The following is a conversation between Jim Canales, the President of The Barr Foundation, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer.
Denver: No matter what the field of endeavor, we all enjoy watching organizations take shape, emerge, grow and evolve into something that increases their effectiveness and impact. There’s a foundation based in Boston that fits that description to a tee. It’s The Barr Foundation. And it is fortunate to be led by one of the most capable individuals in the field of philanthropy, and he just happens to be with us now. He is Jim Canales, the President of The Barr Foundation.
Good evening, Jim, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Jim: Good evening, Denver and thanks so much for having me.
Denver: Tell us about The Barr Foundation, your mission and goals.
Jim: The Barr Foundation has been around for about 20 years. We have assets of $1.7 billion, and we grant approximately $80 million a year in the areas of arts & creativity and climate and education.
Denver: The evolution of The Barr Foundation, at least for me, has been a fascinating thing to watch. It started out as sort of an anonymous giving entity, and it evolved into a family foundation, and now it has become a professional operation and a major legacy foundation. Tell us about that journey, Jim, and some of the challenges along the way.
Jim: The foundation was created by two individuals who are enormously generous and strategic about the kind of impact they want to have. Amos and Barbara Hostetter created the foundation 20 years ago. Amos was one of the co-founders of Continental Cable Vision, and that’s what led to the opportunity to create the foundation.
The foundation has grown over time from that initial gift to, as I said earlier, $1.7 billion in assets. And the foundation did start anonymously. It began anonymously because Barbara and Amos felt very strongly that it was important to focus on the work and not to focus on the foundation itself. And that’s evolved over time. And interestingly enough, part of the reason that it has evolved has been feedback from the grantees of the foundation. Many of whom said to The Barr Foundation almost a decade ago, that it was actually better for them to be able to be public about where the funds were coming from, that the foundation had achieved a certain kind of reputation in the community as a thoughtful grantmaker, and that being anonymous was not necessarily serving them well. And that, I think, was a pivot for the foundation.
Now, I arrived in 2014, so I’ve only been there for about 3 &1/2 years, and in that time, there’s a lot that we have done, and there’s a lot more that we have to do.
Denver: Oh, I bet. I bet. But that’s good to have co-founders who listen. And they listened, and they acted on that listening. You mentioned a moment ago, you have three major program areas. I’m going to ask you to say a word or two about each one.
The first is Arts & Creativity. Lots of things going on here like Boston Creates. What’s your overarching goal for your Arts & Creativity program?
Jim: Arts & Creativity is focused on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. So originally, the arts program had a focus on Boston, and as part of a strategic planning effort that we went through a couple of years ago, we made the decision that Barr was going to take a more regional approach to its grantmaking. And within that, we decided that Arts & Creativity would become a statewide program. And our focus is: How do we create and foster a creative, vibrant, cultural and artistic community for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts?
And we focused on three principal areas. One is: How do we invest in arts organization so that they can become adaptive and relevant, given so many changes that are going on around them– which I’m happy to get into. We also focus on ways that the arts can connect with other sectors in ways that ultimately contribute to that vibrancy that I described a moment ago. And then we also focus on ways to build advocacy on behalf of the arts.
Denver: Arts have really become a key driver in urban renewal, haven’t they?
Jim: They have. And in fact, we’ve seen a lot of that in the Commonwealth. One of our partnerships is with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and we focus on ways that we might revitalize certain cities that have suffered significant changes because of changes in industry… and ways that certain spaces that lie fallow could be revitalized and used for creative purposes. And so, this is one of the partnerships that we’ve been engaged in the last number of years, and we see it as a hopeful sign. Think about ways that you can repurpose these old mills, these old buildings, these old factories to foster the kind of creativity and the kind of entrepreneurship that I think will help these cities to turn things around.
Denver: Great stuff. Second program is around Climate. Now, we sometimes don’t think of a locally-focused organization doing something on climate, but that would not be the case. And part of your focus there is around an initiative called What’s the strategy here?
