The following is a conversation between Lisa Mensah, President & CEO of Oregon Community Foundation, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Oregon Community Foundation, or OCF, was founded in 1973 with a big mission to improve the lives of all Oregonians through the power of philanthropy. In partnership with donors and volunteers, it works to strengthen communities in every county in Oregon through research, grant making, and scholarships.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Lisa.
Lisa: Hi, Denver. Thank you.
Denver: As I mentioned, OCF was founded in 1973, so I do my math, you’re having a 50th anniversary this year.
Lisa: We are. Thank you…
Denver: And I can’t think of a more opportune time for you to share with listeners a little bit of the history of Oregon Community Foundation.
Lisa: Well, that’s a great question, and I’ve got this job just in time to celebrate our 50th anniversary. We are one of the lucky community foundations that was always conceived as a statewide entity. And so our founding families, 50 years ago, pooled resources and said: This has to be for the whole state.
This has to be for Portland, our largest city, but it has to be for all 36 counties in this state. And we’re big geography actually, even though our population has always been centered in Oregon and a few other cities in the Willamette Valley. So I love that about our 50th year, that it is celebrating 50 years of serving the whole state.
Another thing that I’m thrilled about is we get to look back. We get to look back at what a little community foundation… This has started with a few million dollars, and what we now know is that we’ve made over $2 billion of grants. And we now have assets of over $3 billion under management.
So to me, this is a great ability to look back and look forward, and that’s what an anniversary does.
Denver: Yeah, it really does, and sometimes I don’t think we take enough time looking back. Not only are there lessons to be learned, but we’re always so obsessed about what we haven’t done, that you do take a moment to have to look back and say: Look what we have accomplished.
Lisa: You’re so good.
Denver: And that’s not kind of in our DNA, but it should be. It really is very important.
Well, you’ve only been in this position for four or five months, and one of the first things you did is you took a tour of this wonderful state.
Lisa: I sure did.
Denver: Was there anything out there that surprised you? Anything you saw or anything you heard?
Lisa: So what is fun for me is I’m coming back home. And this is where I was born; this is where I was raised. I come from a fishing family, so I fished in streams and in the ocean and the rivers, many places in this state. And so my tour was a real chance to see and reconnect with communities.
And one of the surprises is that the beauty still is as vibrant as ever, from Central Oregon, the Bend area, way out. I got to Eastern Oregon, in the Wallowa Mountains; it’s still stunning. And for all of your listeners who haven’t made it to our little state, I hope you come because it’s really beautiful.
The other surprise for me though, I have been away from Oregon. I’ve been here as a tourist and a family member, but I’ve lived outside of Oregon for most of my professional life. And I guess the other thing is that the divides are real, but so is the hope of people for their place.
So it’s stark. You don’t see politi….I got here just before a gubernatorial campaign, and the signs all changed as you leave Portland. But same good spirit, same good spirit that I remember growing up with.
And I guess my last surprise is I’m an African American. I was pretty rare in my day growing up in suburban Portland. And it is a more diverse state, and that fills me with some joy there. There’ll be other kids growing up here that don’t seem so odd. So I’m happy to see a growing diversity.
Denver: Yeah. Great observations. How was the southern part of the state? I remember, and I don’t follow Oregon that closely, but I do remember those wildfires, I think around Labor Day of 2020. I was just wondering how they’re faring down in the southern part of the state.
Lisa: I’m so glad you asked for that. I just got back just a few weeks ago from Ashland and Medford and Grants Pass and Cape Junction down in the southern part. We had our whole board there, and we were finally able to get there because summertime has been rough.
This is a resilient community. The pain is very close. People break into tears easily, recalling. We didn’t meet anybody that wasn’t affected and was able to recall the fires. But what is quite powerful to see, as leading a foundation, is how darn resilient and how much people came together, both privately and then together as a community, with our public resources.
