The following is a conversation between Mendi Blue Paca, President & CEO of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Denver: A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that Fairfield County was the most economically unequal metropolitan area in the country. That is why Fairfield County’s Community Foundation is focused on creating greater equity, especially greater racial equity across areas of housing, income and asset building, health, and education.

And here to tell us more about this work is Mendi Blue Paca, the President and CEO of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation.

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Mendi.

Mendi Blue Paca, President & CEO of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation

Mendi: Hi there. Thank you for having me.

Denver: Well, it’s great to have you here. Tell us a little bit about the foundation,  some of its history, and what you believe makes it unique.

Mendi: Yeah. Wonderful. So we are just in our 30th year, just celebrating our 30th year recently. And I think that that is meaningful because we are, sort of, the stage that we’re at, we’re not a new foundation, but there are community foundations that are hundreds of years old. And so I think we have a presence in our community, but certainly have plenty of opportunity to grow within our community.

And we serve the 23 towns and cities in Fairfield County. So, one of the things that is particularly unique about our community foundation actually connects to, I think, the structure of Connecticut. And so we are actually one of the states that does not have regional government, county government.

And so we really are one of the very few entities that tries to think across city and town borders, and tries to bring a really critical regional perspective to the work that’s happening and to the issues we’re working on. And Connecticut is 169 towns and cities for 3 million people, so that tells you quite a bit about the dynamics that we work in.

Denver: Yeah. Well, that’s really interesting. You can provide a bit of an overlay to something that was created many eons ago and sometimes is just very, very parochial, so therefore you can look at the larger issues and do it across a lot of different areas.

Mendi: That’s right. That’s right.

“One of the statistics that really stuck out to me is the percentage of Black and Latino households that are housing cost burdens, so spending more than 30% of their monthly income just to provide their basic shelter costs. And we’re, in some cases, above 50%, so that is really something that we have to pay attention to as a county.”

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. I touched on the economic discrepancy in the open, and particularly the racial inequities. Give us a sense of what that data looks like, Mendi.

Mendi: Yeah. So it’s interesting. We recently released, just last week actually, our 2023 Community Wellbeing Index, which we do semi-regularly every couple of years. And it’s really a reflection of the state of being, I would say, in the county.

And it looks across multiple indices, so we’re looking at health, housing, education, income, home ownership, civic participation and engagement. And the headline really is that Fairfield County actually ranks as one of the top places to live in the country if you live in certain communities. And because we are a deeply segregated community, that also breaks down along racial and ethnic lines.

So essentially, if you are living in one of the… particularly the six wealthiest towns in the county, which are predominantly white, it’s a wonderful place. And there’s… we live by the… we have the ocean. We have access to New York City readily, wonderful academic institutions, culinary and artistic vibrancy.

But the other side of that story is we actually have some of the communities in the country with the greatest poverty rates, the highest poverty rates. We have a lack of housing affordability issue that is… I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say it’s probably reaching crisis levels in the county. And that data, again, really depends on what your zip code is and what your race is.

One of the statistics that really stuck out to me is the percentage of Black and Latino households that are housing cost burdens, so spending more than 30% of their monthly income just to provide their basic shelter costs. And we’re, in some cases, above 50%, so that is really something that we have to pay attention to as a county.

“But what we weren’t doing really on any meaningful level was attacking the root causes of those problems. And so ultimately, what we want to see is fewer people who are housing insecure and fewer people who are food insecure. And so that actually means looking at the systems and the structures in which people operate. And so it means engaging more actively in advocacy and public policy.”

Denver: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I am a guy who always likes to look at lists, and I ignore them to a great degree because averages tell you nothing. And it is really disaggregating the data that you begin to find an entirely different story, because as you suggest, Fairfield would probably be a pretty good community in aggregate. But inside that story, there’s so many different stories and so many inequities.

This situation really has been the energy and the impetus for your new strategic plan, which is called Fairfield County Forward. Give us a little sense of what you’re focused on.

Mendi: Absolutely. So I would say Fairfield County Forward is a really exciting moment for the community foundation, but it’s an evolution more than a pivot away from our past work. So about a little more than a decade ago, really tracking in many ways the tenure of my predecessor, Juanita James, the foundation began to focus on opportunity gaps.

