting me into the conversation to answer "What exactly holds us back from making more dramatic transformations in our philanthropy?"  I’m humbled to be a part of it. 

I propose that what holds us back from making more dramatic transformations in philanthropy are three beliefs that we inherit and internalize from white supremacist culture. 

Philanthropy is another system functioning as it was designed to function – as social reproduction for the ruling class, with our failure to meet that goal engendering the risk of our being fired. Functioning in a scarcity mindset, it’s no wonder we internalize the following beliefs.


6. Meet the Moment: Bridging the Gap Between Rhetoric and Action

by Janine Lee, President and CEO, Philanthropy Southeast

Thank you, DwayneMarcusCathyDimple and Ed, for your thoughtful and inspiring answers to questions that challenge our thinking! Ed, I appreciate the hand off, and the question: How do we bridge the gap that often exists between rhetoric and action within our institutions

I believe we can bridge the gap by living our purpose. Why does philanthropy exist? Why is it necessary? Let's start here and move toward answering the question more directly. 

Philanthropy's purpose is to improve the well-being of humankind – this is spelled out clearly by the word itself, which translates to “love of humankind” from its Greek origins. Our focus should be on preventing and solving social problems. Contrast this with charity, which focuses on eliminating suffering caused by social problems; both are important, but philanthropy seeks to address the causes of suffering – treating the disease, not the symptoms.