We haven’t fixed it all. The Shakespeare Festival is not quite back to full capacity. Many people did move. But there’s been a lot of rebuilding. And what I was very excited to see is that we know a lot more about fire management.
This is a time in our environmental movement where people know a lot about how to treat forests, to prepare them for the future of a climate-changed planet. And there is more unity around how to work together, and there is more unity around the solutions.
Denver: Yeah. Well, those are all positive things because no matter what has not been done, it doesn’t make that much difference if you see the spirit, the unity, and the resilience, because then you know it will get done. It’s just…
Lisa: It will get done.
Denver: …a matter of time. You know what I mean?
Lisa: Right. You need both the… Yeah.
“It’s the sense that their money isn’t just a give once. It’s a sense of being part of the future, and they will someday leave it to us as a legacy. That’s a powerful part of the inspiration story.
Your money does more than you could have done with a one-time gift and that you’ll be here to see some of that good work, join with others. And that when you’re not here, this is going to keep going.”
Denver: You really need both of them.
Well, in addition to the 50th anniversary, you also came along just as you were in the midst of a strategic plan. And there are three pillars to that plan, so I’m going to ask you about each, and then maybe ask you one strategy for each pillar.
And the first one was to “Inspire Ggiving”. Now, and I know Lisa, boy, trying to expand awareness of OCF and philanthropy in Oregon, that’s one of the strategies. That’s not that easy. People are busy; the marketplace is cluttered. How do you get your head above the picket fence so people know that this institution is one of the best and smartest places for them to put their money?
Lisa: I love this question, and I love having a strategic fest about inspiring giving. I’ve been around this pursuit of money and how to make it do good for my whole life. I started as a banker in New York. And I think there, you have to tap into people’s joy and into people’s conviction that change can happen.
I think one of the most… I’ve been really talking with current donors to understand why did they find us; why did they find this community foundation, and what keeps them giving? And this is not like teaching the value of compound interest. Most of our donors have funds with us that are endowed funds.
Means that they might have made a one hundred-thousand-dollar donation, and they’ve been able to double grants over the 20 years from that same fund. And that is inspiring to people. It’s the sense that their money isn’t just a give once. It’s a sense of being part of the future, and they will someday leave it to us as a legacy. That’s a powerful part of the inspiration story.
Your money does more than you could have done with a one-time gift and that you’ll be here to see some of that good work join with others. And that when you’re not here, this is going to keep going. You talked about the 50 years, we don’t know what the next 50 years will be, and I think that’s the power of the inspiration message.
You’re going to be supporting the solutions that you can see and that this will keep going. And you’re part of an endowed solution that will keep going. And I think it’s kind of what we all want to…
Denver: Yeah. Yeah.
Lisa: …put our money to. And to me, that’s the story. I worked in a private foundation before I was privileged to learn this craft of philanthropy at the Ford Foundation. So it’s new for me to lead a community foundation. And part of the power of it is that it still grows.
Community foundations are always still recruiting dollars to be there for the future needs of the community, and that’s a powerful thing to offer to folks. And so I’m excited about this model.
And you’re right, you got to get people to look over the picket fence, but we are tapping into generosity. It’s very profound in this state. And we’re showing people a simple device, taking down the barriers. And I guess what I really love about Oregon is that the distance between the donors, the givers, and the recipients doesn’t feel that far.
We’ve got so many donors that are volunteering in the very places they give to. And everybody wears jeans and a plaid shirt. Yeah, not quite, but it’s a…
Denver: Not you, at least not today.
Lisa: …pleasure today, but it feels closer. So this Inspire Giving theme to me is tapping generosity, understanding how the money stretches, and understanding how we want to be here to solve problems in a beautiful state for the long term.
Denver: Yeah. Well, that’s really well stated. I can see the blend between the rational, but also when you look at the whole issue of perpetuity, there’s an emotional element to that.
