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Member Week 2021: Foundation Leader Q&A with Mari Kuraishi

Sunday, December 5, 2021 - 3:30 pm EST
CoF Author Council on Foundations

Mari Kuraishi, Jessie Ball duPont Foundation

Q: What drew you to the field of philanthropy?

A: After decades of working on the edges of philanthropy by making loans to sovereign governments and building up a crowdfunding platform, I had become intrigued by the idea that philanthropy extended private decision-making over the provision of public goods. I was the beneficiary of a fellowship to ponder that question but ultimately was drawn to practice it to fully understand it. That said, I am an accidental philanthropist, much as I was an accidental social entrepreneur and international bureaucrat. I was a political scientist studying the Soviet Union, when I lucked into a job at the World Bank knowing little about international development, but much about Russia. Ultimately, I learned enough about international development to manage business innovation, change management, and corporate strategy for the World Bank. Then, drawn by the promises of the dot-com boom I co-founded GlobalGiving, a global crowdfunding platform connecting nonprofits with the global donor community. So when it was time to leave GlobalGiving, I was drawn to the opportunity with the Jessie Ball duPont Fund. Apart from the desire to actually practice philanthropy and understand its dynamics, I saw in the place-based focus of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund an opportunity to see the needle move.

Q: Collaboration is often the most effective way to tackle key issues and drive sustainable change in philanthropy. Share an example of a successful philanthropic collaboration or partnership that you have been a part of. What issue brought the organizations together? Why was a collaborative approach the right way to approach the issue? What were the results?

A: Quite recently, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund was able to partner with the City of Jacksonville to incorporate public input into what the City could do with the downtown riverfront. There were two reasons our participation in the process was catalytic. First, a number of agencies that had oversight and authority on the riverfront, ranging from the resiliency office, parks and recreation, as well as downtown investment, and our participation in the process allowed us to serve as a facilitator across these agencies without touching off a political question as to which agency should lead. Second, public entities have prescribed ways in which they can interact with and engage with the public, and we as a private foundation could deploy many different approaches and adapt as circumstances dictated to achieve the broadest possible coverage of public opinion. As a result of our collaboration with the city, we have a sound base of quantitative and qualitative data for our public policy decisions.

Q: Reflecting on how COVID-19 and the movement for racial justice have impacted philanthropy, in what ways has the sector changed its approach to work since spring 2020? Share any examples of how your organization changed its operations or strategy.

A: Like many other foundations, we indicated to our grantees that we were ready to be as flexible as they needed us to be: we got pre-approval from trustees to allocate emergency funding, we eliminated restrictions from existing restricted grants, and we sought to make general operating grants more available. But what has lasted in our programming has been an ambitious technical assistance program for grantees focused on improving their skills as digital fundraisers, listening to constituent feedback, building capacity around data and equity, deepening meaningful work around DEI, and achieving organizational transparency. We had wanted to embark on something like this pre-COVID, but the COVID-19 crisis really accelerated this program as a hedge against the speed and magnitude of changes brought on by the pandemic and its knock-on effects. The protests against systemic racism redoubled our commitment to equity, which we had identified as a core direction through a strategy review, we conducted last year. It has also increased the urgency I personally feel around making sure that we are not perpetuating systemic injustices through the patterns and processes of our grantmaking.

Q: How do you think philanthropy can become a more trusted partner in advancing the greater good?

A: Compared to the public sector, with which it shares the obligation and committed to serve the public good, philanthropy has far fewer mechanisms to ensure accountability. So, if trust is an issue, I think it is critical that we undertake concrete steps to hold ourselves accountable to a greater degree of transparency. Perhaps that looks like benchmarking against common standards, though I can see the potential for dispute around those standards. Another is to actively seek feedback, not just from our grantees and partners, but from the individuals and communities we seek to serve. Whether it is to join the thousands of foundations that work with CEP on grantee perception reports, or to work with Feedback Labs to deploy and refine tools to seek continuous feedback from stakeholders, there is a lot we can do just in establishing new operating norms for the field as a whole.

Q: Share one or more ways that your Council on Foundations membership has benefitted your organization.

A: The Council is an important partner in bringing together peers to develop solutions to the common challenges we face - both at a sector level and on behalf of the grantees whose clients we ultimately serve. As a mid-sized foundation in the Southeast, our COF membership has helped deepen connections to other foundations with whom we have only limited opportunities to connect.

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