Tara McKenzie Sandercock's 2021 Distinguished Service Award Acceptance Remarks

Monday, December 13, 2021 - 2:30 pm
CoF Author Council on Foundations

2021 Distinguished Service Award 

Council on Foundations


Remarks by Tara McKenzie Sandercock

Thank you to the Council and the selection committee for bestowing this honor upon me.  Since learning last week of my selection, I’ve reflected with a strong sense of gratitude for all my partners and a myriad of unforgettable experiences. These reflections fill me with optimism for the future of community philanthropy, and I’d like to share a bit of that with you today.  My experience is grounded in forming alliances, and that is indeed how I see the way forward as we face the challenges in our communities.

When I was starting out my career at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Early Adolescence, I was honored to work closely with some amazing foundation program directors. I came to realize that there was a pathway here – a way to become a professional in philanthropy. I was led along the way by Susan Wisely, Joan Lipsitz, Leah Austin, Gayle Williams, Linetta Gilbert (who first showed me the magic of community foundations!), George Penick, and Leslie Lilly.

What a talented group of role models they made!

One day George Penick, who was serving on the Council Board at the time, called me out of the blue and asked “Tara, are you movable?”  A few months later we were living in DC and I began an incredible journey with the Council on Foundations. During my five years at the Council, the field was exploding – it was more like ten years of developments crammed into five! I managed the Council’s conference planning processes for community, family, corporate, and private foundations. It was an exciting time, but a different time. For example, I recall a group of us dreaming up something called a “Cyber Café” – a place with lots of computers set up for members to learn how to use the internet and keep in touch with home base while away.  Those were the days before we all carried around our computers in our pockets.

And all those wonderful conference sessions! It seemed like every other one was about national/local funding partnerships – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Little did I know that those learnings would influence the rest of my career.

Along the way, I benefitted from the collective wisdom of philanthropic leaders, including Jim Joseph, David Dodson, Diana Campoamor, Winsome Hawkins, Denise Cavanagh, Nancy Cunningham, Janis Richardson, and Donna Rader. All were inspirational teachers. Previous honorees of this award became superheroes to me!  

Thank you, Council on Foundations, for precious moments and platforms.  One that definitely stands out was when Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum, the Guatemalan human rights activist, gave her keynote speech. It was an act of courage as she was living under heavy security and receiving death threats. It the only time I ever saw the staff of a conference hotel crowd into the back of the plenary room to listen in.  Her remarks were deeply inspirational. 

But I want to hold up the most transformative guidance I received in those days, which has carried me through my entire career. Paul Ylvisaker set forth fundamental truths in his classic publication called “Small Can Be Effective.” In this invaluable guide, Ylvisaker describes 20 strategies for being effective in philanthropy. He includes grantmaking, to be sure -- but also techniques like convening, lending, investing, advocating, leveraging, collaborating, “gadflying,” and many others.  You can learn more about his work in Ginny Esposito’s book, Conscience & Community: The Legacy of Paul Ylvisaker.

Next time you’re doodling on your notepad, see if you can list out the 20 ways to be an effective grantmaker. It will stretch your thinking as you ponder how to proceed on a project or tackle a new challenge. It will help you think beyond the grant check. This is really important in a community foundation – or any foundation really -- where you may not have as many flexible programmatic dollars as you would like to deploy on community challenges. Truthfully, there is never enough funding to support all the good ideas and innovative solutions. So, it’s critical to work on ways to leverage resources – where everyone contributes something.

When I started looking for a Foundation post, my friend Scott Wierman connected me with a job in Greensboro. Shortly thereafter, I moved to the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro in the heart of North Carolina. Here I’ve had the rather unique opportunity to apply the things I learned through osmosis in all those Council conference sessions.

You know, author James Fallows wrote an article called “11 Signs that Your City Will Succeed”.  One of those key signs is that you can pick out the local patriots.  Now, “patriot” can be a bit of a loaded term these days, but as Jim described it, the “Local Patriots” are the ones who make the city move – who love their city and make things happen for the good. I have lived this from Day 1 on the job – trying to support the local patriots.

On my first day, our then-President Worth Durgin asked me to deliver a document to a community leader who lived in one of Greensboro’s public housing communities.       

It was exactly the right start.            

Deborah and I sat together in her living room drinking tea as she schooled me on nuances of community organizing in our fair city and the history of civil rights in our area. I learned a lot that day - about being “in community” and about the value of relationships. This shaped the entire arc of my work as a grantmaker.