Denver: And then as you say, unlike a lot of other places like New York City where I am, you can see more clearly the direct impact that your money is having, as opposed to the sort of black hole that: I gave it to them; I don’t know where it’s going, but I’m sure it’s doing good.
Here it’s a little bit more tangible. You can feel it…
Lisa: Very tangible.
Denver: …what’s going on. Yeah, that’s great.
Lisa: Very tangible. Yeah.
Denver: The second pillar of your strategic plan was to “Engage Communities”. And one of your strategies there, Lisa, was to enhance nonprofits’ capacity and support their success in developing and leading solutions to local issues.
So the question I have for you is: In addition to their urgent needs, for additional resources, what would you say is the most common challenge nonprofit organizations in your state are facing?
Lisa: I love the question– common challenges across nonprofits, and my mind is scattering to those who are in healthcare, those who are in education, those who are thinking of new ways to tap early childhood, those who are arts organizations.
So one of the fun parts of this job is the breadth of nonprofit practice. I’m an old singer, so I’m back seeing musicians. I’m out in Wallowa County. I’m back seeing environmental organizations. I’m seeing new ways that the daycare field has changed.
For new communities, people who are not native English speakers, our Latino community, really making it friendly. But here’s what I think is common to all of them, and that’s why it’s fun to be with the money. First of all, it’s hard. Capacity is always hard.
What we learned in the pandemic, most foundations became much more flexible with their money, and at a time when it was hard to get out and judge and to ask people for long, complex proposals.
So the need for simple, flexible funds to invest in the solutions that you know as a nonprofit leader are right in front of you, is the common challenge, the need for flexible funds that trust you as the leader of a nonprofit.
And I think being in a position to kind of give those funds, particularly to some of the more fragile nonprofits who are still doing the Lord’s work in our communities, is the real importance. So we’re in the money business and the change business, and we see across our 501(c)(3) community. And I think Oregon, you’ll have to check me on this, Denver, but I think Oregon has the largest number of registered nonprofits per capita.
Lisa: Something like 10,000. So many people have thought about how to address needs with this philanthropic capital. And so the thing I see that stretches across is this need for simple, flexible funding across, and not all foundations can do that. Ours has done so particularly in these last years of the pandemic.
And it goes to the core need of many nonprofits, which is they’ve seen a need in their communities. They’ve understood. They are closest to the problems that we’re trying to solve… the big, big problems. And they’re asking us to partner, and it’s a funny word because partnership implies some equivalence, and we’re not. One person has more money than the other.
But we are equivalent in our sense of partnering to solve, and we should have an equal interest in really getting to the bottom. So simplified money, for me, and also a sense of a need for funders to trust the direction of those closest to the problem.
Denver: Yeah. No, that makes an awful lot of sense. I had one guy say to me… he was a philanthropist, but he said that: “if I know better what to do and where to put the money, than the nonprofit organization I’m giving it to, I really shouldn’t be giving him the money in the first place.”
Lisa: He should be running it.
Denver: Like, really? You know what I mean?
“I feel like we’ve got to use our ground game to get to this. And I feel you’ve got to make sure that your language is welcoming. You’ve got to be brave to put it out there and be ready to have some more ‘nos’ or ‘not yets.’ And we got to show up. So that’s the part that is fun about philanthropy. And when you show up and listen, it’s a heart-changing activity.”
Denver: And it also, I think, what it does is it dislodges a lot of our assumptions. We sort of have taken so many things like directed funding as a given. And then you get into a crisis like COVID, and you begin to say, “Well, nobody can predict what’s going to happen the day after tomorrow. We better loosen the strings on it.”
And then you say, “Why did we ever have those strings in the first place?” You know what I mean? Just because of the way it’s done. The final pillar is to advance opportunities for children and families. And one of your strategies there is to build trust and strengthen relationships with diverse and under-resourced communities.
And I want to ask you: What are the keys to doing that… particularly with communities that have been disappointed and have had promises made to them before never fulfilled?
