The following is a conversation between Simeon Banister, President & CEO of the Rochester Area Community Foundation, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: The Rochester Area Community Foundation, or RACF, works to improve the quality of life for people who live and work in the eight counties around Rochester, New York. Their goal is to realize a more equitable, inclusive, and vital region. And here to tell us more about their work is Simeon Banister, the President and CEO of the Rochester Area Community Foundation. Welcome to The Business of Giving, Simeon.
Simeon: It is a real pleasure to be here with you, Denver, and I have to say that I took a little time to check out The Business of Giving, and what a wonderful resource! Thank you for the contribution to the field.
Denver: Well, thank you so much for saying that. You guys just celebrated your 50th anniversary, having been founded in 1972, so it’s probably a pretty opportune time for you to tell listeners a little bit about the history of the organization.
Simeon: Sure, sure. So, avid listeners have heard a little bit about the origin story for community foundations, broadly speaking. So, I’ll tell you a little bit more about this particular community foundation, which actually is a bit of the departure from the origin stories for many foundations, which were working with banks and leveraging their funds and so on and so forth.
Here, it was really a group of community partners that came together, particularly, a guy named Joe Posner, who was an insurance salesman, and there was a lot of symmetry between his profession that fought a lot of long-term consequences, and the work that we do at the Community Foundation.
That group came together and amassed some dollars to start trying to create some community impact in our early days. We focus really heavily on early childhood, and that’s been a through line throughout our history that’s become so much more complex and sophisticated in the work that we do today to focus on equity and to focus on the vitality in our region.
Denver: You know, my wife is from Rochester, New York, so I have a pretty good idea of the community, having been up there for so many summers and so many different years, and I’d say, Simeon, that the narrative arc for Rochester is that things are getting progressively worse. Now, that may not be the full story, or even an accurate one. What do you see is the narrative of the community?
Simeon: Sure, sure. Well, we were a 2020 awardee for the All-American Cities Award, and the Community Foundation was really glad to partner with the city to lead our efforts to become an all-American city. I talked with Doug Linkhart, who said that we performed really well in that process.
And the reason why is that we tried to be honest about Rochester. There are challenges, no doubt. And I think the narrative arc here is that this is a community that, in many ways, was Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley.
Denver: It was, yeah, that’s a great way of putting it.
Simeon: Well, think of, you know, Kodak, Xerox, Bausch & Lomb, those companies were the high-tech companies of their day. And, particularly, if you think about Kodak and the diverse kinds of products that they were producing focused mostly on film. I mean, this was a real titan in its day.
But part of the story here, if we just take it on the macro, Rochester is the home of George Eastman, the founder of Kodak; of Joe Wilson and the Xerox folks. It’s also the adopted home of Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony. So, we have these two kinds of themes that go through the history of Rochester. On one hand, social justice and equity. On the other hand, innovation. They’ve been parallel, but the opportunity for us now is to make them confluent.
Denver: Well, you know, a lot can be said about the DNA of a city, and if the DNA of a city maybe even loses its way a little bit, it’s still there. It’s baked in. And that is just a deep core resource that you have that you can always call upon as you see brighter tomorrows. You know, the foundation looks to have their decisions informed by data, and you do that through ACT Rochester. Tell us a little bit about that.
Simeon: Sure, sure. So, ACT Rochester started 14 years ago, and it was one of our board chairs who had gone to a conference and heard about the opportunity for that where communities were building community indicator projects. She came back here to Rochester and said: We got to try to do this here in our community.
Started out as a collaborative effort, us and a few other partners in Rochester that said, “Let’s try to gather some insights and data to tell the story of what’s going on in our community.” We know that that was in fact a bleak story. ACT Rochester has produced several reports, not the least of which were poverty reports, that were produced back in 2011, ’12 and ’13, and a report that was titled The Hard Facts.
And that explored the connection and the correlation, perhaps even some of the causal relationships, between very high levels of persistent poverty, very high levels of disparity with respect to education, and some of the racial demography that undergirded it. And, of course, that points to the history in this community.