And so we looked at, again, these indices in the research that we do, and we said there are these huge gaps in basically all of the social systems– so education, housing, health, income, asset building. And we said we need to close those gaps. And so that’s how we articulated our work.

And I started at the foundation a little over five and a half years ago, and led the charge really on sort of the first iteration of that work. And we learned a lot. And so one of the things that we learned actually speaks to your last point, which was that it really is a story that needs to be disaggregated.

So fundamentally, when we talk about opportunity gaps in Fairfield County, we are talking about racial equity gaps, and they really are gaps between the white population in the county and the Black and Latino populations in the county. And so we thought it was really important that we name that explicitly because that impacts the strategies that we deploy to try to actually address them. So that’s the first piece of Fairfield County Forward.

The second piece is, I think, we were doing lots of great work addressing the symptoms of social inequity. So we were addressing chronic homelessness and trying to find beds and permanent supportive housing for people. And we were supporting pantries and providing hot meals where people were food insecure. And really critical, important work will still continue to be a part of the foundation’s work in terms of meeting basic needs.

But what we weren’t doing really on any meaningful level was attacking the root causes of those problems. And so ultimately, what we want to see is fewer people who are housing insecure and fewer people who are food insecure. And so that actually means looking at the systems and the structures in which people operate. And so it means engaging more actively in advocacy and public policy.

It means thinking not about necessarily how we get a temporary meal, but: How do we try to incentivize more healthy grocers and urban farms and communities that are food deserts? How do we really double down on affordable housing and get actually more housing developed and preserved and protected, so that fewer people are actually falling into the homelessness system?

So that is our focus. The other sort of headline is that, that focus on root causes and the systems and the structures, that got us where we are today.

Denver: I know you’re a multifaceted organization, have a lot of partners, and do a lot of collaboration, but I’d be curious as to how you get your arms around all this. Because on one hand, you have health, and education, and income, and asset building, and housing. And you can’t do them all at once, at least equally effectively, if you will.

Mendi: Yeah, yeah.

Denver: And then at the same time, you have these systems change, which is long, hard work, but is so important. But then you have people today who are concerned with place-based work: “ Hey, my kid is in fifth grade; I need something now.” How do you look at that? How do you prioritize? How do you think about those issues to create the balance that you need to have?

Mendi: Yeah. You’re getting at the heart of sort of the strategic challenge that we face organizationally, and I think there’s not really a fancy answer to it, other than you have to make a decision. And there’s a place for all the work, right? It’s all incredibly important. You need people who are doing that front-end emergency basic needs work, ensuring up what’s going on today.

But it’s really also super important that you have people with a longer-term lens and a generational lens who are saying: How can we not only change the outcome for that particular fifth grader that you referenced, but how can we change the odds for all future fifth graders that look and experience the same challenges as that particular student?

And we made a strategic decision that we really wanted to put the lion’s share of our efforts in the latter bucket. And I think part of it was also filling what we saw as a void in the county and not enough focus on that. But again, it’s a constant tension, and as I said before, it’s not a complete pivot, so we do still support some of that front-end work… and we’ll continue to, but it’s a hard, hard question for sure.

Denver: Oh, no, I know. And I’m sure you have one foot in each world. Part of your day is intentionally what we need to do today to help people, and partly… How are we going to solve this thing over the long term?  And you can’t do it without being intentional about how you’re going to spend your time and your efforts in order to do it successfully.

But it sounds like, as you say, the bigger foot is in the future and the smaller one, at least, is trying to deal with the issues today because maybe there are other organizations that are doing that. You have filled something that nobody is taking a look at.

Let’s talk about, I know this strategic plan was built upon a number of initiatives already in place. Maybe we can touch on one of them. For instance, the Family Economic Security Program. Tell us a little bit about that.

Mendi: Yeah, so the Family Economic Security Program was actually… a part of the way we think about our work at the Community Foundation is: where is there work not happening today that we think has potential, and particularly now, in light of our new strategic plan, much of that work should exist within our actual, current systems.