Lisa: Oh, what a beautiful question. I hope everyone listening is opening their ears to the communities who have felt outside of the sphere of influence and the sphere of opportunity, and felt like resources have passed them by.
I’ve spent much of my career in rural areas, and so many rural areas feel like they’re just misunderstood and don’t get a shot, that they hear about a big new program and it just… it’s not for me. So you asked for what are the strategies for really engaging, advancing opportunity, and in particular, communities.
So first, we’ve got a great ground game. You have to turn up the dial on your staff and your approach, all of your materials, all of your engagement, all of your ability to say to communities: We want to hear from you. And this is hard because you’re going to amplify the requests in.
That means you’re going to have to say some nos, or at least not yet, or not now, but you got to do this. And I’m so proud. We are fortunate to have five offices around the state with people recruiting both donors and getting out there in communities and listening.
And I’ve been in the cars with our staff. And when you really want to do this work to advance opportunity, and you really want to get to communities that have felt excluded, you’ve got to go meet them. You’ve got to go where they are, and you have to listen first.
And to me, this is the delight of the job because before you come with an application or… you’re listening, you’re listening to what they felt. And to me, that’s a very human task. It was harder on these Zoom screens, but we’re finally coming out. And I love our ground game. I love the fact that we still pay for staff to get in cars and listen.
And we’ve even piloted some new strategies where the staff can write the application for the grant seeker.
Denver: Oh, great.
Lisa: Just at a small level. So there are communities that will never have money for a grant writer, but they know what they need, and it’s a small thing.
And our staff have been nimble and able to get out there. So I think these advanced opportunities in the most disconnected are a high-touch activity first, and you have to commit to that. You have to put the dollars into the ground game.
I also think it matters a lot what your front door is like. And right now those front doors are web pages and Instagram feeds and things that were not around 50 years ago when we were in the brochure world. And it matters how friendly your language is and how… so it’s nice to have a statement of intent, but you’ve got to get in and live this and say to communities: Show up.
I’m gaining weight because I’ve been being fed by communities over lunch and dinners. And they needed to see me and the team, and we got to break bread together and understand: you are not beyond the reach of this foundation. We’ve got 4 million people in this state.
We’ve talked about New York, that’s a couple of neighborhoods in New York City. But I feel very viscerally that our quest for bringing all in and really advancing the opportunity, particularly in communities who have felt excluded, whether by racial disability or gender expression, we’re just being deeply rural and away from beyond the broadband.
I feel like we’ve got to use our ground game to get to this. And I feel you’ve got to make sure that your language is welcoming. You’ve got to be brave to put it out there and be ready to have some more “nos” or “not yets.” And we got to show up.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah.
Lisa: So that’s the part that is fun about philanthropy. And when you show up and listen, it’s a heart-changing activity. And…
Denver: Yeah. Yeah.
Lisa: …I’ve been fortunate to do that.
Denver: As you say, you need to be inviting, and you need to remove the friction for a lot of people…
Lisa: Oh, beautiful.
Denver: …who just get stopped at the gate because they don’t know how to fill out an application or whatever.
And I will add that as a new leader, I have found myself that the best way to really get to know your staff is get in a long car ride with them.
Lisa: Isn’t it true? Isn’t it true?
Denver: They’re both true. You find out…
Lisa: It’s so true.
Denver: …like going on vacation with somebody, who they really are.
Lisa: It’s very, very true. My mom used to tell me, “Don’t marry them.” Don’t marry the guy unless she’s like dragged him on the family vacation and…
Lisa: …she was right. Like…
Denver: Absolutely. Take a six-hour car ride and see if you ever want to…
Lisa: There you go. There you go .
Denver: …see each other again.
Lisa: No, it’s true. I’ve spent much of my career in rural areas.
Denver: Mm-hmm. Right.
Lisa: And one of the things about getting into rural areas, you got to get in a car to drive and you got to get outside.
