by Phillip Henderson | President, Surdna Foundation

autumn tree

Dear Friends,

Perhaps it’s because I have three teenagers at home and the rhythms of school are still very much present in my household. Or maybe it’s the welcome arrival of cool, crisp autumn air, but the Tuesday after Labor Day always feels to me like the start of a new year.

Staff have come to expect that our first post-Labor Day meeting will inevitably include my reflections on the year that was, and the year ahead.  At the Surdna Foundation, September also brings our first quarterly board meeting of the fiscal year. So it’s a great time for us to take stock of where we’ve been and where we’re going. 

A year ago at this time, we were just launching our revised program strategies, building on the momentum of what had been a deep—and exhilarating—focus on fostering just and sustainable communities in the United States.  A year on, we are well into the work. The program strategies, that 12 months ago existed only on paper, are now truly alive.

When I say “alive,” it’s really not an overstatement. We came into this phase of our work with the understanding that whatever our strategies—whether about accelerating the creation of businesses owned by minorities or women, or about determining how best to work with communities tointegrate local priorities, values and concernsto design public spaces that are not only beautiful and lasting, but reflective of the deep culture of the communities themselves—we would learn as we go. 

It was critical that we not be beholden to strategies developed in a place and time, but that we allow our work to evolve. That evolution would be based on what we learn from our partners and grantees who are working on the ground, trying to address real—not theoretical—problems. And that’s exactly what we are seeing: real time learning, adjusting our thinking and our investments to respond to that learning.

We had some terrific guests at our September Board Meeting to continue this real-time learning. Beth Sawin, Co-Director of Climate Interactive led a discussion about urban storm water management. She also shared with us an early prototype of a powerful infrastructure decision support tool that will be piloted in partnership with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District to conduct simulated green infrastructure investments. Simulations will help local officials and citizens make better decisions about storm water management that should lead to financial savings, good jobs, beautiful neighborhoods and greater resilience to extreme weather. When the tool is fully up and running, the hope is that it will revealthe social, environmental, and cost benefits of choosing smart (and green) infrastructure solutions, and prevent taxpayers from spending billions more on yesterday’s technology, i.e., mostly massive concrete pipes!

We also welcomed Holly Sklar, Director of Business for Shared Prosperity, who engaged us in a spirited discussion around efforts to increase the federal minimum wage as well as the patchwork efforts to increase local and state minimum wages over the past decade. Holly’s group is made up of owners of small- and medium-size businesses who believe raising the minimum wage makes good business sense. These business owners argue that workers are also customers, and minimum wage increases boost sales at local businesses as workers buy goods and services they couldn’t afford before. And, they believe nothing drives job creation more than consumer demand. Holly said that businesses also see cost savings from lower employee turnover and benefit from increased productivity, product quality, and customer satisfaction.

Surdna has made some initial bets in this area, seeing an increase in the minimum wage and its knock-on positive effects as critical to advancing our strategy around increasing access to quality jobs for people living in economically marginalized communities. In fact, on the wage front, the U.S. Department of Labor last week announced that, as of January 1, 2015, federal minimum wage and overtime protections will be extended to two million home care workers, who were not previously covered by the law. Our grantees, including the National Employment Law Project,Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance have been fighting for this coverage for some time.

Aaron Dorfman of the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) also joined us, as did and Carol Bebelle, Co-Founder of the New Orleans-based Ashé Cultural Arts Center.Carol founded Ashé to use art and culture to foster human development, civic engagement and economic justice in the African-American community. She’s an extraordinary leader who has helped us sharpen our conversations about what it means toembed social justice in our work, and how that affects the organizations we fund.

Aaron is well-known within the philanthropy world for his fierce determination to get more funders to target grant dollars to address the needs of underserved communities. He shared some of NCRP’s progress on coalescing funders around efforts aimed at creating a more equitable, just, and democratic world.

Of course, as proud as we are of the work we’re funding at Surdna, we are ever aware of the principle of humility around which our founder John E. Andrus established this foundation nearly 100 years ago. Mr. Andrus understood that even with tremendous effort, smart ideas, persistence, and generous financial resources, progress cannot be guaranteed. And, that even important advances may not be lasting. So we approach our work with humility and are continually reminded by the legacy of our founder that it is the remarkable work of our grantees and partners that moves us toward just and sustainable communities.  

Thanks to all of you for being with us in this important work. We look forward to helping you make a difference in the year ahead.


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Fostering sustainable communities in the United States — communities guided by principles of social justice and distinguished by healthy environments, strong local economies, and thriving cultures.