Jim: The strategy for that evolved from a decision that was made about seven years ago. The foundation had had a broad-based environment program up until that time. And in 2010, the foundation trustees made the decision that it was evident that climate change was one of the most urgent and pressing issues of our time. And as a result, that the environment program should shift into a climate program. And in deciding how to focus the climate program, they looked at: What were the greatest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the region? And they were buildings and transportation. And so, that’s what led to a focus on energy and on transportation as two core areas of focus.
We did that work for about five years, and as part of a planning effort that we undertook a couple of years ago, we shifted to a focus on clean energy and renewables and then a focus on mobility. So, what we think about with our Mobility focus is how we can achieve two things: How we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and at the same time, focus on how we help people to get where they need to get in a more efficient and effective way.
Denver: Human-centered designed to a certain degree. It’s around people.
Jim: It’s very true.
Denver: And finally, there is education. And your concentration here is around secondary schools and your desire to see that all students succeed. What is working there? And what are you especially excited about these days?
Jim: So, I think your emphasis on all students is absolutely right. And many people across the country look at the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and say, “Wow, Massachusetts is a real success story.” Across many indices, Massachusetts is often at the top in terms of student achievement and in terms of other measures that we use to assess academic achievement.
But underneath that data, you come to realize that it may not be that excellent for all students. And that’s what led us to focus on ways that we can think about re-envisioning secondary education in ways to create more relevant experiences for students when they’re in high school, in ways that help them to connect to both postsecondary and career opportunities, and also in ways that perhaps personalize the experience. To realize that every student comes at this from a different perspective and with a different set of competencies. And if we can reimagine the way we deliver secondary education in a way that acknowledges the need for that kind of personalization, we can really make a significant difference for those students, particularly those who are at greatest risk of dropping out.
Denver: Can you give us an example of one of the things that you are supporting?
Jim: Sure. So, one of the things that we’re most excited about that we launched last year, is a $30 million initiative over the next five years that is particularly focused on helping those students who are off track. And off-track students are those who are at greatest risk of being disconnected from either their academic tracks or even disconnected from work, to the extent they’re not in school. And so, our effort is: How can we create models that are effective at engaging students who are off track, that help them to be successful in those academic environments, and to create pathways for them to connect to postsecondary education or to career opportunities, if that’s what’s relevant for them?
Denver: And one last, and maybe relatively new program area, if you will, is this Cross- Program Initiative. How does that work? And what has the yield been from it so far?
Jim: It’s early-going for us in terms of Cross-Program Initiatives. And let me say a little bit about its genesis. We have these three program areas. We’re structured as many foundations are with these subject matter areas and fields that we focus on, Arts & Creativity, and Climate and Education. But we also thought long and hard in our strategic planning effort about ways that we could engage in activities that might, in essence, undergird all of that.
So, one of the areas of focus in Cross Program Initiatives is around leadership. And so, we think not only about strategies that we can employ within our programs that advance the leadership capacity of organizations that we are supporting, but we also think about other initiatives that we might undertake. For example, we have had since 2005 a program called The Barr Fellows Program. And The Barr Fellowship provides a great opportunity for about a dozen effective leaders in the Boston area. We award these fellowships every two years, and we provide these dozen leaders with an opportunity to engage with one another, engage with a peer cohort… for an opportunity to disengage from their day-to-day work by providing them with a sabbatical experience, an opportunity to do a global trip together so that they can understand how some of the issues that they work on in the region actually play out in other settings. And it’s a two-year opportunity that really does create a sense of fellowship for these leaders. And we often find that for leaders who are really committed, really passionate, and really dedicated, they often don’t take the time to take care of themselves and to think about their own ongoing growth and development. And that’s the purpose of the program.
Denver: That’s so needed, and it is so important. You mentioned a moment ago, The Barr Foundation is deeply committed to the greater Boston area, and now the whole New England region. And I don’t think anywhere is that more evident than your engagement around one of the region’s treasures… and that’s the Boston waterfront. Share with our listeners what is happening with it and the role The Barr Foundation is playing in connection with this civic enterprise.