But that information, that data, has also been the grounds for us to start making the kinds of progress and the kinds of change. That’s what we’re excited about. ACT itself is evolving now, Denver.
And, in addition to providing a longitudinal look at the data in our community, how have things gone and where are we today, we’re also starting this process of curating more of the knowledge that’s being produced across our community and pointing that towards some of the problem-solving and opportunities that we get to realize.
Denver: So, you’re really trying to look at some of the root causes and not just deal with the symptoms. Would that be correct?
Simeon: That is absolutely correct. We’re also recognizing the value of narrative, which is interesting. A lot of times we think of data as just kind of quantitative, but we’re really blending together the best of the quantitative opportunities, but also really thinking a lot about how that’s situated and contextualized by narrative so we can tell the full story.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Storytelling is really important with data, and usually, the people who are producing the data are not that great at storytelling. And when you run into one, you are absolutely thrilled because that’s all you’re going to remember, you know, in terms of being able to tell that story.
You know, you talked a little bit about the inequities in Rochester and particularly, the racial inequities, and those are economic headwinds that you have been facing that you’re looking to solve. Now, that’s a pretty big question, I realize right there, but what are some of the things you’re trying to do to really address those headwinds?
Simeon: Yeah. So, I think, one of the things that’s really exciting about where we are in this community, at this juncture, is a realization of the connection between some of the racial segregatory patterns that we’ve had in this community and some of our economic decline. Heather McGhee, she quotes the late professor from Columbia, Katherine Phillips, who describes why diversity is important.
And one of the things that she talks about is the social friction that gets created when people from diverse backgrounds come together, and the cognitive work that has to happen in order for folks to collaborate and partner. That additional work, she says, produces better outcomes.
Think about Rochester, think about Kodak, think about Xerox, maybe some of the homogeneity that defined the top-end leadership levels of those firms. We’re learning in Rochester. Hey, we got to do things differently. And guess what? I’m a byproduct of some of that learning here at the Community Foundation.
Denver: Yeah, you’re a Rochester guy through and through, right from the very start. We’ll talk about that a little bit later. Yeah. You know, you’ve also said–again, I want to pick up on that thought— that you have a community that sometimes has not been as attentive to its history as it needs to be, and that has caused you to make the same mistakes over and over and over again.
Talk to us a little bit about that importance of understanding and knowing your history and keeping it in front of you.
Simeon: Yeah, there’s an interesting community psychology that happens in cities like ours, and there are other cities that certainly fit this bill where we enjoyed really, really high heights in terms of our economy and our economic growth.
Rochester’s a place that had one of the first indoor malls, had a subway system here in the 1950s and 60s, just, you know, so much capital creation, so much growth, and then you take a stumble, right? And, again, we attribute some of that stumble to issues related to structural racism. That stumble has left us with a little bit of an identity crisis.
It left us with some challenges around the perception of scarcity, and whether there are enough resources to go around, and that produces certain behaviors that make it really difficult to kind of get out of your own way. And, if you think about that, even as an individual, when you’re dealing with some of those kinds of issues, it’s hard to think long term.
It’s hard to think about the kind of strategies that you need to arrest that situation. The unique value proposition for the community foundation is that we have the ability to think long term because we’re not confronted with some of those same issues with respect to scarcity because of the endowment and some other assets that we bring to the table. And that’s what we’re trying to contribute to the discussion here in Rochester.
Denver: Yeah, that’s fascinating. And it’s that balance you need to keep because you have to be place-based, because there are people today who have real needs, and they ain’t looking at the long term. They need it tomorrow. But you’re one of the few institutions that can really think about systems change that will take not only a decade, but maybe a couple of generations, and being able to sort of have that in balance… there’s always a tension there.
Simeon: That’s right.
Denver: It’s really a fascinating thing to try to juggle.
Simeon: Well, Denver, you remember what they said: “Time is money.” Right? And so, a lot of times when people talk about the philanthropic space and talk about foundations broadly, and community foundations included, we tend to talk about the money side of that equation. But it’s the time side that is also really valuable.