So if we think about our hospital systems or our criminal justice system, or our educational institutions, which are these major systems that touch so many of us every day. And so even before we made this commitment of Fairfield County Forward, we were sort of starting to experiment in this space.

And the Family Economic Security was one of our first programs where we decided to actually work really intensively with our community college system and say, We want you to really rethink the paradigm and how you are engaging, really, the students that are at highest risk of attrition and not completing their degrees, and really have the most challenges surrounding their ability to be able to just focus on their education.

And how can you, as an institution, support them better? And so we rolled up our sleeves with the institution, and we co-designed a program that was initially just out of our fund for women and girls… so primarily for women, but actually eventually expanded beyond that. And it was really a wraparound support program. And so we provided emergency cash where needed, scholarship opportunities, career supports.

In some cases, helped people figure out transportation and childcare. There was food available for the students in the program, on campus, for free. And I’m super proud of that work because ultimately, it ended up being scaled at community colleges outside of our region.

Denver: Wow.

Mendi: And most importantly, and this is really how we want our work to evolve, many of the best elements and the most impactful elements of the program became codified and a part of the school’s actual operation for all students. And so that’s the classic story, right? Like you seed something; you get it off the ground; you learn, and then you actually impact the way the system operates.

Denver: That’s systems change. I won’t have to ask you for an example. That’s a great…

Mendi: Yeah, right?

Denver: Well, in addition to that systems change, you’ve also said, Mendi, you aim to execute the work of the foundation differently. How so?

Mendi: Yeah. So the last part that’s… there’s sort of three headlines to the plan, and I mentioned the first two. And the third, I think, is we are really committed to having our work be as driven as possible by those who are most impacted by the inequities and injustices that we’re working on. And I don’t like to say “a seat at the table” because sometimes I think that that expression doesn’t really say enough. So I…

Denver: No, I agree with you. Yeah. Yeah. It sounds passive, doesn’t it?

Mendi: Yeah, exactly. It’s way too passive. And so we actually want to be learning from and with those that we are ostensibly serving. And so that… putting an anchor in that has actually forced us to really think about all of our internal operations, to think about our values and ultimately the way we work and the way that we show up in our communities.

So we went through a really deep exercise evaluating those values. And a couple that I think really speak to your question are: we want to have a real learning disposition and always be continuously learning. We really are placing priority on the authenticity of our relationships, and so that means evaluating really the power dynamic that exists between us and our partners.

And it’s not just grantee partners, but it’s our donors, and it’s our elected officials and all those that we interact with. And then we want to have quite a bit of humility around what we do. We know some things, and we want to leverage that for sure, but we don’t know it all. And we can certainly learn more by working with our partners than working around them.

And I think the last is just having courage. And frankly, we had done this exercise and come up with the core values, and we realized that one was missing. We were like: this plan is so ambitious and so bold, there’s no way we get this done unless we are really courageous, organizationally and individually.

Denver: Well, that’s what gets people excited, too. You can do things when they realize you’re trying to make that kind of a difference. One of the things that opened my eyes in working with communities who are closest to the problem, is an individual said to me once: “Why do you come in here trying to fix us? And why do you look for what’s broken and try to fix it?And did you ever think of trying to put money towards our strengths and make them stronger?”

 And when you think about it, Mendi, it’s pretty much what we all learn from Clifton’s  StrengthsFinder or something. Take what you’re really good and work on that, and don’t go crazy over all the weaknesses. And I thought that, for me at least, was such an insight that I’ve never forgotten it.

Mendi: I love it. I love that. That is so true. And I think it connects so much to the way that I, and I think our organization, thinks about the work. And I often sort of go back to this, I think it was Margaret Thatcher who said that poverty was a disease of the mind, right? And I think unfortunately, for far too long…

Denver:  She’s one of many, I’m afraid to say.

Mendi: Right. Right. That’s true. That’s true. And I think though, for far too long, to your point, our entire sector has kind of thought that, whether we’ve said it explicitly, or it’s just been implicit in the way that we’ve done our work. And so there is an assumption that people who are experiencing challenges in their lives, it’s because of something they did wrong so they’re… on some level, they need to be fixed.

