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Member Spotlight: Frances Phillips, Program Director at the Walter & Elise Haas Fund

Monday, July 11, 2016

Frances Phillips (pictured on the right with Linda Yamane, a Creative Work Fund grant recipient, holding an amazing Ohlone presentation basket that she wove with her grant) is the Program Director of the Arts and the Creative Work Fund at the Walter & Elise Haas Fund and a member of NCG's Book Club. As a part of our Member Spotlight series, Frances told us a little about herself and how to reach her for collaboration opportunities. She invites you to join her at NCG's upcoming Book Club lunch on July 14th - Discussion of The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

How’d you get started in this work?

When I was a graduate student in creative writing at San Francisco State, I got a summer job in the office of Faculty Research and Sponsored Projects, which handled grants made to faculty members’ projects. My job was to sharpen my boss’s pencils every morning (she always drafted budgets in pencil); edit proposals; and track down principal investigators who had not submitted their final reports. A few years later – in the late 1970s -- I learned about fundraising by working at a small public relations firm that specialized in nonprofits and local political campaigns. From there, I became director of The Poetry Center at San Francisco State and then of Intersection for the Arts.

It hadn’t occurred to me that someone from outside of philanthropy would be hired as a program officer, but a job became available at the Haas Fund, my family was struggling financially, and I was encouraged to apply. I was rather astonished when they hired me.

Early on I remember meeting with an applicant who suddenly asked, “When did you come over?” I thought I was being nonchalant at the meeting, but apparently my newness was apparent. Later, when I told a friend that I’d been asked that question, he said, “It sounds like you’ve become a vampire.”

Are you new in your role? Been there awhile?

I started at the Fund on September 1, 1994, the date of the first deadline for letters of inquiry to the Creative Work Fund. Having the opportunity to steer that program for nearly 22 years has been amazing. Also, my portfolio is somewhat varied, with a lot of grants in arts education, an interest in recent immigrants, a focus on free programs. That range has kept the job fresh and challenging.

What’s next on your agenda (workwise)?

We just finished a board docket, so at the moment I’m reading proposals that came in during the period of docket preparation, and I’m assembling national panels to review this year’s Creative Work Fund applications. Standing back from my desk and the day-to-day, I’m thinking about the concept of equity and how to apply it in my work. Our board made a shift in focus last year so that the over-arching theme of our grantmaking is no longer civic engagement but is about addressing the growing gap between rich and poor in the Bay Area.

What talent or superpower would you like to have?

I would like to have decisiveness. Or maybe I wouldn’t.

When and where are you happiest?

I love hearing an orchestra tune up at the beginning of a performance. I know one should love the performance itself, but that period of anticipation always thrills me.

But is it “happiest”? Or only “happy” as in buying shoes or yarn or books?

Happiest is probably when my daughter posts a new picture of my grandson on Facebook and my husband and I discuss it.

Who are your favorite writers?

This is a tough one because I love so many writers, but two who are important to me are George Elliot and Herman Melville. My dad was an aerospace engineer and he died at age 59, when I was 25. I was stunned and unprepared and I didn’t come from a strong faith tradition to reassure or guide me. I read Middlemarch and Moby Dick and they pulled me through – Middlemarch because of Eliot’s profound self-awareness and Moby Dick because of the material cultural dimension. My dad loved to explain how things worked and Melville loves that too.

I’m a poet, so I should mention a few whose work always holds up for me: Amiri Baraka, Seamus Heaney, George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, C.D. Wright, William Butler Yeats….  I need to stop because this list will go on and on.

Right now I’m reading the poet Sean Hill, an amazing memoir by Kao Kalia Yang, and David Mitchell.


Do you have questions for Nancy or ideas for collaboration? You can contact her at:

Phone: (415) 398-4474

Twitter: @PhillipsFrances

LinkedIn: Frances Phillips


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