Jim: So, I suspect that many of your listeners will recall the infamous project from several decades ago known as The Big Dig because it received a lot of national attention because it was a significant infrastructure project, as you know.
Denver: That lasted several decades.
Jim: That lasted several decades, and as you know, depressed a central artery to create an opportunity for better mobility, of course. But perhaps, most importantly, to also think about ways to connect the city to the waterfront.
One of the abiding concerns that we have about the waterfront… and the reason that we’re engaged in it… is that we think of Barr’s role as adopting a long-term perspective. And thinking about how decisions that we make today are going to have an impact for future generations. And in Boston, there has been significant development that has taken place in an area that was known as the innovation district, variably South Boston. It has multiple names that are often attached to it, the Seaport. But this is an area that has undergone significant growth over the last number of years. And lots of buildings have popped up, and many people will say that it’s a neighborhood that now looks very different than it did a decade ago.
Our concern has been: What are we doing to ensure that the waterfront remains a treasure that we are stewarding? And remains a treasure that is attentive to issues of open space, that is attentive to issues of access for all residents and visitors to Boston, and also attentive to issues of resiliency? And I’ll come back to that point in a moment because it’s a real issue for us in Boston, given our location.
Denver: I bet.
Jim: So, the waterfront initiative is our effort to ensure that we’re helping the city and the broader region think about how we ensure that this treasure is something that we steward in the right ways, and that we’re not making decisions today that are going to have a bad impact for future generations.
And with Mayor Walsh’s arrival, it has offered an opportunity for Boston to think in new and fresh and different ways. And he kicked off for the first time in 50 years a major city-wide planning effort, to think about: what do we want Boston to look like in 2030? An effort entitled Imagine Boston 2030.
Denver: So many people today believe that the future is being created in cities, and not so much anymore at the state or the national level. And foundations like yours are playing a more active and energetic role across the country. I think two great examples would be Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh and Kresge in Detroit. How do you see the role of philanthropy in foundations changing in this regard? And what, in addition to the resources you can bring, are you bringing to the table?
Jim: So, many people have written that cities are a really fundamental agent of change in this era. And in fact, given our focus on climate, many people will look at the work that we do and say, “Well, you’re addressing such a large issue, and it’s a global issue, and there’s probably not a lot that you can do in a regional way.” But the reality is many people say that on the climate question, a lot of the action is happening at the local level, cities and states, and that’s why we engage in that way.
I think for us in Boston, we have a great opportunity, as a foundation, to be a constructive partner to the city of Boston on a number of initiatives where we have shared goals and we are aligned with regard to our priorities. Boston has had a new mayor for the last 3 &1/2 years.
Jim: Mayor Walsh, who inherited the legacy of Mayor Menino, who had been there for two decades in that role. And with Mayor Walsh’s arrival, it has offered an opportunity for Boston to think in new and fresh and different ways. And he kicked off for the first time in 50 years a major city-wide planning effort, to think about: what do we want Boston to look like in 2030? An effort entitled Imagine Boston 2030. There are a number of components of that project that we were involved in directly because we felt that philanthropy could play a unique role to ensure that this kind of planning was done with the kind of thoroughness and with the level of community engagement that the mayor was deeply committed to, and that we knew was going to produce a better outcome than simply having this be a top-down plan that had been developed.
So, for us, the ability to work in partnership with the city, to think about ways that we can be constructive partners together, to acknowledge that no single sector is going to have a monopoly on all of the solutions. These are tough issues, and they’re going to require multiple sectors coming together to address them, and that’s the role that we want to play.
Denver: Your involvement with City Hall, I think, is probably welcomed by most people. But, like all things, not by all. Has there been any pushback for the level of influence that you have at City Hall? And how do you react to that pushback?