Lisa: And both are timed to really understand place. So…
Denver: Yeah, absolutely. Well, there’s always one favorite program that every organization I speak to has, and yours would be one that, surprisingly, a lot of people in this part of the world don’t know about. And that would be Project Turnkey. That turns my head. It is such a dynamic program. Share with listeners what it is.
Lisa: Project Turnkey was the brainchild of, actually, government leaders in the legislature of Oregon, and it was the idea that in a time of crisis in the pandemic, we needed to turn unoccupied buildings, like hotels and other buildings into supportive housing.
And the notion there: Here we are in a pandemic when it is not safe for people to be on the streets, at a time of disease. And we needed shelter and we needed to move quickly to convert buildings into the kinds of shelter that would support homeless housing, housing for victims of wildfire, housing for victims of family crisis, all of these needs that we know.
We know the need picture. The brilliance was: Let’s use state dollars to nimbly convert housing. We know, and here’s where Oregon Community Foundation played a very special role for the state. We became overnight– I think it was over a weekend; this precedes me so I stand on the shoulders of my predecessor and my board, who said yes– to the need of a state in the middle of a crisis.
And we became the intermediary for these funds, running a competition, finding the partners throughout the state who could both do the housing project and the services needed to actually run these beautiful centers. And ah, Denver, it is exciting. I saw this before I had taken the helm.
I saw a beautiful converted hotel on the coast of Oregon that had become shelter for people who had been victims of fires, people that were fleeing difficult family situations. And I saw the brilliance of the nonprofit organizations who knew how to do this. And I saw the brilliance of a foundation who actually knew their nonprofit partners around the state.
So it felt like this was an accelerated time. We need governments to function at their highest peak. But in a time of crisis, the foundation could help state government to turn buildings into shelter for vulnerable populations. And we did that, and it is exciting. We’re in the version 2.0 of that.
So there are more projects coming online. I don’t think foundations will always be necessary for government to be able to execute, but in this crisis we were an essential partner, and I’m really proud of that.
Denver: Yeah, it’s just a greater appreciation of what community foundations are capable of doing. And programs like this often fall by the wayside because there isn’t a backbone partner that just makes…
Lisa: There you go.
Denver: …everything work.
Lisa: There you go. I think that we are almost at 900 units of…
Denver: Yes, …. I saw a hundred-room Quality Inn the other day.
Lisa: Yeah, it’s beautiful. There are 19 properties. And the other thing is because we trusted the nonprofit partners. They said what they needed in their areas. So it’s well-situated, and we got to play the role of a backbone, and we’re still playing that. And it’s a great source of pride for this state and for our foundation.
Denver: Let me delve a little bit more into community foundations because there does seem to be a bit of a changing of the guard, if you will. First of all, I’ve been blown away at how long many of the people, the predecessors of this current crop, were in their positions. I know that in New York, Amy Freitag is there, she’s the fourth CEO in 99 years.
And it goes down, and you’ve got changes in Atlanta and Seattle and Rochester and Greater Washington. I wonder what your thinking is as a whole new crop of leaders seem to be coming in, in major, major metropolitan areas and in states, as to the impact that that could have on the community foundation movement here over the next 15, 20 years.
Lisa: Well, I just returned from San Antonio where 35 of us gathered, and we had a moment in that meeting where if you had been at your foundation for under three years, please stand up. And it was almost a third of the room. And they said if it was five years, it was half of the room.
So here’s what it tells me, Denver. This is a thriving sector. So I’m the third CEO in 50 years. And it means the ramp-up phase as we build the… that may have been a more steady as she goes, thank God for the people, like Greg Chaillé here in Oregon and Max Williams, who I succeeded, who built these resources.
But it means that this is an intervention, a tax code change that allowed community foundations to be formed that is hitting its stride and it’s pulling the next generation of leaders, and we’re coming from all walks of life. We’re saying yes to come into this change business. Many of us were sitting happily in other jobs, not expecting to lead community foundations.
