Quiet Leaders and Philanthropy: A Good Fit

February 5, 2015
Patrice Relerford

Patrice Relerford

Today we welcome Patrice Relerford, a new Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellow who works at The Minneapolis Foundation and shares her thoughts on an evening with Dr. Albert Ruesga.

I recently had dinner with a group that included the CEO of one of the nation’s leading community foundations. Yet I had no idea he was the guest of honor until Trista Harris, MCF president, introduced him to everyone at the table.

I’m new to philanthropy and also didn’t recognize most of the foundation professionals in attendance. However, my reaction is noteworthy because I can usually spot the leader in any room. Here’s what gives them away: they’re usually talking and surrounded by people.

Dr. Albert Ruesga, president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, wasn’t silent or shy, but he had a much calmer demeanor than I expected. Ruesga continued to defy my expectations when he spoke for a few minutes after Harris introduced him. He then asked each person in attendance to introduce themselves to the group and describe their intended legacy.

I felt anxious and relieved that I was several seats away from him. This is Minnesota. We talk about our families, sports, the weather and the roads as they relate to the weather. Also, who under the age of 60 has thought about their legacy? It sounds like something that involves paperwork, a notary public and a meeting with a lawyer.

I won’t give you a play by play of our conversation, but I will share that his behavior is an example of what psychologists have referred to as quiet leadership. Quiet leaders are more inclined toward action than talking. These men and women also take the time to assess a situation and map out the best way to proceed. I’m sure the fact that Ruesga seems inclined to think before he speaks has served him well since he moved to Louisiana in 2009.

Quiet leaders also listen and seek to empower others. They are not threatened or overbearing when their colleagues’ ideas clash with their perspectives. This issue has received quite a bit of attention recently as writers and thought leaders question our preference for extroverted leaders. I’m not certain how Ruesga would feel about being described as a “quiet leader,” and I didn’t consult him before I wrote this article.

I think he shifted the momentum back to us during dinner to learn more about where each of us was in our leadership journey. It was also a great transition into discussing the main topic for the evening: social justice philanthropy. I learned this term has several definitions. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) describes it as supporting structural change to increase the opportunities of those who are the least well off politically, economically and socially.

As a new Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellow, I’ve looked for examples of this type of work since meeting Ruesga and see parallels between the NCRP definition and philanthropic support for local organizations such as Voice for Racial Justice, which engages in racial equity organizing and leadership.

Below are three simple lessons I derived from our conversation and the concept of quiet leadership that I plan to apply to my own new career in philanthropy.

  1. Spend more time listening, learning and thinking than speaking. We live in a diverse community that faces complex challenges. No one person or entity has all of the answers.
  2. Don’t make assumptions or decisions about the needs of underserved communities or marginalized groups of people. Empower members of those groups and communities to lead the process for developing solutions which benefit them and address larger systemic issues.
  3. Strive for harmony – which isn’t the same as forcing others to agree with you – and move forward in a way that respects others’ viewpoints, yet changes inequitable systems. It’s a difficult path, but necessary to make a meaningful impact.

I’m not sure when I’ll have a response to Ruesga’s question about my intended legacy that is worth sharing publicly. However, I’m confident it will be the byproduct of these three actions.

Patrice Relerford, former Star Tribune education reporter and nonprofit fundraiser, recently joined The Minneapolis Foundation staff as a Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellow


Take a Virtual Coffee Break!

July 29, 2014

gcftPhilanthropy – we need each other to do it well, and it’s imperative that we make time to share stories, compare notes and answer questions. My favorite way to engage is over coffee or lunch, but that’s not always possible. Sometimes online advice – I call it a virtual coffee break – will do.

I know GrantCraft for their excellent guides, and I’ve used many of them in my work. The site has now been completely reorganized, making lots of great content much easier to locate and use. They’ve also made it easier to find out what other grantmakers have got brewing and to contribute your own lessons learned.

Maybe you’re working on an initiative that’s new to your community but has taken off elsewhere, or you have a burning question that you’d like a lot of people to weigh in on right now. Those are a couple of the reasons I’m hoping that GrantCraft’s new features really take off.

I encourage you to take a fresh look at the site, share your wisdom and comment on the questions asked by others. All of the discussions on the site are searchable and will be archived. Today when I checked, there were funders wondering how others help grantees beyond grants, how grantmakers help grantees find new money, challenges that arise when collaborating with other funders and how your organization structures challenge grants. These are all questions that I know many of our MCF members can help answer for other grantmakers.