Denver: Right.

Mendi: And if we think about it that way, then we’re really not believing that it really is a question of access and opportunity. And I wholeheartedly believe that’s the case. So nothing more important than supporting the actual strengths that already exist in communities.

And I don’t even like to really say community… like power building, I know, is another popular phase because I don’t think we’re building. I think we’re actually just paying attention more closely. And I think what we are helping people do on some level is tap into their own agency to do more of what they know needs to happen.

Denver: Yeah, I’ve always looked at a lawn as a metaphor, and now that we’re in the spring, I’ll probably go out and dig up dandelions, and that’s maybe what we do in communities when there’s something wrong, we dig up dandelions. But you know what will happen in May? The dandelions will be back.

So the answer is, put some fertilizer on the grass and strangle the dandelions. That’s what we need to do in these communities: make the grass stronger, and the dandelions will just disappear. And philanthropy has never done that. We’ve always looked at the dandelions and not the good strong green grass to try to make it even stronger.

I don’t think a lot of people, Mendi, fully appreciate the support you give to the nonprofit organizations you fund. And you do this largely through the Center for Nonprofit Excellence. Give us a sense of the kind of support the Center provides the nonprofits you support.

Mendi: Yeah. So I think as is common in the field now, we are really leaning into the multiple tools that we have as a community foundation to effect change, and grant making is one of them. But quite honestly, I don’t even know if it’s our greatest asset and our greatest strength, which is funny, right?… coming from a foundation.

But I think one of the others is certainly, as I mentioned, in respect to FES, it’s the ability to sort of innovate and scale new things. But capacity building is right up there among our sort of greatest abilities, or one of the things that gives us the greatest ability to have and create impact.

And so our Center for Nonprofit Excellence has been around well over a decade. It’s actually the largest capacity-building entity in the region. We touch hundreds, hundreds of nonprofits every year in some way or another through our training. And as a part of Fairfield County Forward, what we’ve really committed to doing now in the Center for Nonprofit Excellence is doubling down on our support for those grassroots leaders who are a part of the green grass.

So… who are already out there doing the work, but have been constantly overlooked, under-resourced. And we’re really trying to invest in their capacity, so strengthening leaders of color, paying attention to those organizations that might have budgets under a million dollars, but have people really connected to the communities they live in.

And so it’s a combination of sort of those intensive supports, as well as just more generalized kind of fundamentals and nonprofit management that many more of our grantee partners are able to take advantage of. And it’s a really important part of our portfolio.

Denver: Oh, I can understand it. Yeah. I’ve always found those under-resourced organizations to be the most innovative because they’ve done things on a shoestring. And then, my goodness! When you give them some funding, it’s amazing what they’re able to do.

Mendi: Absolutely. Absolutely. I love that articulation because you’re right. What is it? Necessity is the mother of invention, right?

Denver: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah.

Mendi: So nothing makes you more creative than actually having to… make a dollar out of 15 cents.

Denver: You’re absolutely right and sometimes, I think, abundant resources can make you a little lazy. I mean, you just don’t go and find a different way to do it because you have a lot of resources. Also makes you more conservative, too, I think. So both those things happen.

Tell us a little bit about your donors, how you meet their needs, and how you view those relationships evolving in light of your new strategic plan.

Mendi: Yeah. That is something we’ve thought long and hard about because Fairfield County Forward is, in our minds, hopefully not the community foundation’s plan, but it is a plan for the community. And so it is our vision and our hope that every member of our community will find their place in the plan and see how they can be a part of helping us move forward.

And our donors are just frankly community residents. I think we often think of like donors, nonprofit leaders, residents in this sort of almost weird discrete buckets, but we’re all just community residents.

But I think historically, in our organization, we’ve been rather agnostic to where our donors give and how they give, and probably like many community foundations, rather focused on assets under management and growing that. And that’s not to say that we don’t care because certainly, in our business model, fees give us more leverage to do more work. But we’re paying a lot more attention to how we can actually have assets under influence.