But we’re really persuaded that this is powerful work, and I think it’s a symptom of great health. I wonder who my successor will be in another decade or so, but I think what I know now is that it’s pulling people from all walks of life who’ve had careers in other sectors, who’ve run major institutions, and who are here because we’re convinced this is the kind of change business we want to be in.
And so it feels invigorating. And it feels, to me, like this is the kind of philanthropy that is kind of a juicy middle role to play, meaning we are still very close to thousands and thousands of donors, and that’s a gift. That’s different than private philanthropy where it is more singular in the donor base. And it gives us a special role in our communities, so I’m excited.
“Change is hard. It’s always hard. It’s usually about both loss, which we have to grieve, and also about opportunity. And you’ve got to stay in the opportunity mindset when you’re at a foundation.”
Denver: You mentioned a couple times here, change business. And this is a real challenge. I mean, we’ve had COVID; we’ve had racial reckoning; we’ve had so many other changes over and beyond that. It’s just been an endless string of them. How do you approach change? How do you think about change?
It is, I think, the biggest challenge. I mean, your foundation is changing; your staff is changing; the relationship that community foundations have with the community is changing. How do you think about change and doing it effectively?
Lisa: I love the question. Change is hard. It’s always hard. It’s usually about both loss, which we have to grieve, and also about opportunity. And you’ve got to stay in the opportunity mindset when you’re at a foundation.
Here’s the best part about being in the change business. We have flexible dollars to address it, and we’re still growing, so we can say to donors, “The needs have shifted. Come with us.” I’m a kid that grew up in this state when it was at a very different time. The timber industry and agriculture dominated. I picked berries as a kid. You don’t have to do that for money anymore.
And so here’s what we say. We say, change is probably accelerating. So what a gift to be in a business that has dollars that can keep shifting nimbly for what the need is, and can say, “Yesterday, I grew up in a time when music lessons were in every public school. Now they’re not.”
Lisa: And we need to support that. So I feel like you have to be clear-eyed about how hard change is. There is a grief to this. And all of us who’ve lost someone know that it’s never easy to pivot. We like routines. Routines give us, as staff and as human beings, they give us an ability to operate. I know what lane to get in the… if you’re driving, or where to stand on the subway platform.
Denver: Yeah, sure. Absolutely.
Lisa: But when you’re in the change business, you are committing to say, “I am going to help get us over the next mountain and get to where the next group of people can see what the business is.” That’s the joy of it to me.
I’ve still got… I wake up every morning with 115 people who get up in Oregon and say: There’s something next for us. And it’s not like we’re without routines, but we have to stay open to where the pushes are going to come from. And it’s a hard way to live. Not everybody is great at this.
I am in the middle of a household move. I don’t like it every day, but I do understand that what a gift it is to be in a business that can take dollars, listen to someone’s dream and say, “ I get it.” Things are different. We need to do this. We need to change. We need… And ultimately, you get to match dollars with someone’s hope and dream.
Denver: Yeah. No, that’s a great, great feeling.
Lisa: That’s the worthiness of it. That’s worth all the hassle of change.
Denver: Yeah. I think we can get used to things too, though. The only constant is going to be change. And people ask me about it…
Lisa: Thank you.
Denver: …sometimes and I say to them, “Hey, guess what? It’s never going to be this slow again.”
And that’s probably the truth because everybody’s talking about how fast it’s going. It will never be this slow again.
Lisa: What? Wow. That’s a deep philosophical point, that now is the slow.
“And if you think about it, after being a banker, a world development expert in the Ford Foundation, a wealth expert at The Aspen Institute, and then Under Secretary of Agriculture, those efforts made me someone who always believed that money has the power to change, and we have to get it to the right hands.”
Denver: There you go. I’ll put it on a coffee mug for us.