Every success I have had in this field has been because of connections I’ve made and people I’ve met. GrantCraft now provides us a virtual opportunity to widen our networks and learn from grantmakers we haven’t yet met. If we take advantage of it, we’ll each improve our own practice, and we’ll better the field of philanthropy together. Let’s use it to stimulate real results!

Trista Harris, MCF president


MCF Welcomes Na Eng as Director of Communications

July 10, 2014

Na EngMCF is pleased to welcome Na Eng as our new interim director of communications.

As an award-winning journalist for PBS and CNBC, Na covered a broad range of critical economic and social issues, such as health care, education, immigration and renewable energy. Her hard hitting reporting took her to far-flung destinations all over the world and earned her top industry honors, including an Emmy Award and an Edward R. Murrow Award.

Na also served as a senior communications officer for the international humanitarian organization Mercy Corps where she managed media relations and wrote op-eds, web copy, press releases and other material.

At MCF, Na will direct strategic communications planning for the coming year. Returning to Minnesota after a long career in New York, she is excited for the opportunity to contribute to the state’s vibrant foundation and nonprofit community.

Welcome Na!

 


The Path to Effective Philanthropy: Honest Conversations

February 27, 2014

It was a treat this week for MCF and our members to host a conversation with Phil Buchanan, president of the The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP).

Our exchange was energetic, provocative, fun and sometimes funny.  I was struck by how often we circled back to core concepts and philanthropic fundamentals.

The discussion aligned serendipitously with MCF’s Principles for Grantmakers.  Here are a few snippets that illustrate the challenges — and opportunities — of putting principles into practice.

Effective Governance
According to MCF’s Effective Governance Principle, grantmakers are expected to be good stewards of assets, to fulfill donor intent, to make sound decisions and to perform all fiduciary responsibilities.

Buchanan called for foundation boards to govern effectively by not rubber stamping staff members’ grant recommendations.  “If the board is approving every grant, they’re not taking time to see what it all adds up to and they’re not asking the hard questions.”

And he challenged foundation CEOs to practice “radical openness” with their boards – i.e., to say everything they’re thinking and to spark “messy conversations.”  Good governance doesn’t emerge from perfectly scripted board meetings at which “the most spontaneous thing that happens is when someone gets up to get a cup of coffee.”  (Yes, it’s okay to laugh at ourselves.)

Engaged Learning
The MCF Engaged Learning Principle calls for continuous learning and reflection by engaging board members, staff, grantees and donors in thoughtful dialogue and education.

Of course, learning and continuous improvement through performance assessment is at the heart of CEP’s mission.  (Buchanan readily acknowledged that he is not the expert in philanthropy . . . and he cautioned us to be wary of those who say they are.)

Because philanthropy is “wicked tough,” funding programs on theory alone is not enough.  It’s vital that grantmakers establish performance indicators and are data driven.

And they sometimes need to follow, not lead.  By replicating proven programs, foundations can learn from others and succeed.  (For more on shared goals, read Buchanan’s opinion piece in this week’s Chronicle of Philanthropy.)

Transparency
Through MCF’s Transparency Principle grantmakers strive to build healthy relationships with the public, applicants, grantees and donors by using clear, consistent and timely communications.

Being transparent includes sharing the so-called “failures.” (Our host Kate Wolford of The McKnight Foundation noted that we might be more apt to learn from our missteps by reframing them in more positive, multi-dimensional terms.)

Buchanan reported that it’s up to foundations to share the results of CEP assessments.  Some don’t share at all, some partially share with grantees (and sometimes add a positive spin!), and some share widely, warts and all.

He noted that foundations that are truly transparent are viewed as trustworthy and credible.  For example, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is fully committed to evaluation and transparency, making it all the stronger.

Cynics may say that foundations don’t need to be accountable to anybody.  But as Buchanan reminded everyone, if grantmakers aren’t honest and don’t cultivate positive relationships with their grantees, how can they obtain the candid information they need to improve philanthropy . . . and improve lives?

More to Come
Keep watching our Philanthropy Potluck Blog for future postings about philanthropic effectiveness, including video conversations with MCF President Trista Harris, Buchanan and other big thinkers.

Like our grantmaker members, MCF is committed to hosting robust conversations within and across sectors . . . because leadership for the 21st century requires honest, provocative discussion.

— Wendy Wehr, MCF vice president of communications and information services




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