And, I think that is really our significant contribution here, is that the time horizons that we can think in tend to be a little bit longer. So, when I came to the foundation… and I’d come from government… I’d done some stuff in the private sector…. when I came to the foundation, I had never heard of the idea of forever funds.
Simeon: And, I said, when you say” forever,” what do you mean? You know, in quoting Outkast, they said: forever, forever and ever, forever and ever. You know, it’s like, are we talking that kind of forever? You know? And the answer’s: yes. As long as there’s a functional society, as long as there’s a functional economy here, the community foundation will be here.
And that’s different than elected officials that have to think about their next elections, government leaders; it’s different than business leaders that have to think about the next quarter; different than even other nonprofits that are constantly fundraising. So, there’s a unique value proposition that we bring to the table, and we are leaning in heavily on it.
Denver: Yeah, really well stated, Simeon, and it is so unique today to have people have that long time horizon. I mean, you sometimes think about our presidential campaigns, and Obama comes in and does a bunch of things, and then Trump undoes some of them, and then Biden undoes those, and it’s like a yin and yang every four years.
And you’re like, Whoa! Whoa! How are we going to solve these problems? Unless somebody’s got a 25-year horizon at least to be able to say, “Let’s get on a consistent path. We can adjust along the way, but we just can’t be whipsawing ourselves and society back and forth.”
Simeon: One pressing example today that’s just so emblematic. So, many communities around the country had to deal with a stark rise in violence, community violence, over the last two to three years. There’s a report in Bloomberg a couple days ago that said that, really, across the board, violence is starting to decline.
We know that we were on the back end, before 2020, of a 30-year decrease in violent crime and those kinds of associated behaviors here in Rochester and, again, in places all across the country. And so, sometimes you need a little bit of context to remember that the aperture isn’t narrow, that we can think more broadly. That’s the kind of thing that we bring to the conversation.
And it’s important because someone has to guard against some of the knee-jerk reactions. “We need to re-criminalize, we need to lock people up” is a visceral reaction when crime increases without taking into context the broader picture, which is that we had strategies that were working; let’s get back to those strategies. That’s what we’re encouraging.
Denver: Exactly. I’ll be a little facetious here, but I think the best way to stop it is to do away with the cellphone because, essentially, everything is on tape now. And I watch the news pretty carefully, and I recognize that the news that I’m watching, I’m talking about the national newscast very often, it’s who’s got a video on their cell phone.
And I would look at these things, well, that’s not really news, but it’s good pictures and that’s what’s driving it. So, we have so many pictures now of crimes that we get 30 minutes on our local news and the perception is, Whoa, don’t go downtown!
But the data doesn’t back it up. But, again, the pictures are stronger than the data, unfortunately. And the media doesn’t do us any favors by just giving us a diet of one bad thing after another.
Simeon: Well, that’s true. And we actually funded a study here on race and media and really started to dig in more deeply, use it as an opportunity, as a launching point to engage with some of the media makers.
One of the things that we tried to help everybody really appreciate is that not only are you reporting to assess market desire and preference and responding to it… and we’re certainly seeing that on the national level right now, aren’t we? … with the big discussion about: What does the news bend to?– what people want? Or do people need to hear important pieces of information? And I think we’re encouraging certainly the latter more than the former.
Denver: Let’s talk about a couple of the initiatives you have under way up in Rochester. One of them would be your partnership with the Ralph Wilson Foundation. Tell us about that.
Simeon: Sure, sure. Ralph Wilson. Wow! Just an iconic figure certainly in Southeast Michigan, absolutely in Western New York, the Buffalo Bills. Somebody said it this way that, you know, Buffalo, we love Buffalo; they’re great; you know, they’re right up the road, they love the Bills, but we are rabid for the Bills here in Rochester. And I remember… see I was a kid growing up in the late ‘90s when we went to those four consecutive Super Bowls.
Denver: We won’t talk about the outcomes.
Simeon: No need to talk about that. Why is that important? We were there. But we really enjoy the connections with the legacy and with the team. And what a legacy as a spend-down foundation to provide those kinds of resources into our community! We’re partnering in a number of different ways.
