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

It’s All About Relationships

February 3, 2015

Allison Johnson

Today we welcome Allison Johnson, one of our new Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellows, who works at Headwaters Foundation for Justice and shares her thoughts on the recent MCF annual meeting.

Many of us had the opportunity to hear Albert Ruesga, president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, speak at the recent MCF annual meeting. Ruesga’s central message to Minnesota’s philanthropic leaders was that the work of philanthropy is all about relationships. As a community organizer and a new Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellow at Headwaters Foundation for Justice, his theme was music to my ears. And sometimes it takes a foundation executive from Louisiana to come to Minnesota in January and tell it like it is.

Albert Ruesga

Albert Ruesga

His presentation showed that many foundations publicly state that they value relationships with peer organizations, their grantees and the communities their grantees serve. At the same time, relationships and the time it takes to foster and maintain them are not often prioritized. How could this be, I wondered, in a progressive-minded state like ours with a strong reputation of working together to achieve the common good?

Ruesga hypothesized that our “Minnesota nice” culture, and even our long winters spent in isolation, might get in the way of making progress together on difficult social issues. We spent time during the meeting offering ideas of why relationships aren’t prioritized: lack of time, leadership changes at the top, competition among foundations to take credit for the work, among others.

One suggestion from the crowd stuck out to me as the most troubling. Someone in the audience offered up the idea that we don’t know how to listen to our grantees, and when we do listen, they may say things we don’t want to hear. Ruesga writes in his “Twenty Five Theses About Foundations” blog post that the biggest challenge to authentic relationship building in philanthropy is that foundations generally do not know how to relate to people and communities they aim to serve.

That assertion stings, right? We’re doing such great work, and yet we have much farther to go. We have so much to learn and gain from building relationships, particularly with people outside the sector of philanthropy who rely on our work to make theirs possible. For example, collaboration among grantees leads to better understanding of mutual issues and trends.

This fall, Headwaters Foundation for Justice will host a summit of our grantees to highlight common themes in the work for racial, economic, environmental and social justice in Minnesota. Hearing directly from our grantees who are leading efforts to engage their  communities in systems-change work will help Headwaters live up to the value of “Do Nothing About Me Without Me” that is at the heart of our grantmaking.

I walked away from the MCF annual meeting challenged and energized to bring my own expertise in relationship-based community organizing to my foundation and to my new peers in this field. It’s my hope that all of us can think of one person, one grantee or one foundation with whom to connect with in the coming year to move the work forward in a relational and transformational way.

– Allison Johnson, 2015 Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellow

2015 Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellows Announced

December 16, 2014

Today MCF announced the 2015 Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellows. The Fellowship, launched as a partnership with the Bush Foundation in 2013, prepares high-potential individuals from underrepresented communities for careers in philanthropy.

Fellows are employed by MCF and placed at participating foundations for three years. This year’s Fellows will join the Bush Foundation, the Headwaters Foundation for Justice or The Minneapolis Foundation, where they will start on January 12, 2015.

“For foundations to remain credible partners, their staff must reflect the shifting diversity of communities,” says Alfonso Wenker, MCF’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion. “These leaders bring strong community relationships that will help position their host sites for the future.”

2015Fellows2Meet the 2015 Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellows:

  • Allison Johnson (pictured, middle) is a community organizer with Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, where she has worked across the Twin Cities to build support for affordable housing and stronger communities. She will join the Headwaters Foundation for Justice.
  • Aya Johnson (right) is currently a community representative in the United States Congress focusing on immigration, foreign affairs, unemployment and outreach to communities of color. She has also served as a domestic violence advocate in St. Cloud and Blaine. She will join the Community Innovation team at the Bush Foundation.
  • Adrian Mack (left) is presently the program and curriculum director of STATURE, a leadership program designed to guide Minneapolis youth toward academic and career success. He also participates in several initiatives to engage the broader African American community. He will join the Bush Foundation’s Community Innovation team.
  • Patrice Relerford (second from right) is now the institutional support coordinator and grantwriter at People Serving People, a family-oriented shelter that provides emergency housing and community services to help homeless families achieve stability and reconnect with the community. She began her career as an education reporter at the Star Tribune and will join the Community Impact team at The Minneapolis Foundation.
  • Avi Viswanathan (second from left) has served as the campaign director for HIRE Minnesota, a campaign working to achieve racial equity in employment. He lives with his family on the East Side of St. Paul where he is engaged in many community activities and has served on the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council. He will join the Leadership Programs team at the Bush Foundation.

“I’ve seen firsthand how poverty and inequality erode communities,” says Fellow Patrice Relerford. “Through this fellowship, I believe I can better understand disparities by asking the tough questions to find solutions. For example, why does our region continue to have such glaring academic achievement, employment and home ownership gaps between whites and people of color?”

About the Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellowship
The Fellowship is dedicated to the late Ron McKinley, a longtime member of the philanthropic and nonprofit communities who embodied justice and equity and worked tirelessly throughout his career to ensure that those from underrepresented communities were afforded equal access, opportunity and the resources necessary to fully participate and be heard.

Applications for the 2016 Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellowship will be open in fall 2015. Learn more at http://www.mcf.org/about/philanthropy-fellowship or contact Alfonso Wenker, MCF’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion, with any questions.