Hey, we talked a little bit about your journey home. Tell us a little bit about this journey you’ve been on, the experience that you’ve had through your career, and how some of those things have really come together to put you in a very special position to tackle this big assignment.
Lisa: Yeah. Well, this journey, I’ve been using the phrase, “I’m coming home,” because I’ve been reckoning with who I am as a person and as a professional. And I’ve had to say: I really am an Oregonian. I feel this is the place who made me who I am.
And I’m an unusual suspect for being an Oreg– I’m a Ghanaian American. My dad was an immigrant from Ghana. My mom was Iowa-born, but grew up here in Oregon. And I think I was always a person who was able to bridge communities, and I knew that as a kid who was biracial and who was bridging… I’m an immigrant daughter.
But it made it: one of my most profound roots is that I am someone who understands money and development, and I started my career in banking. It evolved through a career in rural development and always questioning how to do the wealth divide.
And if you think about it, after being a banker, a world development expert in the Ford Foundation, a wealth expert at The Aspen Institute, and then Under Secretary of Agriculture, those efforts made me someone who always believed that money has the power to change, and we have to get it to the right hands.
I just left the seat of leading Opportunity Finance Network, the lead network of Community Development Financial Institutions. This is a family home to me. This is my base of lenders who know how to do good in their community, and I feel like these are the opportunities that put me in a position to lead a foundation that is about getting money to the places it should flow.
And if you’ve been a banker, you’ve been a banker for good. You understand rural areas: you understand the big pillars of the wealth divide– urban and rural. This is kind of a dream job for me and a place where I feel the open canvas to dig in.
And we all hit that moment in our careers where it’s time to pull it together and use as much as you’ve been given and as much as you’ve learned to build something lasting and to add on to something.
So I didn’t have to create this beautiful foundation. It’s been here for 50 years, but I get to be the Oregonian who comes home and brings her experience with money as a banker, as a rural development person, as a wealth expert, as a person with deep belief in the capacity for humans to change their environments.
And to me, Denver, that has been the joy of coming home and the joy of this part of my journey.
Denver: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Lisa, it reminds me a little bit of Steve Jobs’ speech that he gave at Stanford, when he dropped out of Reed College and he took calligraphy. And it turned out he didn’t know why he was doing that.
But when the iMac came in 1984, it was the calligraphy that did the whole interface of the iMac. And sometimes when you’re doing things through your career– you’re doing them; you’re enjoying them, but you can’t kind of… so he made this point: You can really only connect the dots looking backwards.
Lisa: Oh, so true.
Denver: And you find yourself in this position, you say, oh…
Lisa: So true.
Denver: …all these dots, it was kind of setting me up for the…
Lisa: It makes sense.
Denver: …this moment. Well, those are a couple of your superpowers in terms of crossing racial divides, urban and rural, and understanding money. Another one is building teams. How do you go about building a team?
Lisa: Ah, this is one of my favorite questions because I love all the external work, but I don’t want to sit in a room and just write about it. I like changing things, and that always takes the team. Margaret Mead’s quote… I’m forgetting it, but it’s how you change the world.
I’ve had help. I am a reader, and I am somebody that has had a lot of help from experts like Pat Lencioni who wrote: What is it that drives organizational health? And the help that his teaching gave me is that teams are built by real clarity of mission, really understanding the why you show up, really understanding and being able to communicate throughout an organization… down to our bones… why we’re here and what we do, and what is most important to do right now.
And I have found that the way you get to the joy in work… because that’s what syncs the team together… it’s always going to be hard. There’s going to be slogging out hard stuff to run an organization, but you have to connect to why we’re all here. And you have to connect with what gives us joy. And you have to be clear about mission and immediate objectives, and that’s a very thrilling way to work.
Denver: Sure is…
Lisa: It eventually, you know… You also have to dance and eat and care, care about each other. And we’re pretty good at that in Oregon. I’ve been fortunate to have great teams around me, but I do think beyond the great food and comradery, you have to really connect hearts to mission, to hands.