We are working on youth sports in this community with the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation. We’re working together on regional revitalization. They were even good enough to provide some resources for smart strategies just so that we could do smart things together.
Simeon: And then we tried to fully leverage those dollars.
Denver: Another one around climate and the environment is RENEW.
Simeon: Yeah, this is one of the things that I’m super excited about. We’ve made the pivot at the community foundation to lift up advancing environmental justice and sustainability. And that is an absolutely critical component for our work.
I heard when you talk to our colleagues from the New York Community Trust lifted up environmental sustainability as an odd opportunity for community foundations to be involved in. But when you think about it, it really does make all the sense in the world. Again, thinking about those time horizons, thinking about the future and about what that means for what we bequeath to our children and our grandchildren and beyond.
So, environment is where we ought to be. RENEW has taken tons of carbon out of the atmosphere. RENEW has made life better in the homes for Rochesterians because we are doing climate and weatherization for homes to make the internal atmosphere for those homes more conducive to living, particularly, for low-income Rochesterians, which has really just been an outstanding opportunity for us in Rochester.
“…collective impact for us is a muscle that we’ve had to learn how to flex. It has not been easy. I just want to be honest about that. It did not come naturally to our community, but we’re learning how to do it by building trust, by working through some of that perceived scarcity.”
Denver: Absolutely. And an idea that you’re really excited about, maybe you could say a word or two about, is collective impact.
Simeon: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. So, Rochester was this city that was, you know, the very kind of top-down model of leadership. And I think one of the things that we’re learning is that if we’re not being much more thoughtful in terms of how we engage the broadness of our community, that we’re going to end up with another round of solutions that frankly don’t work just because they don’t take into account all of the exigent circumstances that just aren’t, you know, obvious to folks that are at the top of organizations.
Denver: Oh, that would be an example of learning from your history.
Simeon: That is absolutely right, Denver. And the lessons, I think, that we picked up on here was that, you know, there’s a lot of confirmation bias that happens when everybody in the room looks the same, comes from the same place, is reinforcing.
And that we actually create an important hedge for our decision-making by broadening the folks that are participating in the discourse. And so, collective impact for us is a muscle that we’ve had to learn how to flex. It has not been easy. I just want to be honest about that. It did not come naturally to our community, but we’re learning how to do it by building trust, by working through some of that perceived scarcity.
One of the things that you talked about in The Business of Giving that I really appreciated was the way that fear impacts decision-making and how people make choices. And I will say that that has been, you know, a real challenge. I mean, when people are scared about what happens in the next budget cycle, when people are scared about the fiscal health of their organizations, it makes it really difficult to collaborate.
But we’re pushing through, and efforts that we’re working in include upward mobility and poverty reduction with RMAPI, Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative. ROC the Future is working on education. Actually, I co-chair RMAPI and also co-chair the Rochester Genesee Climate Collective, which we’re super excited about, and just a myriad of others. So, we’re really making progress, and collective impact is a strategy in Rochester.
Denver: Yeah. And I think when it comes to collective impact and collaboration, you know, I come from a generation, I think, where you try to get people together, and you really would have to be on the same page and have a goal so we were all pointing in the right direction. And I don’t see that anymore. I see now people taking the time to get to know each other.
Denver: And really build the relationships before trying to get to that piece where we all have to have a common agenda, and it just changes everything because the trust is built, and the ability to exchange ideas and to have that intellectual friction, but not have the social friction at the same time, comes as a result of taking time at the very beginning to just really build those relationships.
Simeon: And it’s interesting because a lot of times that feels to people like, “Hey, are we wasting time here? We’re dragging our feet.” You know, we have urgent challenges that we need to address, and that’s true.
But we’re also helping people to recognize that there’s a lot of work that’s happening today. I mean, there’s a lot of things that people are doing. Collective impact, the real promise is bringing that work together. And you’re right, as a prerequisite for bringing us together; we’ve got to know one another and know our capacities.
