By Phillip Henderson, President and Jocelyn Downie, Chairperson
We both arrived at Surdna—to philanthropy, really—at nearly the same time seven years ago. Jocelyn joined the board in 2007, a few months before Phil was appointed president. Together we have learned the power, peculiarity, and possibility of philanthropy, and have shared a journey to push Surdna toward even greater impact. We are entering a new chapter with Jocelyn having taken over as board chairperson in late 2013 as Surdna enters a phase emphasizing the implementation of our program strategies. The refined strategies we introduced 18 months ago are beginning to yield some exciting lessons. It feels like the foundation is now in a catalytic phase as we begin to realize our enormously ambitious goal of fostering just and sustainable communities.
Three years ago, we developed an internal road map that has helped guide change at the foundation. That road map has steered us toward strengthening our collaborative culture. It has kept us focused on sharing ideas across programs, and among staff and board. And as we work toward Surdna’s mission, it has underscored the value of collective wisdom so that we can become smarter, more strategic grant makers.
When we initiated our strategic “rethink,” one of our principal tasks was to realign our program teams so that their work was complementary. Surdna’s integrated programs reflect our understanding of how the culture, economy, and environment of sustainable communities exist in the real world. But doing this was complicated and required staff to pause and think carefully about their current work, and the work they want to do. And it reinforced their determination to work collaboratively with each other, and with other funders, institutions, leaders, and communities.
This rethinking process culminated in 2012 and 2013 with the roll out of Surdna’s refined program strategies. But it’s really been in the past 18 months or so that these strategies have come to life and begun to yield new ideas and insights to help make us more effective grant makers. This “roll out” coincided with the addition of several new staff positions based on our belief that Surdna’s impact is directly tied to our ability to move ideas—not just money—to those who are making change in the world. Adding four new program officers also entailed some risk, including the possibility that so many new faces at once might upset rather than deepen the institutional culture. But we have emerged stronger than ever.
We have done a great deal of work to understand what makes Surdna effective, and that introspection helped identify the culture deeply embedded in our organization as a vital piece of what makes us the Surdna Foundation. Starting with our board and extending through the staff, Surdna has built a culture of cooperative action, of honest reflection, and the willingness to talk with one another. We value conversations about what’s not going well, not just what is. As the institution has evolved over the past few years, including the addition of new board and staff members, our attention to preserving and celebrating these aspects of Surdna’s culture has been critically important. We continue to value the authentic, collegial, and vibrant board-staff interaction, and believe our success depends on its continued cultivation.
Over the past 18 months, as our newly refined programs have hit their stride, we are energized by a number of the experiments that are yielding results, ideas that are spreading, and the real-time learning we are engaged in with our grantees.
Surdna’s Sustainable Environments program has pressed forward with its vision of a next generation, integrated approach to urban infrastructure. This vision of the interconnectedness and potential environmental and economic benefits of the country’s structures for transportation, food, storm water, and energy seems to have captured the imagination of elected officials, community leaders, and our nonprofit partners. While we knew that work in these various fields was charged with innovation and early momentum, we have been surprised by the advanced and innovative thinking of groups translating this vision into cities with a new look and feel.
In our Strong Local Economies work, we have been astonished by the rapid transformation of some key policy debates in the past year, with the fight for increasing the minimum wage topping the list. We have seen how critical our funding has been to supporting business practices that can—and have—produced middle-income jobs for low-income communities and communities of color. And to reorient the conversation toward quality jobs, we have also focused on policy interventions and innovative uses of capital.
In our Thriving Cultures work, we have been advancing the notion that art is not simply a “nice to have” addition to communities, but an essential investment in a community’s social, cultural and economic well-being. As we think about the arts and culture sector in an expansive way, we are focusing on the vital role artists and arts organizations can play in reflecting both our shared narratives as well as our distinctive cultural identities. Our work related to artists and art-based small businesses is particularly exciting as it supports the positive economic impact that artists and culture bearers have within their communities. And, we are seeing the multiple benefits to communities when they are authentically engaged by artists and architects in the design of the physical places that surround them.
But perhaps most exciting has been the thought we have given to the meaning of social justice in our work. When Surdna adopted its current mission, we did not fully appreciate the transformative power of our commitment to the principles of social justice in our pursuit of sustainable communities. Since then, we have transformed our portfolios to reflect that social justice commitment. Our programming is now more attuned to the needs of communities that have not historically had access to the levers of power, or whose voices about the shape of their own communities have not been heard. We have reaffirmed the centrality of social justice in our work, and look forward to continuing to learn about and invest in this way of grant making.
The issues that we wrestle with are complex and urgent, and we are eager to see progress. But as a foundation, we realize progress requires patience and a long-term view. We think we are asking many of the right questions about our communities’ environmental, economic and cultural concerns, but we recognize that it’s still too soon to expect answers.
During the next year we intend to become even better at learning from our grantees’ work. We believe we are on the right track toward fostering just and sustainable communities. But we have to challenge this belief by constantly questioning our effectiveness. Are we truly getting the highest social change return on our investments? Are there better, more effective alternatives? We will get closer to an answer only if we are tireless in our asking.
To contribute to the thinking, leadership, policy change, and community growth necessary to foster just and sustainable communities is difficult. But we remain optimistic that in partnership with others, we can succeed over time.
Phillip Henderson, President
Jocelyn Downie, Chairperson