And so we want to really engage our donors much more closely in authentic ways that really meet them where they are and speak to what their intrinsic interests are, but where we try to connect those interests much more closely to the work that we’re doing and the work that we believe is most critical, and frankly encourage them to keep more of their giving local.

So we’ve actually just filled… I’m super excited… we have a new role coming on board, May 1st, which is our inaugural director of community philanthropy, who’s going to be thinking about donor cohorts and learning opportunities, and kind of these creative ways, again, to increase our assets under influence. And it’s actually something we’re going to start measuring because it’s that important to us.

Denver: That’s great. So you’re approaching this now with a point of view as…

Mendi: Yes, exactly.

Denver: …which is wonderful.

There has been a significant changing of the guard, I would say, at community foundations around the country. And I’ve had the great honor of just speaking to so many of your cohorts in Oregon and Seattle and Rochester and New York and Atlanta and some other places.

And in so many of those cases, they have followed longtime leaders, sometimes 20, 30 years. You’ve done pretty much the same thing. Not that long, but double digits. What is the secret to successfully following a leader who’s been in place for 10, 20, 30, even 40 years?

Mendi: Yeah. So I feel sort of uniquely privileged in some ways in that I actually worked for my successor.

Denver: For five years!

Mendi: So we worked together for five years. And so I got to both understand the work that she had done and where she had brought the foundation and contribute to sort of… already contribute even before I stepped into my role, to sort of taking us and helping us evolve in the ways that we think are necessary.

So I think though that’s sort of a microcosm probably for the universal advice, which is: you always have to figure out what the assets are that you’re starting with. And so these are organizations that are going to continue to evolve, and certainly, if they’re going to be relevant and impactful, have to continue to evolve.

So every generation is going to have new ideas and push the envelope in new ways. And I’m perfectly cognizant that like this is not the promised land that I’m bringing us to, and there will be an evolution. But my hope would be that someone would build upon and sort of evolve the work in the same ways that I see myself, as I’ve mentioned several times I think in this conversation, of evolving the work that was laid… the foundation that was laid for me. So…

“So every day, that’s sort of my litmus test for myself. So am I acting with humility? Am I being respectful of my partners? Am I being inclusive in my thinking? And that leadership, sometimes it can be challenging to be constantly inclusive. But in whatever ways you can be, thinking of that, am I most importantly maybe being courageous in the decisions I’m making and willing to take some calculated risk in the service of the greater good? So for me, those are the same values that I think anyone, particularly in this space, needs to lead in this moment.”

Denver: Yeah, that’s a great perspective. I think it’s a humble perspective because often when CEOs get in the job, they think, Hey, here I am, and you’re really just in a relay race, and you’re getting the baton for a little bit. And someone’s handed it to you, and you’re going to be handing it off, and you just want to be a little bit farther ahead than your competition when you hand it off, when you first got the baton. But it’s just a stage; it isn’t the entire game.

With all the changes that we’ve witnessed in the last three years and they’ve been monumental, what attributes do you believe are most important for a leader to have today?

Mendi: Yeah. I think they connect to the values that I’ve referenced. And so when I think about our organizational values, I think about those as the values and the ways in which people will hopefully think about Fairfield County’s Community Foundation when they hear our name.

But I also think about them as the values that I hope every member of my staff will carry into the community, and I hope every member of our board carries into the community, and then probably, most importantly, that I really personally feel charged to embody.

So every day, that’s sort of my litmus test for myself. So am I acting with humility? Am I being respectful of my partners? Am I being inclusive in my thinking? And that leadership, sometimes it can be challenging to be constantly inclusive. But in whatever ways you can be, thinking of that, am I most importantly maybe being courageous in the decisions I’m making and willing to take some calculated risk in the service of the greater good?

So for me, those are the same values that I think anyone, particularly in this space, needs to lead in this moment.

“We’re now at a place where we want to be an equity-centered organization, but the implication of that is there is a really critical learning journey that I think you have to commit to across all dimensions of equity. So, sort of what is your individual commitment in thinking about your identity and how you show up and how you engage.”