Photo credit: Anna Min, Min Enterprises

Funder Collaboratives Changing Philanthropy as Usual

November 17, 2014
Bill English of the Northside Job Creation Team

Bill English of the Northside Job Creation Team

MCF’s latest edition of Giving Forum is out now! This issue’s feature story focuses on the Northside Funders Group and the Start Early Funders Coalition for Children & Minnesota’s Future, two funder collaboratives sharing information and resources to make a bigger difference in their work.

Northside Funders Group

Tawanna Black of Northside Funders Group shares how the funders working in North Minneapolis embraced FSG’s collective impact model, the first place-based funder collaborative in the country to do so.

“In North Minneapolis in particular, we felt it was critical to have public sector dollars and strategies aligned with philanthropy to get the impact we want,” says Black.

Denise Mayotte and Frank Forsberg

Denise Mayotte and Frank Forsberg

Start Early Funders Coalition for Children & Minnesota’s Future

Frank Forsberg and Denise Mayotte, co-chairs of the Start Early coalition, then explain how the funders in this group decided to come together in 2011 to create a shared vision on moving early childhood efforts forward in Minnesota. Their efforts have resulted in the creation of MinneMinds,a statewide campaign to increase public funding for access to high-quality early care and education programs.

“This is so important because it’s the first meaningful new investment in early childhood education at the state level in 15 to 20 years,” says Forsberg. “And it was only possible because so many partners came together to make a unified ask of the legislature.”

Read On!

When you’ve finished that article, check out the rest of the new issue, with stories on MCF’s new member types, how we’re building philanthropy’s new living room, highlights from our recent Fast Forward interview, and much more!

Make Your Nominations for the 2015 Facing Race Ambassador Award

October 30, 2014

stpf1Do you know someone working tirelessly to end racism? Nominate that person for the Facing Race Ambassador Award!

The Ambassador Award is an annual award made by The Saint Paul Foundation that celebrates and honors the leadership of individuals working toward racial equity.

In 2015, the foundation will name:

  • One award recipient for work focused in the East Metro (Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties).
  • One award recipient for work focused anywhere in Minnesota.
  • Up to three honorable mentions for work focused anywhere in Minnesota.

Head to The Saint Paul Foundation’s website to access the Request for Nominations and online submission form. Nominations are due December 12.

The foundation is also hosting an informational webinar on November 18, where you can learn more about the nomination process. Register for that webinar online.

Learning and Teaching with Fire

October 21, 2014

AIHECYesterday we brought you a post from Kayla Yang-Best focused on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Today we have a post from Kyle Erickson of Blandin Foundation, who attended the same event and shares takeaways from the Tribal Colleges portion. Thank you Kyle!

Native Americans and African Americans have traveled a very different path through time and place in America. One area of shared experience for the two cultures is a history of governmental and societal policies and systems that have resulted in a largely inequitable educational experience for their young people.

Too often, these communities – and their aggregate educational outcomes – are viewed through the lens of an “achievement gap,” or some other well-intentioned but ultimately negative point of view. “Learning and Teaching with Fire: Lessons from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Tribal Colleges (TCUs)” provided a fresh perspective, sharing lessons of significant successes and best practices developed at these minority-serving institutions that can inform and improve education for students from any background.

Tribal College Movement Growing

According to Carrie Billy, director of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), the Tribal College movement has grown from one institution in 1968 to 37 colleges and universities today, comprising 75 campuses that cover 80% of Indian Country and serve nearly 90,000 learners through academic and extension courses. Half of enrolled Native Americans attending college today are at a TCU. With help from these institutions, the number of Native Americans who have earned a post-secondary certificate, diploma or degree has increased almost 250% over the last 20 years.

The list of TCUs includes four in Minnesota, located on the Leech Lake, Red Lake, White Earth, and Fond du Lac reservations. Billy identified significant areas of achievement at TCUs in Minnesota and across the country including:

  • Place-based research that allows TCU students to learn while addressing local and regional problems ranging from diabetes treatment and prevention to aquifer management and alternative agriculture systems.
  • Degree programs that meet community needs, including nursing, teacher education, and indigenous language studies.
  • Creation of a comprehensive data reporting system (AIHEC AIMS) that ensures accountability to communities and funders, and provides a platform for continuous institutional improvement.

The best practices for student success outlined by Billy and other TCU panelists – proactive, “intrusive” academic advising; access to experiential learning and research opportunities with support from caring faculty; wraparound student support services; designation of a go-to staff or faculty person for each student – are a part of the comfortable, familial environment cultivated at TCUs to ease the transition to postsecondary academic and social life. This is especially crucial given the high percentage of tribal college students who are the first in their family to set foot on a college campus.

Overcoming the “High Risk” Label

Dr. Don Day, President of Leech Lake Tribal College, pointed out that these successes have been gained despite daunting challenges. Commonly identified barriers to postsecondary success include being a first-generation college student, coming from a low-income household, being part of a racial/ethnic minority group, receiving inadequate academic preparation in high school, and being a parent while attending college. Nearly all TCU students fall into one or more of the “high risk” categories, and it’s not uncommon for a student to fit all of them, yet these institutions and their students are finding a path to success.

The stories of growth and achievement despite long odds and inadequate funding caught the attention of many attendees including Sen. Patricia Torres-Ray, who called for a statewide conversation to learn more about how to better support the important role Minnesota’s tribal colleges play in our educational ecosystem. If Minnesota aims to take equity in education seriously, that conversation will be the starting point of a larger, deeper body of work that will benefit Native American and non-Native learners alike.

More material from the conference can be found on the Center for School Change website.


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