I have loved being part of a dynamic Community Foundation and working with organizers, family foundations, fundholders and donors, nonprofit and civic leaders, faith leaders, elected officials, and municipal staff – all to try to go farther together, farther than any one of us could go alone. Working with donors to help them achieve their philanthropic vision is a rewarding laboratory of servant leadership.

Paul Ylvisaker’s framework of strategies became the infrastructure of our Foundation’s work over these 25 years. Through grants, convenings, impact investments, intercity visits, commissioned research, and collaborative programming – and sometimes “gadflying” – we have worked persistently toward the goal of an equitable and caring community – one that is informed with the best knowledge from the field.           

At last count, we’ve taken part in 15 national/local partnerships, ranging in topics from HIV/AIDS with the National AIDS Fund and affordable housing with Ford Foundation, to capacity building for Latino-led nonprofits with Hispanics in Philanthropy, to increased funding for LGBTQ-serving organizations with Funders for LGBTQ Issues, to innovative urban development with Forward Cities.  I’ve seen all these partnerships as two-way streets – learning and leveraging together.

In parallel, we created local collaboratives focused on nonprofit capacity building, disaster relief, neighborhood development, social capital, interfaith relations, affordable housing, education, and youth philanthropy.  

I vividly recall developing our first local collaborative. For the first time, our group of local foundations explored the idea of “pooling” funds as opposed to simply aligning support. We acknowledged our common interest in cultivating grassroots leadership and strengthening neighborhoods. We gradually set aside our unique Foundation requirements (no small feat!) and built our common vision. At the time, I think we put something like 40,000 in our pot.  This resulted in Building Stronger Neighborhoods – a grants and technical assistance program now celebrating its 20th year. Long-term inequities and deep community problems require long-term commitment and investment.  

An outcome of forming that first, relatively small dollar fund was that not long afterwards, that same group of foundations created a $37 million collaborative to address economic concerns.  Creating that first collaborative gave us the confidence to build the larger one. And the tradition continues. The Guilford Nonprofit Consortium, a mutual aid association of 250 nonprofit organizations, is a thriving, vibrant network supported by a collaborative of ten Foundations.

I have a multitude of gifted people to thank for guiding me to this pivotal point in my life.

  • I mentioned my mentors earlier: Each of you has shaped my approach, fueled my courage. Thank you for believing in me.
  • As a Community Foundation, we inherently care about all of the issues that our fundholders and the community care about. What a blessing it is to have Affinity Groups and Regional Associations that cover all the bases. 
  • From Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, HIP, Funders for LGBTQ Issues, Grantmakers in Aging, ABFE, NC Network of Grantmakers, CFLeads, Pronet...I have been guided by you all.
  • My gratitude for my circle of brilliant community of partners and my talented staff teams over time is deep. You make daily life a joy, even through the challenges. And certainly, I am grateful for my 22-year partnership with Walker Sanders, our President, who has given me insight, the license to lead, and a super example of how to be a local patriot.
  • I’ve had a 25-year love affair with Greensboro – its civil rights history and present-day innovations in equity, its relatively flat hierarchy of community leadership, its vibrant cultural mosaic, its culture of generosity and caring donors, its natural beauty, its strengths and its flaws. I thank the 25 years of Foundation Board Members for the honor of serving.
  • I also wish to thank my husband Steve and son Jeremy for happily letting me drag you to charity dinners, arts events, grant award ceremonies, cultural festivals, and every other type of community event you can imagine.  Thank you not only for your support, but also for the daily “intel” I garner from your work in education and supporting families experiencing homelessness.  It’s a reality check and source of inspiration.

In closing, I would like to leave you with a few nuggets that have guided me through my career in community philanthropy. I started out with ten, but you’ll be glad to know I boiled it down to three.

1. Listen in a way that infuses your work.

Sounds simple, but it requires diligence and constant efforts to humbly cast the net widely. Ask a lot of questions.  Write down everything.  Incorporate those answers.

2. Act inclusively with equity in the forefront.

Think: How do we apply an equity lens in every aspect of grantmaking and community leadership?

3. Embody respect of different opinions. 

Find the common ground of passion and love of community and start there. Go to things. Sit down next to people you don’t know and talk with them.

These may sound obvious, but many lose sight of these essentials. Whether you are giving away a hundred thousand or a hundred million dollars, I have found that these are cornerstones of being an effective collaborator. 

Thank you again for this honor. It means more to me than I can possibly say. Thank you for believing in the value of community philanthropy and the miracle of community foundations.  

Thank you.

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