Denver: Yeah. Well, you look to model them for your team. And let’s talk a little bit about your team because I don’t think corporate culture has ever been more important than it is today. It’s difficult to recruit talent; it’s difficult to retain talent, and remote and hybrid work has only made this whole thing more complex. I’m not saying worse or better, it’s just more complex.

Talk a little bit about the corporate culture at FCCF, maybe one of the things that you think makes it outstanding, and maybe something that you’re still working on.

Mendi: Yeah. And those questions merge for me in my mind. What makes us outstanding? It’s the thing we’re…

Denver: My two questions are really only one.

Mendi: You’re right. So I am so unbelievably proud of where we are from an organizational culture perspective, but it wasn’t easy getting there. And sometimes… I was actually just sharing with someone recently that I sort of have this, maybe it’s a little wild, but this idea of sort of showing people a little bit in terms of how the sausage is made in terms of culture and…

Denver: You let them in, eh?

Mendi: Right, right. And peeling back the layers because a big part of our current culture, I think, is connected to our equity values. Five plus years ago, we started thinking about how we could become… embed equity more in our organization.

We’re now at a place where we want to be an equity-centered organization, but the implication of that is there is a really critical learning journey that I think you have to commit to across all dimensions of equity. So, sort of what is your individual commitment in thinking about  your identity and how you show up and how you engage.

What’s that interpersonal dynamic between staff, between board, between us and our partners? And then, what is really our sort of institutional policy and procedures commitment to equity? And then kind of the last thing, but the thing that I think a lot of people, unfortunately, pay most attention to is: How do we show up in an equitable way in the community?

But if you don’t have the first three, I’m really convinced you can’t get to the last one. And so we’ve spent so much time thinking through those first three buckets, and I will be perfectly honest, it’s had fits and starts. We had four different consultants. We’ve gotten fired by a couple, right? Who were like, no…

Denver: There you go.

Mendi: …this isn’t working.

We’ve had really intensive conversations and tears and fights. And I would never say we’re on the other side because I don’t believe there’s another side. It is a continuous learning journey.

Denver: Absolutely.

Mendi: But I think we’ve been enough in the muck, that now we know how to engage in ways that are so much more productive and frankly authentic. And so it is the culture, I think, of collaboration and openness that we have today that I am so, in many ways, I think protective of. There’s nothing I care more about maintaining…

Denver: Oh, no. No, absolutely, because it impacts everything. And it sounds, just listening to what you said, you have been able to figure a way to have intellectual friction in your organization without having social friction.

And when that friction begins, maybe in that mucky, those mucky years, it kind of spills over, and you say, well, look, unless we really have a hard discussion and we’re really going at each other, but we still love each other. It just means we have a different point of view, and sometimes it gets really tangled early on until you can get that divide.

Mendi: Yeah. I would actually even… I agree with that characterization, but I would actually even add another layer, which is personal friction. Like …the issues we’re talking about are deeply personal for people. And when we are thinking about equity, and we are thinking about the role of institutional and structural racism in our country and our organizations and the work that we do, these become really hard conversations.

And I think you have to be willing to think about it, yes, absolutely intellectually, but also personally. And I almost think about it like a family, right? Like sometimes you are really just going to have personal conflict with your family members where it just… sometimes you can’t even resolve it and you can’t get on the same page.

But hopefully, foundationally, you share the same values and the same interest in being a family and in moving forward. And so you find ways to do that. And it’s not that different in my mind for an organization. And so I think we are at a, not a perfect place for sure, but a much better place where we can hold that intellectual and personal tension and still move forward.

Denver: That’s great. Well, you should teach that to families because most families I know can’t talk politics at Thanksgiving. You know what I mean? And it really is incredible how it’s gotten conflated.

Finally, Mendi, you come from a family deeply rooted in philanthropy and public service. Tell listeners about your journey into your current role now and how those past experiences have helped you prepare for it.

Mendi: Yeah. Sure. So I’ll start from the backend, which is where I am today.

Denver: Okay.

Mendi: It’s sort of insightful to the journey. Sort of now that I sit in this role and I feel so blessed and so well-suited for this role because it really does speak to kind of the way my mind intrinsically works. When I look at my sort of career trajectory, I don’t know what I ultimately could have been other than a CEO of a community foundation.