You know, trust is a funny thing because people always tend to frame it in the most positive sense. You know, I trust that you have my best interest at heart. Sometimes trust is just about having a predictable sense of how people are going to respond to circumstances and stimuli. And so, even that, that has value for us. Just knowing how people are going to respond, and being able to anticipate it so that we give one another the benefit of the doubt.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. And the other side of trust is competence. Like I know the people at this meeting when they said they would have it to me by Wednesday, they’ll have it to me by Wednesday.
Simeon: That’s right.
Denver: And that really speeds things up because you don’t have to be saying, “Ah, am I going to get it? Am I not going to get it, or whatever.?” It really becomes dependable. You know, we’ve been talking a lot about some of the challenges that Rochester faces and some of the programs, but let’s talk a little bit about the donors and who makes things go. Talk about your donors, what they mean to you, but also how, with all the competition out there, Simeon, can you make a case that this is a pretty good place to put your money.
Simeon: Yeah. Yeah. So, you know, I have a really interesting experience here. I was kind of a program guy through and through, you know. I came to the foundation as a program officer, worked up to become vice president for our community programs department.
And so, for a lot of my experience at the foundation, our donors were kind of like this nameless, faceless class of, you know, people…oh.. an event that donors are there. You know, we talk about them as “the donors” and the epiphany that I’ve had over the last year and a half or so, as we transitioned from my VP role through executive vice president, kind of preparing for becoming president and CEO, was just much more engagement with “the donors.”
And I had this epiphany, Denver, and the epiphany was, “Go figure. Donors are human beings. They’re people.”
Denver: Wow. That is a headline. I got the headline.
Simeon: I think one of the reasons why that’s important is not to think of donors as this category but to think about the people that are donors. One of the real lessons that I’ve had– our field is, in a lot of ways, kind of constructed a little bit of a false choice between satisfying the donor needs or focusing on community impact at the expense of donors. And I’ve heard that at conferences. I’ve heard, you know, different presentations on it. I think what I’m learning more is that donors are not fixed because they are people, right?
They’re not a form that came in a few years ago that listed what their interests are. They’re having experiences, they’re changing, they’re evolving, they’re growing. And the real opportunity for us is to curate some of that experience to provide opportunities to have real connection with the community, more broadly speaking, particularly with sections of our community that have been on the margins, and to help enhance and to shape that experience. So, that’s what we’re doing.
Simeon: We’re doing more donor visits; we’re doing more engagement site visits; we’re doing webinars. One series that we’ve started is called The Intersection. Our work is not mutually exclusive. It’s not like our equity work is in one bucket, which includes upper mobility and racial equity, and education.
And our vitality work is arts and culture, historic preservation, aging, and environment. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive. They’re all tied up with each other. And so, we’re exploring the intersection with our donors so that they can see more of the complicated and sophisticated relationships and become even better givers.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. No, that’s great. Sometimes when a foundation can begin to start to think about how the people they serve actually live their lives and they do not live them over here in this section. That’s not the way they live their day-to-day life.
You know, an interesting insight I’ve had about donors is that many, many foundations have their money, and they don’t want to risk their money unnecessarily. You know, they don’t want to do it because the donors are going to get mad. This is their money, and they’re taking these risks. Well, you go back to the donors, and they’re so comfortable with that risk, and what they will tell you is: I wish they were taking more damn risk. You know what I mean?
Denver: And so, we have this assumption, and it is completely wrong when you talk to a lot of donors. I don’t know if you’ve found that.
Simeon: Yes. Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. I think that, you know, a lot of times we can be a little risk-averse in our field because we don’t want to sacrifice, you know, those relationships.
And I’ve seen, frankly, the exact opposite. I mean, one donor comes to mind, when I first started at the foundation, who, you know, has really just had this remarkable evolution and has become a real champion around issues related to equity in a way that, frankly, I wouldn’t have thought was a likely outcome.
If I had only thought of that donor as the form that they gave us when they opened their fund with us, man, I would’ve missed out. But really by broadening our connection, deepening our relationship, helping to, you know, have exposure, you know, seeing things that were on the news, seeing what was going on in the world, and providing context for it, Denver, right?
Denver: Yeah. Yeah.