Jim: Well, there has been. There’ve been stories that have talked about The Barr Foundation being a source of unelected power in Boston. And my response to that is: I think we view our role not as trying to drive any particular kind of outcome, but rather as insuring that we’re informing the work that is taking place at the city in a way that, again, is broad-based in a way that brings many voices to the table, in a way that ensures that good data and research is informing decisions that might be made, and in a way that is consistent with our values and the kinds of goals that we have for the foundation.
I think, in philanthropy, we are often balancing many kinds of tensions.
Denver: I had Derek Rapp, the CEO of the JDRF Foundation on the show the other day. And I never really fully appreciated how difficult it was for somebody with Type 1 diabetes to keep things in balance. You’ve got to keep the sugar not too high, not too low, and the environment around you is always in a state of flux–whether it’s your hormones… or stress… or the amount of exercise. Now, I’m not comparing what you do to that, but balance in your work is critical, and it can be really difficult to achieve. What are some of the tensions that you experience in doing that? And what do you do to maintain the healthy balance?
Jim: I love the analogy about balance. It’s such a good one, and I think then the way you frame it around tensions is so appropriate to the work that we do in foundations. I think, in philanthropy, we are often balancing many kinds of tensions. One example is: we often think about the focus on outcomes. And as you know, there’s been such an emphasis over the last decade-plus on foundations needing to be more focused on outcomes, on the need for logic models and theories of change.
And that’s a lot of jargon that essentially speaks to the importance of being clear about what we’re trying to do with our resources. And at the same time, we also think about philanthropy as being the risk capital for the social sector, and the opportunity to invest in ideas that are innovative, that are perhaps going to fail. And sometimes, those come into tension with one another because if you’re solely focused on a particular kind of outcome, and in fact, if you’re solely focused on being able to measure the work that you’re doing as a foundation, you might miss those opportunities to invest that kind of risk capital in a sector that desperately needs that kind of investment and looks to private philanthropy, in particular, to be that sort of investor.
Denver: That’s a great point. Another one of those tensions is between adopting a long-term perspective– something which foundations can uniquely do– and addressing those urgent needs that are lining up outside your front door. Give us an example where you’ve encountered that kind of tension, and how you sought to maintain the balance while addressing it?
Jim: I described earlier how we had gone through a strategic planning process a few years ago, and we completed that process at the end of 2015 and announced a whole new set of priorities and directions for our grantmaking in early 2016, and had been doing that work for that year. And then we had the presidential election in November of 2016. And this is less a political statement, but more about some of the after effects that we were seeing as we turned into this past year.
One of the things that we were seeing is we were concerned about the particular vulnerabilities for immigrant and refugee populations, given some of the policies that were being advanced by the new administration. We were also concerned, and interesting to say this as we sit in a radio studio, we were concerned about attacks on the media, and the idea that “the media were the enemy of the American people,” which I believe was a quote. And both of those realizations led us in the early part of this year to announce a special initiative of $3.5 million commitment by our foundation to two strands of work. One, around supporting frontline organizations in Massachusetts that were dealing with an influx of need from immigrant and refugee populations, and second, investing in investigative journalism which is as many people in media would tell you, is expensive. It’s hard to do. It takes time. It takes resources, and we wanted to be sure that entities that were doing that kind of work had the resources at their disposal to do their best work.
So, that was an example where a year out of a strategic planning effort, we had to do some recalibration and to think about some reallocation of resources because the environment around us had shifted. And I think for all foundations, we are constantly thinking about this balance of: how do you stay focused and be clear and have impact over a certain period of time? But at the same time, not do it in a way where your head’s in the sand and you’re not acknowledging that thing are changing around us… and we need to be attentive to that change.
Denver: A very balanced answer and well stated, I might add. Let me ask you something about the sector at large. And this has to do with diversity, equity, and inclusion. There have certainly been some thoughtful and well-intentioned efforts around this, but they haven’t been all that effective. And that was really brought home to me the other day when I looked at the BoardSource report that just came out, and it indicated that 90% of all non-profit CEOs are white, and 84% of board members are white. And the thing that I was really struck by is that those numbers have actually gone up since 2015. As a matter of fact, when it came to all-white boards, that went from 25% to 27%, and this is really just one indicator of diversity.
