On November 14, we were thrilled to host the first annual Pacific Foundation Services community gathering, marking the season with a new fall tradition to connect, learn, and celebrate our partnerships in philanthropy with our wonderful client community.

We welcomed a capacity crowd filling the salon space at MoAD (the Museum of the African Diaspora). Aiya Meilani, a Youth Speaks spoken word poet, kicked off the event. She shared a moving performance that set the stage perfectly for our expert panel of speakers to explore the theme of transitions in our industry and the opportunities they present for advancing the greater good.

PFS was honored to host a cross-section of leaders to share their perspectives:

Each panelist shared about the growth, challenges, and lessons learned when facing change in their respective organizations in a discussion moderated by Holly Kernan, Chief Content Officer at KQED. The transitions discussed ranged from leadership changes, to strategic shifts, to navigating and assimilating generational and cultural differences.

Below are some of the highlights, themes, and best practices that emerged throughout the evening.

Listening and Staying Community-Focused

Every professional knows that change brings opportunity, which can stir feelings of excitement and also uncertainty. Our panelists each shared about the experience of stepping into a new role, either after the departure of an esteemed director or at the start of a new era with new leadership. Consistently, the importance of listening, and a willingness to greet the stress of change with an open mind rather than a fixed approach was central to their success. Each of the speakers touched on how these moments of transition uniquely impact leaders of color, referencing the Building Movement Project’s Race to Lead series, which investigates why there are so few leaders of color in the nonprofit sector. (Studies show the percentage of people of color in the executive director/CEO role has remained under 20% for the last 15 years even as the country becomes more diverse.)

When Cristy Johnston Limón assumed the helm at Youth Speaks last spring, she became just the second executive director in the organization’s 24-year history, and she spoke openly about the challenges of trying to “fill the shoes” of founding director James Kass. Her advice? Find mentors, whether on the board, staff, or the sector at large. For Cristy, organizational values also prove an especially vital touchstone during times of change.

For Ruth LaToison Ifill, her first six months at the Council on Foundations (COF) were a master class in listening, flexibility, and willingness to adapt. Transitions, can be an invitation to reexamine—as COF has done—internal structure, operations, and how best to deliver on mission. The process of recruiting new leaders, whether at a nonprofit or a foundation, is also an opportunity to think beyond the compulsory skill set and professional experience of a job description and prioritize on what a prospective leader’s particular background, point of view, and personal experiences will mean for the community beneficiaries of the work. She shared multiple examples from COF member foundations, including that of Nicky Goran, President and CEO of the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, who has reshaped the foundation’s board to better align with the demographics of the people it serves in the Washington DC region, and increased its commitment to supporting nonprofit leaders of color within community-based, community-led organizations.

Embracing Risk and Maintaining Stability

Chávez Quezada wisely cautioned against treating transitions as a taboo subject. As a member of her own family foundation and a philanthropic professional, she affirmed that all transitions inevitably bring uncertainty, while underscoring the restorative value of communication, trust, and openness as balm in turbulent times. When it comes to how we fund change, Chávez Quezada argued for the benefits of “getting a bit uncomfortable.” For philanthropists, one message was clear: when a nonprofit partner is navigating a major transition, multi-year, operational and capacity-building support becomes even more vital.

Some 64% of executive directors will leave their roles in the next 5 years, underscoring the importance of funding transition planning and sustaining support through change. On a local level, Chávez Quezada spoke about the San Francisco Foundation’s work supporting the Latino Leadership Collaborative for Succession Planning, a consortium of veteran nonprofit leaders in San Francisco’s Mission district who are preparing for their own transitions and, with the foundation’s support, convening to develop succession plans to sustain the important community-based work they spearheaded for future generations.

Client Voices

The conversation expanded to include candid accounts from PFS clients and staff. Amanda Peiffer, president of the Pinpoint Foundation, spoke about the process she went through in establishing a grantmaking program for rape crisis centers, an area that is traditionally underfunded by private foundations, and underscored the importance of building trust among grantees in that community. Compelled by the cause, Pinpoint re-thought and simplified its reporting guidelines and followed a grantee-centered funding approach to meet the needs of the rape crisis centers head on.

Sand Hill Foundation president and co-founder Susan Ford Dorsey shared about the abrupt  and emotional transition she faced after the sudden loss of her spouse and foundation co-founder, Tom Ford, in the late ‘90s. She spoke about embracing agility as a core value, which helped her navigate the ongoing evolution of the foundation’s work and the pride she feels remaining grounded to their founding vision while also responding to the changing needs in her community today.

Even the oldest institutions face moments of change. As VP of Program Judi Powell explained, the Bothin Foundation, founded in 1917, is engaged in bringing the fifth generation of family members into the giving process, infusing the foundation with new perspectives, even as they affirm their shared commitments and timeless family bonds.

We’re grateful to all who joined us for our event, Transitions in Philanthropy: Finding Opportunity in Change, and we look forward to our next annual community gathering in fall 2020.

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