By Pam David, Senior Fellow, Northern California Grantmakers
When I took the job as Executive Director of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, I really did not appreciate how different it was going to be from being the Director of the SF Mayor’s Office of Community Development. Sure, I had an understanding of community needs and public sector grant making, and I was comfortable in a leadership position in community and local government. What surprised me was how isolating it can be to head up a family foundation.
In my previous work for three San Francisco mayors I collaborated closely with other department heads, and it was easy to get advice and feel supported by my colleagues — even when the work was heavily politicized and challenging. But I found the philanthropic world to be very different. My offices at the Haas, Sr. Fund featured drop dead views of San Francisco Bay — and, unlike my work in government, there was actually time to think about what we were doing as opposed to just reacting. Yet, it was, as they say, “lonely at the top.”
Fortunately, the then-CEO of NCG came by and asked if it would be helpful if he brought some of us newer EDs together for dinner. That one dinner became a regular and informal get-together for nearly a dozen of us for several years, providing a confidential forum to talk all things philanthropy, and to build lasting supportive relationships. It also helped me begin to understand that some things are unique to heading up a family foundation.
When I stepped into the role of Senior Fellow at NCG, I thought it might make sense to take a similar approach. Building off my own experiences, and recognizing how many newer heads of family foundations there are in the Bay Area right now, I culled the NCG membership list and asked several new/newer CEOs if they’d be interested to meet over lunch. My instincts were right on — the response was immediate and positive. I set a simple agenda — getting to know each other and sharing our “aha” moments coming into family philanthropy leadership. The conversation was lively and easy, and a second lunch was quickly and enthusiastically scheduled.
Since that lunch, I’ve met with other longer-term family foundation leaders, and heard the same wish for peer connection and support. Next on my list is organizing something in the South Bay, and then another here in San Francisco — both for long-time directors. I’m very excited about providing new ways to support family philanthropy leadership, and look forward to continuing to deepen this work in the coming months.