Melissa Stafford Jones is the new Executive Director at the Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation. As a part of our Member Spotlight series, Melissa told us about her experience at our New Grantmakers Institute and the importance of finding your "sweet spot" to seize opportunity to make a difference.
Most people do not take a job and then try to put themselves out of business. But, as my fellow New Grantmakers Institute (NGI) participant noted, that is exactly our goal in philanthropy. At its heart, our work is about cultivating lasting, meaningful change for people and communities. For example, at the Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation, whether it is supporting academic and arts enrichment for all children, food security or job training, we are trying to make Contra Costa County a place where our children and families thrive and have the education, tools and basic supports to move beyond poverty.
As a new executive director, I’m newly applying leadership, strategic and change agent skills I learned in a long career in health policy to philanthropy. I joined the foundation to make a difference for the Contra Costa community but I realized early on that our opportunity in philanthropy to partner with our nonprofit grantees and each other is a special one that must be thoughtfully planned and executed. How do I know if I am funding the “best” thing that most fully advances the long terms goals of the foundation board? How do I discern the difference between great ideas that will have “in the moment” impact and others that may offer the possibility for lasting change? How do I work with the inherent privilege that comes with being a funder in my relationships with grantees?
Then along came the New Grantmakers Institute. NGI did not give me the answers to my questions – it gave me something better. It gave me the tools for inquiry and reflection that will make me a stronger grantmaker in the long run. I left NGI with “aha” moments that went beyond the tools, understanding the full possibility of my work when I come to it from a place of curiosity, honesty, humility, and perseverance.
It took me past the individual tools for good grantmaking, convening and evaluation. I landed at the sweet spot where the tools come together for the board, staff and grantees to create impact. Above all, I joined a community of new grantmakers, who, like me, are endeavoring to seize this opportunity to make a difference.
I know there will be bumps in the road and new questions will continuously emerge. But, ultimately, this work is not about philanthropy itself – philanthropy is a means to an end. At the end of the day, we join this field to be a part of change, to be a part of making our society better, to be a part of building a more promising future for those who come after us. We joined this field to put ourselves out of business.
As the new executive of a foundation, I am excited to dive in and tackle the hard questions. And I look forward to partnering with grantmakers – new and experienced – to fully realize the potential of the incredible community of Northern California.
In May 2017 Melissa became Executive Director of the Dean & Margaret Lesher Foundation, which focuses on education, the arts, and children & families in Contra Costa County. Melissa previously served as Regional Director of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services in the Obama Administration and was President & CEO of the California Association of Public Hospitals & Health Systems, a non-profit policy and advocacy organization working to expand access to health care and improve health status of low-income Californians.