So, why do you think these initiatives are not working as well as they should? And what do you think needs to be done to make this effort more effective?
Jim: Well, this is a big issue. When you look at the demographic changes that are taking place across our country, those numbers that you’re reading are not reflective of not only our current demography, but not reflective of the kind of demographic shifts that we are going to be seeing in the future. I think with regard to the nonprofit sector, and I think a lot about philanthropy where this is an issue that often comes up in terms of the lack of people of color in leadership roles, it is interesting that of the 25 largest foundations by asset size, six of those are led by people of color. Probably not the most impressive statistic to say that roughly, a quarter are led by people of color, but I dare say that if you looked at that data, maybe 10 years ago, 15 years ago, it would have probably looked different, and I think that the trend line has gone up, and that’s a good development.
At the heart of this though, I think is the question of governance and the role of the boards and how the boards are constituted and how boards make decisions when there is leadership change, and the emphasis– or not– that they place on diversity and thinking about leadership roles. And not just the executive leadership roles, but even investment in ensuring that you’re developing a pipeline. And whether that pipeline will lead to your organization or will lead to other organizations. That’s an institutional investment that you’re making, and a statement that you’re making about the importance of diversity in your institution.
Denver: You are a California boy, Jim, through and through. And when you accepted this job at Barr Foundation, you moved from one of America’s great cities, San Francisco, to another one of America’s favorite cities, that being Boston. What has that adjustment been like for you? And what are some of the differences that you observed in how each city goes about its business and gets things done?
Jim: Well, other than the fact that I had to very quickly trade my San Francisco Giants hat for a Red Sox cap… That was certainly an adjustment for me. As you noted, I’m not only a native Californian but a native San Franciscan. So, I’d spent most of my life in that very city. And I feel incredibly fortunate to have made a move from one world class city to another world class city. The cities are very similar in some respects. They’re similar in population size. They’re similar in scale, even similar in terms of having vibrant waterfronts. And so, in that sense, it’s been a good change. Winter has been something to adjust to, of course.
Denver: You never adjust.
Jim: You never adjust. And of course, my first winter was that horrific winter of 2014/2015 when we had record snow in Boston. So, the cities are in some ways very similar, but in other ways, they’re also quite different. One of the ways that they’re different is that philanthropy is very different in Boston. There is a culture that is more anonymous in its style. There’s a culture that often aims to do that kind of work quietly. And that’s not to imply that in California, people were trumpeting what they were doing, but of course California is a home of venture philanthropy. It’s a home of Silicon Valley. There’s a very different kind of approach and style, particularly with many of the new donors who are coming online.
And I think, one of the great opportunities in Boston is for Barr to play a role with many others, including a great community foundation– the Boston Foundation, led ably by my colleague Paul Grogan, to work in partnership with the philanthropic community in Boston, to think about the kind of philanthropic community that we want to be… What we aspire to, the ways that we can work together more effectively, and I’ve been very heartened by the level of collaboration and the willingness to find ways to partner together.
Indeed, in reference earlier to the special initiative that I described, much of the work that we did in that initiative was in partnership with other local foundations in Boston, and quite frankly, following in the lead of those foundations who had done a lot of that work prior to our arrival on the scene.
Well, with regard to culture, I have to give credit where credit is due. And I give all credit for the culture at The Barr Foundation to our co-founders. Barbara and Amos Hostetter have created a culture at The Barr Foundation that is one deeply rooted in humility, that is around kindness and respect for the people that we work for, but all in the context of excellence and rigor and quality.
Denver: Good insights. Let me ask you about your corporate culture at Barr. And I know that you give this a lot of thought and are very intentional around issues like this. As a matter of fact, you’re one of the few leaders I know who thought less about what he was going to do when he came to an organization and more about how he was going to go about doing it. Describe your corporate culture and the things that you and your team have done to make it unique and distinctive and a special place to show up every morning.