Simeon: That was really the opportunity we’ve seen, that kind of growth, and we think that that’s an opportunity for us to double up. Frankly, we see more of our growth opportunities as we’ve kind of picked some of that low-hanging fruit. The growth for us really is in helping people to see how their dollars can do even more in our community in terms of impact.
Denver: Man, oh it reminded me sort of that Buddhist concept that we change with every breath we take.
Simeon: That’s right.
Denver: And here in the Western world, we kind of have people as fixed. And if they were that way 10 years ago, they’re that way now, maybe a little nuanced, but essentially, that’s who they are. And that’s not the way it is really in terms of the way we are as human beings.
Simeon: Right. Well, Denver, I won’t speak for you, but you know, I find myself evolving and growing moment to moment, almost, you know I mean, you have a conversation, you have a new insight and, unfortunately, that kind of growth has been demonized in some ways in our society. I remember back in the day, it was all about not being a flip-flopper, right?
Simeon: But we want folks that are integrating new insights, new perspectives, and changing their mental models. And we use that language in collective impact and in some other spaces, this idea of mental models that need to shift. But how does that happen? What happens through cognitive dissonance and relationships? And that’s what we’re trying to engage with our donors, recognizing that they are a key catalyst for a broader community change.
Denver: Yeah, we should have a separate conversation sometime about leadership because I do think that as leaders, many people think that they’ve arrived, and they understand the journey they’ve been on. And when I was in my 20s, I did this. In my 30s and then my 40s, I changed in this. But there’s this sense that now, I’m finished. You know what I mean? And we’re not finished.
And then I think we also get trapped by our egos because we have a brand. I was talking to a guy who basically was always on the front lines in the times of emergency when the staff, you know, had to get a deadline. And he’d be there, and he’d be working all night with the frontline staff to get the thing out because they had to get it out by tomorrow. And that was his brand. And I’m saying, “You’re 53 years old.” You know what I mean?
Denver: It’s like I know that people say, oh, you know, Simeon, you didn’t show up tonight. First time you didn’t show up. But you can’t get stuck, you know, based on an identity that you think you have, because you’ll never be able to assume a newer or higher identity than that.
Simeon: Well, that’s exactly it. And the thing is we’re all growing. I mean, I find myself that one of the real assets that we have right now in this moment is that there really are… in Rochester, 8 of the top 10 largest nonprofits have leaders that have been in place five years or less, right?
Simeon: So, part of the opportunity is that there are this kind of cohort of folks that are coming in that truly appreciate that we are not fixed, that we are growing still, that we are learning still. And I think that that’s something that we want to persist even as we, you know, move on in our careers, is to kind of hold on to that opportunity for growth and learning.
“Those are interesting ties that bind us together and create new narrative possibilities for us to see what unites us and where we can grow, and to appreciate that there is difference, to respect those differences, but also to find strength from those differences in terms of diversity. To me, that’s really where curiosity shines.”
Denver: We’ve been talking a little bit about change. There’s so much change around us. There’s a changing of the guard in the community foundation’s world, if you will. I think your relationship with the community is changing. Do you have a philosophy or an approach that you bring to this whole concept of change?
Simeon: Yeah. So, for me, it’s fundamentally about curiosity. I mean, it’s funny because there’s often a juxtaposition that we hear between when we deal with the issues around hate and fear and such. Usually, the antidote is offered as love. I wonder how you can love what you don’t know, right?
And so, to me, if you think of fear on one end as a way of orienting to the unknown; to me, the other– which is kind of pushing back– curiosity invites us to lean in and to learn. And the community foundation, I think, is a particularly unique vehicle in this regard because in many ways, we’ve been afforded this reputation as an unbiased convener.
And it’s because we usually don’t show up with hands out for dollars and to take a disproportionate share of those limited resources.
Denver: Yeah. We’re an honest broker.
Simeon: That’s right. Right. So, because of that, and many of us, because we’re place-based and because we cover very diverse regions. We’ve got rural parts of our community. We’ve got suburban/exurban parts; we’ve got urban, and more metropolitan areas. The opportunity is there for us to honestly be curious, to lean in and to understand what the through lines are, what unites us.
