Career Pathways: Inspirations from Philanthropy
Editor's note: This is part of our blog series featuring current participants in the Career Pathways program. Applications for the 2019 cohort opened in September 5.
Service has always been a part of my life. Regardless of our financial disposition, my family found time to give back to our community. I went to law school because I wanted to effectuate positive social and policy change. At the time, I didn’t realize how many other avenues there were, including philanthropy. As I moved through my career I found myself getting closer to philanthropy – from a private law firm to a corporation to a large private foundation to a community foundation. Looking at this trajectory ex ante, it would appear that I had decided to work in philanthropy early on.
But I did not make a deliberate and educated decision that I wanted to work in philanthropy until I was already in it at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Being there helped me realize that I wanted to work in philanthropy in more than a legal capacity. At GBMF, I was tasked with figuring out how we could be more effective in our tools, vehicles and approaches in philanthropy. This gave me the opportunity to dig deep to help answer the question of how foundations can help make positive change in the world in ways that extend beyond traditional grants. At the time, this included looking at everything from alternative financing models and business structures to having honest discussions about whether foundations’ internally-derived theories of change made any sense if they could not truly be a part of or align a field. It was after that project that I realized the extraordinary opportunity and privilege we have in philanthropy to help inspire, drive and support amazing things to happen in the world.
Philanthropy is really inspiring, in that there are so many people and organizations doing great, great things in their program initiatives. But right now I’m really passionate about impact and mission investing, not because it’s new, but because it seems to have taken much more time to get buy-in from large foundations to, in the words of Nike, “just do it.” Interestingly, I am seeing a more pervasive effort towards impact investments among large financial services institutions that have caught on that the next generation of consumers wants to know that their money is doing good, not only going out of a fund (in terms of a donation or grant), but going into a fund. The irony, of course, is that foundations, which are driven solely by their mission and charitable purposes, are among the later adopters because many were afraid of lesser returns, and the financial services companies that have adopted impact investments into their core offerings did so because they knew it could help drive their profits. So I applaud those in philanthropy who are innovators, early adopters and followers to impact investments, because they are putting their money where their mouths are!
That doesn't mean there isn't room to improve, though. In order to improve philanthropy, we need to really name the unnamed: the scarcity mentality. In philanthropy, this is the idea that in order for a foundation to “succeed,” it must be the leader in a field – it must be the one to save the most X, cure the most Y, have the best theories of change in Z. It’s great to strive for the best, but the problems are plentiful with that mentality. First, it creates a false confidence and dangerous feeling of self-importance that one organization alone can solve some of the world’s oldest and most challenging problems. Second, it creates an artificial and unnecessary sense of competition. When the purpose and the drivers for our work are tainted by ego, the ability to solve the original problem diminishes exponentially. So we can improve our batting average by acknowledging this scarcity mentality; it means having to acknowledge that sometimes an organization could be more effective as a follower or collaborator. It means having the humility and wisdom to know when to ask for help, join forces, or step aside.
People have been engaging in and talking about collective impact in many different ways for a long time. The sooner we can figure out how to work together – truly work together – one to one, one to many, many to many, the better. There have been so many collective funding efforts. The funding part is easy, and it’s never just about money. It’s the “collective” part where I see the most potential for change, growth, inspiration and evolution – alignment of people, goals, movements, and passions such that we’re rowing together. That’s what will catapult philanthropy.
On the Career Pathways Program
As a woman of color and leader in philanthropy, I am humbled to say that Career Pathways (CP) has created even more clarity and focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in philanthropy for me than I thought was possible. In addition to prompting us all to examine who’s at the table (and who is not) and how DEI shows up in our programs and initiatives, CP helped us to take a look within and understand what it means for us as individuals and leaders; to look around us to better understand what it means for our peers and our fields; and to get laser focused and deliberate on the future of our industry and the actionable measures needed today to advance DEI. CP has given not only a cerebral dimension to DEI for me, it has given me a glimpse into the real pathways we need to create and ARE creating every day when we show up as leaders.
I won’t name any one of my peers as being the most inspiring, because they are each so incredible, it would not be fair to exclude any of them! Among our guests, I really enjoyed hearing from David Waldman at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. He has played a unique role both as head of HR but also as a trusted advisor within his foundation among staff, leadership and the board. He provided pragmatic and insightful perspectives on CEO onboarding and transitions and board and staff relations that spans decades of observation and experience.
There was a plethora of good programming and synapse-connection expansion going on in CP! At the end of the day, I know it’s the relationships and networks we’ve developed in the peer cohort that will help us all journey through greatness and challenge in the future.
On Inspiration from Art
For me, it’s not typically the “epic” scenes or passages that are my favorites, but the quietly powerful ones. I read The Song Poet by Kao Kalia Yang, where the author writes her father’s memoir. She recounts her father’s role in the Hmong tradition as a “song poet” – someone who tells the story/history and invokes the ancestral spirits of Hmong people through song. While I am not myself Hmong, the passage in the book describing the Hmong festival in St. Paul, Minnesota – the excitement, hubbub, smells, sounds, food, etc. was really powerful to me because it brought back memories of my own childhood. The cultural events my family went to around our own Vietnamese heritage as recent immigrants was a way to feel the familiar, find others who were “like us,” and experience a little piece of “home” again. I have to think this is a shared experience among so many new generations of immigrants.