Jim: Well, with regard to culture, I have to give credit where credit is due. And I give all credit for the culture at The Barr Foundation to our co-founders. Barbara and Amos Hostetter have created a culture at The Barr Foundation that is one deeply rooted in humility, that is around kindness and respect for the people that we work for, but all in the context of excellence and rigor and quality. And those happen to be values that I personally care deeply about. They happen to be values that I tried to advance in my work– along with many others– at the Irvine Foundation in California.
So, one of the principal reasons that I took this job at Barr was I felt such a deep alignment with the values of the founders of The Barr Foundation. And I arrived, as a result, to a culture that embodied all of that. And so now, the opportunity to continue to foster that, and to also think about ways that we continue to embed that culture into the DNA of our enterprise so that it’s a culture that outlives all of us… and that becomes part of the values of the way that institution functions decades from now.
Denver: Yeah. I know that’s really what the co-founders care about more than anything else. How do you animate those values? So often they’re on a website, or they’re in a booklet you get when you show up. How do you make them live and breathe every day?
Jim: I think one of the ways is you make sure that you talk about them. We talk about our values a lot at The Barr Foundation. We recently had a staff retreat in August, and part of that retreat was focused on ways that we could be a constructive partner and ways that we live out those values in our day-to-day work. I think, we aim to make them tangible. It’s one thing, as you say, to say, “Well, we aim to be curious. We embrace risk. We’re about excellence. We’re about humility.” But we think a lot about ways that we demonstrate that.
For example, we think about: how do we balance that tension between humility– which is a deeply held value– but also a commitment to leadership? And leadership, not just in the sense of investing in leaders, but leadership in the sense of understanding what our role as a leadership institution is.
So, we explicitly discuss those issues as a staff and learn from one another and engage with each other. And I think, that contributes to making it clear that those values are animated on a daily basis.
Denver: Let me close with this, Jim. We are in some extraordinary times. And during these extraordinary times, you believe as you mentioned before, philanthropy has to adapt. You also are a champion of foundations losing some of their reticence, finding their voice, and really stepping forward and speaking out on issues of importance. What has The Barr Foundation done in this regard? And what are your hopes for the sector at large in how they respond to the current challenges we all face?
Jim: I think when we think about foundations, we immediately think about the financial resources that foundations have. We are grantmaking institutions after all, and one of our purposes is to award those grants to institutions doing work aligned with our priorities. But I also think that we have an obligation to think about the other kinds of resources that we can bring to the table that advance the issues that we care deeply about. And I’ve long believed that foundations should think about when the strategic and thoughtful use of their voice, of their platform, ideally of the reputation that they hold, is wise to employ to advance the issues that we care deeply about.
So, I’ve thought about this quite a bit. We have a real commitment to transparency at The Barr Foundation. I blog a great deal. I’m active on Twitter, which incidentally, I found a really valuable way to engage directly with people and get direct, real-time feedback. . .
Denver: Somebody else has too.
Jim: From people. It’s just the reality, which I love. But I do think that the idea of foundations using their voice is one that we all need to be thinking about when we’re in philanthropic roles. I don’t think it’s a resource that we should be leaving on the table, and I think often in philanthropy, we do. And I think we often do it at our peril as it relates to advancing our objectives.
Denver: Well, Jim Canales, the President of The Barr Foundation, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening for a really interesting conversation. Tell us about your website and anything there that you think people might find of particular interest.
Jim: Terrific. Our website is at barrfoundation.org, and hopefully, you will find it a very vibrant, transparent and also engaging website. I think I would particularly point you to our blog where we are blogging all the time about issues that we’re engaging with. We invite some of our partners to guest blog as well, and also a number of us are active on social media. So, we would urge you to follow us on Twitter.
Denver: I read your blog all the time, and it’s a great investment of time. Thanks so much, Jim. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Jim: Denver, thanks for having me.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
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