Give you one quick example of that in Rochester. Here, the migratory pattern for Rochester… so the Erie Canal gets completed in 1825, and we’ve shipped grain back to the east coast. We were the flour city. That was what we were kind of known for, right? –its agricultural history.
A lot of African-American folks came to Rochester during the Great Migration, not to work at Kodak and Xerox and places like that, which frankly didn’t allow African-Americans to work there, but mostly to come up and work in the agricultural sector around Rochester, as did their proceeding Italian and Irish and German immigrants that came in advance of them.
Today, we see a lot of folks that are coming from Central America that are working in the agricultural industry. Those are interesting ties that bind us together and create new narrative possibilities for us to see what unites us and where we can grow, and to appreciate that there is difference, to respect those differences, but also to find strength from those differences in terms of diversity. To me, that’s really where curiosity shines.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. The differences and the similarities in terms of the journey they’ve been on. You know what I mean?
Simeon: That’s right.
Denver: It’s a great optimization. Simeon, what would you say is your superpower or superpowers, and what’s your kryptonite?
Simeon: Alright. Superpower and kryptonite. Well, I would say my superpower is the community. I was born and raised here in Rochester, and that is certainly not the end-all, be-all, but it doesn’t hurt for this job to have someone….
Denver: You’re not an interloper.
Simeon: And so, really, if you’ll indulge me one quick story, when I was nine years old, I was with my mom and we were walking through downtown Rochester and Sibley’s, the department store, had mannequins that were in the windows. And none of those mannequins looked like me, and I remarked as much to my mom. I said, “You know, I don’t see myself in these windows.”
And my mother was a school teacher, and she said immediately as she was wont to do … and really a community leader, she said, “Let’s go home and you got to write a letter.” So, I wrote the letter and, she, you know, helped me write the letter, of course, right. And anyways, I wrote the letter, and we sent it to Sibley’s, and we sent it to the Democrat and Chronicle, our local paper of record.
Denver, two weeks later, she picked me up from school and we go downtown, and there are caramel-colored mannequins, chocolate-colored mannequins.
Simeon: And so, as a kid, all of a sudden, you have this sense of agency, right? Things can be better.
Denver: Yeah. You’re a changemaker early on at nine years of age.
Simeon: That’s right.
So, if you say what’s a superpower, it is because of this community’s affirmation, certainly for me as a young person, that it was a real opportunity for me to appreciate that change can happen, that we are not fixed, that we are not stuck, that we can do things differently. And that’s certainly what I am trying to model and bring to our community, as robustly as I can.
Denver: It’s a wonderful story and it’s also, you know, I sometimes even stop and think about writing a letter. My goodness, a typewriter, folding it up, getting an envelope, finding the stamp. I don’t think we could do that today. You know what I mean?
Simeon: Yeah. I guess I’d have to send a tweet today. I don’t know how that works. You know what I’m saying?
Denver: Yeah. No, that’s wonderful.
Simeon: As far as kryptonite goes, I would say that, you know, I feel a really strong sense of urgency for change. And as we said at the outset, talking about collective impact, it does take time, and it does require a lot of patience.
And that’s really been a lesson for me over the course of the last few years is certainly not to be on the sidelines being critical, but to jump in the game, and to be a part of the solution, the old story about being in the arena.
Denver: Teddy Roosevelt. Yeah.
Simeon: That’s right. That’s right. And so, it’s important for us to find our way into the arena. And that’s really been, you know, a growth area for me, particularly because I’m what’s called a boomeranger. So, I grew up here, born and raised here in Rochester.
Went away for a few years. Lived down in New York City for a while and some other places. And then came back home when my wife and I had our son, Julian, and found our way back here to Rochester. And I will tell you that, you know, you come back to your hometown, and you’re frustrated, because you want to see growth and progress.
And so, like I said, we can either critique or we can get about the business of making it happen. And, that’s what my kryptonite has been, and I’m working to try to manage that kryptonite.