And you have to be super clear and bring everybody with us. And there can be really hard times, but I’ve had those moments in my career where we are all just dancing, the whole team. It just feels like we’ve come through something. And that, to me, it’s a professional joy and that I look forward to building.
I’m in a new team here, so I look forward to getting to the dancing moments. We’ve already had a few, but anyway, yes, investing in really understanding why we’re here, being very clear, helping people understand together what are we building now so that we can get to the long distance is, I think, core to this.
Denver: Yeah. No, that sounds like a great exercise to do when a team gets together. What’s our purpose? Who are we serving? And what’s the impact we want to create? And probably at the very start of every team, that’s a good thing.
I know when you start dancing like that, I always kind of equate it to a runner’s high. Having been a runner a little bit, you kind of get it all in your hips, and they start moving involuntarily, and you’re saying, “Oh my goodness, I don’t have to put any effort! There’s like a machine down here.”
Lisa: There you go.
Denver: And you’re just going. And it’s beautiful.
Lisa: Denver, that’s an Oregon analogy. We are the Nike state, the…
Denver: I know you’re the Nike…
Lisa: …Steve Prefontaine, so you’re music to my ears. We do that is… getting the… I’m not a runner. I can’t claim it, but I do… That’s the thing we’re looking for in a team where even amidst change, your ability to be in sync together, it’s a beautiful way to work.
Denver: Finally, Lisa, because of this extraordinary perch that the Oregon Community Foundation has, what do you see as your role as a philanthropic leader in this community and throughout the entire state of Oregon?
Lisa: Yeah. We’ve got a very special perch that has been nurtured over 50 years. And I think it’s a perch that allows… we fund everybody, and it allows us a unique ability to bridge, to uplift this community, to unite it, to set tables that can invite everyone in, to construct issues in a way that is not contentious, but is focused on the solution.
That is a rare status. And we need to use that well. It exceeds even the millions and millions that we have gathered together to solve problems in this state. It’s a unique role. It means that we can care about all 36 counties who don’t all vote the same. It means we can bridge in a city which has struggled to bridge race divides, and has big needs for services and housing.
And so I am in awe of the responsibility that I have been gifted with, that there are very few institutions, frankly, in the body politic that can be that kind of uniting bridge, that can really be clear that there are solutions… and at hand… that can be safe for people to come in and speak their truth, who may hold very different opinions.
So that’s our role. We are the Oregon Community Foundation. We’re here for our 4 million people. We’re here for all 36 counties, and we’re here for the long haul.
Denver: A sacred trust that must be honored, no question about it.
Lisa, how do people get in touch with the Oregon Community Foundation, whether that’s to set up a fund and make some financial donations, or whether it’s to learn more about your grant-making process or become a volunteer?
Lisa: Yeah, please go to our website, oregoncf.org. It’s an improved front door. It’s beautiful. Couple of clicks… and even in low broadband areas. I hope you can get there because it’s a couple of clicks. But the other thing is, I mentioned we’ve got five offices, and we’ve got live bodies to talk to, at least in daylight hours on Pacific Time. And so call us.
This is the beauty of having survived 50 years and planning for the next 50, is that we want to be here as the partner for this state. And you can come as a giver; you can come as a volunteer; you can come as a seeker from any state– who wants to see good things happen.
Obviously, we want to see this state thrive, but we want donors’ dreams to be realized in whatever aspect they seize. And we want these communities to thrive, so please check out our website; give us a call. It’s wonderful to be at the other side of this pandemic so that you can actually talk and visit with humans. And I look forward to doing that.
Denver: Fantastic. And happy 50th! And thank you so much, Lisa…
Lisa: Thank you.
Denver: …for being here today. It was a real delight to have you on the program.
Lisa: Thank you. Appreciate this.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.