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My First 100 Days: We Chose Progress

Thursday, January 7, 2021
By Dwayne S. Marsh, President and CEO, Northern California Grantmakers
 

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.

We were speaking in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, on the profound acceleration of a national conversation decades overdue. Eventually, we came to the removal of Confederate statues from the iconic Monument Avenue in our hometown of Richmond, Virginia, something neither of us thought we would see in our lifetime. And, as he so often does, Harold put the achievement in context: at this very moment, students of color are admitted to Richmond’s most prestigious public school for gifted students at one-tenth their numbers. My lament came without thinking. “Change is inevitable”, I said, “progress is a choice”.

100 days into my tenure, this reality is heavy on my mind. We steward a field rich with privilege and awesome responsibility. Capital from our sector seeds public, private, and nonprofit action. It creates social cohesion that helps bend political discourse and shape civil society. At our best, we incubate, innovate, and champion social progress. But fulfilling this potential can be elusive.

What will it take to be our best selves? To whom are we accountable? Foundations catalyze the greatest progress when our accountability is to community. But, by and large, we are not set up for that. Whether we are new to the pursuit of racial equity, or decades into it, driving resources to those most affected by structural impediments must be our focus.

This past year tested us in so many ways; our resolve, our values, our stamina, our spirit. Perhaps most of all, it tested our accountability. Amidst global climate catastrophe, domestic social unrest, economic turmoil, and a century pandemic, racial justice emerged as central, its influence and impact cutting across each of these issues. How do we provide unfettered support to people forging our collective equity aspirations into a stronger, more inclusive future?

Each of us needs to address this question earnestly. No one can make you fulfill a commitment to racial equity as foundational to your… well, foundation. But the beauty of our sector is this: while it is a responsibility for each institution, no institution has to do this alone. Our power is in our diversity; it also rests on our support for one another. We can lift our expectations of ourselves, make the exceptional commonplace, and push the edges of innovation, with an eye to equitable outcomes for those facing significant discrimination.

For our part, we recognize NCG’s role. We are the association for the greatest regional concentration of wealth and philanthropic innovation on the planet. This responsibility energizes us, and in the coming year, you will see us hold ourselves increasingly accountable to impact – services we provide and conversations we organize will focus on people serving communities hit hardest during this pandemic.

This means tough choices. To continue delivering with excellence, we must choose wisely. Those choices will reflect two things: a commitment to racial equity that only intensifies with my arrival as CEO, and your aspirations for us as drawn from a number of recent sources, including more than 100 conversations with many of you over the past 100 days.

Your message was clear: you like the way we roll and appreciate the professionalism of our staff. The team’s extraordinary response to the events of 2020 did not go unnoticed. You count on us to be bold. For us, that means taking steps now to ensure that when we look back in three years’ time, we have done more than great work: we have done the work the moment demanded.

I am excited for 2021. You will see the best of what you’ve known NCG to be about, be it leveraging support for Black and Indigenous-led organizations, addressing concerns of nonprofit displacement and sustainability, or a continuing exploration of trust-based philanthropy. You will see new directions in our work, including an intensive look at progressive investment strategies, services that help foundations operationalize an equity agenda, and programming attentive to the needs of all aspects of your successful operations, including finance, communications, and donor services.

Most importantly, we won’t shy away from the challenging leading-edge conversations confronting the sector, with a consistent emphasis on advancing equity in communities across the region. Do all foundations need to remain in perpetuity? What does meaningfully doubling down to address current crises look like? How much are we willing to cede so people receive not just money, but also build power? This is terrain for meaningful philanthropy to sharpen its focus and deepen its impact. We bring considerable resources to bear, from an energized board to a talented staff whose vision and hard work I am proud to champion.

We will deploy every ounce of effort to help Northern California philanthropy exhibit its best self in the months to come and we count on you come along for the journey. In this defining moment, it is the way in which we choose progress.