Denver: Manage that. We all try to manage our own kryptonite. But, you know, you also have an appreciation for your hometown when you come back. You come back much more skilled and much more wise. And, I remember when my daughter took junior year abroad, she was getting a little sick of school, you know, in her junior year because it was a small college in upstate New York; she was in Hamilton.
But when she went away for junior year, she came back. There’s an appreciation of coming back to your community again. You know what I mean? And, whereas you can sometimes outgrow it if you’ve never left it and you come back…It’s sweet to be home.
Simeon: That’s right.
“I hope that people will remember stains on my shoulders from tears when folks were able to cry. And I hope that they remember when I’ve been able to lean on them. And I think when it’s all said and done, if we keep that kind of spirit of partnership and collaboration, real deep care, even love, ahead of us, that when we look back, that can’t help but translate into outstanding outcomes and results for our community.”
Denver: Finally, Simeon, years from now, what do you hope you’ll be able to say, and others will say as well, about what you were able to achieve as the CEO of the Rochester Area Community Foundation?
Simeon: Yeah. So, I think, you hit the nail on that when you said “others will say as well.” I have the opportunity to work with an awesome team. I mean, just really great professionals, wonderful people. I have an outstanding board. Our transition was so smooth and seamless, in part because my predecessor was so thoughtful in giving us enough time, and our board was so intentional about making sure that we had the space and the direction to effectuate a smooth transition.
So, my aspiration is that, you know, kind of win, lose or draw that we’ve done it together– that what folks will say, certainly I hope about me, is that I’ve been a good teammate. I’ve been a good colleague. I’ve been a good friend.
I hope that people will remember stains on my shoulders from tears when folks were able to cry. And I hope that they remember when I’ve been able to lean on them. And I think when it’s all said and done, if we keep that kind of spirit of partnership and collaboration, real deep care, even love, ahead of us, that when we look back, that can’t help but translate into outstanding outcomes and results for our community.
Denver: Yeah. Now, that’s really nice and, I sometimes think our language makes a big difference. And even talking about love, we talk in a very military way in terms of our organizations; we have deadlines and the mission critical and deploying things.
Simeon: And, of course, multiplying. right?
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. And not a lot of family and gardens and dancing, you know, and I think love would really be at the heart of that. Simeon, how do people get in touch with the Rochester Area Community Foundation, whether to set up a fund there, or maybe learn more about the work you’re doing?
Simeon: Sure. Couple easy ways. Number one, we are certainly online, racf.org, and we encourage folks to check us out there. We are on social media. We brought on a new colleague who has just helped us to explode on social media. And so, you can find us on all of the key platforms. We tend to find LinkedIn as a sweet spot for us. And so, we encourage folks particularly to check us out there.
And then finally, we try to be as accessible as possible. I guess, about the kryptonite, supposedly that would be the other kryptonite; there are so many opportunities to connect with people, to try new projects, and making sure that all of those balls kind of stay in the air is always a wonderful challenge to take on.
But I do try to, as much as possible, make myself as accessible as possible. And so, if folks reach out because they want to learn more about the community foundation, they can even reach out to me, too.
Denver: Yeah. Well, I don’t know many organizations that spin more plates than a community foundation, that’s for sure.
Simeon: Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely.
Denver: Thanks, Simeon for being here today. Go ahead.
Simeon: Yeah, no, I was just going to affirm that all that plate spinning is absolutely the hallmark for foundations, but I do think that the skill here is how we prioritize, right?
Simeon: So, what do we choose? I heard it said that we’ve got to think about economies of motion, right? So, there’s a million things that we can do, and if we try to do all of them, we’re probably going to do all of them poorly. So, how do we choose which things to focus on so that we can really have the kind of progress our communities deserve?
Denver: Yeah. And it’s not always a “no,” it’s just a “not yet.”.
Denver: And, you know, I think that Steve Jobs says the key to innovation is one word: No. Say “no.” You can’t do everything. Hey, thanks for being here today, Simeon. It was a real delight to have you on the program.
Simeon: Denver, it’s my real pleasure to have been with you today.
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.