Denver: Well, Steve Jobs says he can only connect the dots backwards. And you had no idea what you were doing. And then you look and say, Oh, it all makes sense now.

Mendi: That is, oh my gosh, I’ve never heard that before, but I love it. And it’s so true to my experience. So I started my… well, I went to Harvard undergrad and I actually entered as, really, like a spoken word artist and a literary person. And I thought I was going to go down a path like that, and I somehow graduated as an economics major.

But in the process, I had been a history and literature major for a while. And then I was a psychology major for a while. And it wasn’t because I lacked direction. I was just genuinely interested in all of those things. I ended up on Wall Street. I worked at Goldman Sachs as my first job.

It was an amazing experience, but I wasn’t personally passionate about that work. And I am a really heart-driven person, so I have to be really passionate to get excited. And fast forward, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer and pursue social justice that way. I got into law school and said I wanted to be at the decision-making table more, so I got an MBA.

So that’s why I started at the end because…

Denver: Oh, you are jumping around a little bit here. I kind of built… I saw the change in the majors in college, but you just kept on going.

Mendi: It keeps going. It keeps going. And then I did some consulting and mainly supported entrepreneurs. I worked as a consultant for foundations for a while at The Center for Effective Philanthropy, and that was actually my first foray into foundations.

And then I turned it on its head again, and I worked in government, in local government, and I started doing campaign work. And then I found my way to the foundation, and it was, as I said, my role was the only role that really leveraged like someone who had cross-sector experience, multi-functional experience.

And my role today requires me to draw from all of those things in super meaningful, concrete ways. So that’s my path. I don’t know if it’s instructive.

“And if I had one piece of advice, it would be to follow your passion and your heart and what you’re interested in, and at least from where I sit, the people that I know that are most successful… and I don’t just mean in terms of titles, but in terms of satisfaction… are people who doubled down on the things they cared about.”

Denver: Well, I got to tell you, if I had to reframe the question again, I probably would’ve said, tell us what you haven’t done, and it would be a much… that would be a tough one. No, I do think that people maintain and stay too much in their lane. And they lose a lot of peripheral vision, and they learn all the things that come from other industries and other sectors.

And I think even in this world of AI, this is one of the things that’s going to be the human’s greatest ability, is to be able to think horizontally, because we’re never going to be able to compete with machine learning vertically. But we will, for at least a while, I guess, horizontally, and that horizontal perspective is, I think, just great advice for any young person.

Mendi: That’s… I love that, that framing. And you’re right. And if I had one piece of advice, it would be to follow your passion and your heart and what you’re interested in, and at least from where I sit, the people that I know that are most successful… and I don’t just mean in terms of titles, but in terms of satisfaction… are people who doubled down on the things they cared about.

And so it sounds a little trite maybe, but I really think that’s the best advice you can give. And I don’t know if I ever got that advice, but I kind of de facto did that anyway.

Denver: Well, let’s face it, it’s true with every aspect of our lives. We have to enjoy what we do to do it well. And you can do things well that you don’t enjoy, but only for a short period of time. It’s going to wear you out, and you’ll begin to slip.

Mendi, how do people get in touch with Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, whether to learn more, to set up a fund, to apply for a grant, whatever. Tell us a little bit about your website.

Mendi: Yeah. So all of that, all there on our website. If you go to the website,, you can see where you can engage with us as a potential donor. You can learn all about our community impact work that I’ve referenced here, as well as read some of our blogs and our sort of thought pieces and our research.

Because that’s a really… we didn’t talk as much about that in this conversation, but that is a really, really important part of our work because I think, fundamentally, part of what we need to do is marshal and get more resources to do this work. But equally, if not more important, I think we’ve got to create greater public will to do this work. And I actually think that the public education and the advocacy and the research… all of which is available on the website, is the best way to increase public will.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. We got to get more upstream and really change it at the mouth of the river to get that system change that we really need.

Well, thanks, Mendi, for being here today and for such a lively conversation. It was a real delight to have you on the program.

Mendi: Thank you so much. I enjoyed it. Thank you for having me.

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.

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