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
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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


Meet MCF’s New Board Officers and Directors

January 27, 2015

40085dc0-3f12-4268-95d1-d514dddec371The Minnesota Council on Foundations elected new board officers and directors at our annual meeting at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts on January 22.

Officers elected for 2015 are:

  • Brad Kruse, philanthropy director, Hugh J. Andersen Foundation, board chair;
  • June Noronha, senior manager, Native Nations Team, Bush Foundation, vice chair;
  • JoAnn Birkholz, foundation director, Medica Foundation, secretary; and
  • Steve Joul, president, Central Minnesota Community Foundation, treasurer.

Brad Kruse

June Noronha

JoAnn Birkholz

Steve Joul

New directors elected to three-year terms ending in 2017 are:

  • Sarah Duniway, trustee, Gray Plant Mooty Foundation;
  • Frank Forsberg, senior vice president of systems change and innovation, Greater Twin Cities United Way;
  • Aretha Green-Rupert, program officer, Otto Bremer Foundation; and
  • Judson McNeil, president, The Toro Company Giving Program and The Toro Foundation.

Directors elected to second three-year terms ending in 2017 are:

  • Brad Kruse, philanthropy director, Hugh J. Andersen Foundation;
  • Gary Nan Tie, trustee, Jerome Foundation; and
  • Tim Thorpe, trustee, James R. Thorpe Foundation.

Congratulations to all!



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


Fast Forward: Chris Cardona on Accessible Philanthropy

October 7, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 12.09.07 PMThe newest episode of MCF’s Fast Forward podcast featuring big thinkers in philanthropy is up!

In this episode, Alfonso Wenker sits down with Chris Cardona of TCC Group. They kick off their discussion with the three levels of accessible philanthropy Chris has seen grantmakers employ:

  1. Consult stakeholders about their decisions
  2. Integrate these communities into the decision-making process
  3. Get community involvement in the initial design process
Chris Cardona

Chris Cardona

The two go on to discuss the best entry point into this culture of accessibility, getting buy-in from leadership, and why equity and inclusion are such important concepts in discussions about diversity.

Listen to the podcast now! Then subscribe on iTunes or plug the RSS feed into the program of your choice.

Grantmakers, if you like what you hear, be sure to join us October 31 for Today’s Realities | Tomorrow’s Opportunities, MCF’s annual conference. Chris Cardona is one of the several prominent local and national speakers you’ll interact with throughout the day!


The McKnight Foundation Seeks Your Input

September 26, 2014
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Kate Wolford of The McKnight Foundation

MCF member The McKnight Foundation is getting ready to revisit and refresh its Strategic Framework for 2015-2017, and is asking for outside perspectives as it charts its course.

In a blog post on its website, McKnight president Kate Wolford outlines the key foundation-wide strategies the foundation used to guide its work in 2012-2014:

  • Bring the foundation’s vantage point as a regional or place-based funder into national networks.
  • Strengthen McKnight’s influence with a knowledge management system.
  • Leveraging converging interests to create multiple bottom-line benefits.
  • Deepen impact and influence through program supportive approaches such as mission-related investing.

She shares that the internal consensus at The McKnight Foundation is not to start from scratch, but to identify trends relevant to McKnight’s that it can incorporate over the coming three years.

Do you have thoughts on what key trends McKnight should consider? Or on what issues the foundation will be particularly well suited to help advance?

Head over to The McKnight Foundation’s website to read more on Kate Wolford’s description of how its current Framework came to be, and to leave the foundation feedback in a comment or by email.


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