The Exit Interview

July 7, 2014
Amy Solomon

This guest post is authored by Amy Solomon, trustee of the Jenifer Altman Foundation.

Just a month ago, I stepped away from my program officer position at the Bullitt Foundation. To answer questions I’ve been asked – or have asked myself – here are some reflections on my twelve years at the Foundation, on philanthropy and on moving to the next chapter in my professional life.

Why have you chosen to step out of your full time position at the Bullitt Foundation now?

I am in my seventh decade, a child of the 1950’s. My cultural touchstones are the Beatles, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War. I know more about rotary phones and mimeograph machines than I do Pinterest and Twitter –although that might have to change!

I’m not ready to retire and I’m not seeking another full time job, but it’s time for simple pleasures. I plan to continue to work on  issues like toxics, climate change and social equity, with many close long-time colleagues and grantees, but also, while the knees are willing, have fewer deadlines and less time at the computer and more time for hiking, reading and whatever seems like fun.

Did you have any prior experience in philanthropy?

I was a relative “newbie” to philanthropy when I joined the Bullitt Foundation in 2002. At the time I was an independent consultant working with foundations and nonprofits. I wasn’t looking for a job, so I was more than surprised when the Bullitt Foundation’s president called out of the blue and offered me the program officer position. To say the least, having such a plum opportunity drop into my lap was unexpected and thrilling.

Do you have any reflections on the field of philanthropy to share?

This is a wacky occupation!  Most of us give away someone else’s money, without many concrete or irrefutable measures of impact, and with extensive latitude to decide what to fund. We have special access to places and people to inform our thinking. Too often, grant makers treat the money as the only asset at our disposal and fail to maximize all of the assets available to us, including our leadership, relationships, reputation, and personal influence. We frequently are not the smartest people in a room, but we have such power and privilege as grant makers that we are treated with deference and receive little push back. More than most other social institutions, we have incredible capacity to seed broad social change as well as the luxury of the patience and resilience to accept the risks that the public sector can’t afford and the private sector won’t bear. 

In 2008, the trustees of the Bullitt Foundation decided to diversify the investment portfolio holdings by purchasing a property close to downtown that had the right orientation to incorporate solar energy production as a feature of the building.  Once the commitment was made to construct a building that would meet the requirements of the Living Building Challenge, a rigorous performance-based system, the Foundation was charting significant new territory in mission-related investing and commercial property development. The Bullitt Center, a 50,000 square foot six-story office building, often described as the greenest commercial building in the world, officially opened in April 2013.

To me, even more exciting than the fact that the building’s photovoltaic array generates all the power the building and its occupants need, is the fact that there are no toxic materials in the core or shell of the building.  And most tenants are buying furnishings that also meet the requirements of the so-called “Red List” of 14 chemical categories including such as pthalates, lead, PVC’s, formaldehyde, HCFC’s and so on. Although difficult to prove, occupants of the Bullitt Center are expected to be healthier and more productive because their workspace is less toxic than typical commercial buildings that are loaded with Red List chemicals.

At its best, and despite the compartmentalization we all decry, philanthropy is a collaborative undertaking.  On so many occasions, a colleague from another region or one who works nationally has been a great resource and introduced me to a new research or a project or organization that is making headway or doing groundbreaking work.  I made better decisions because of insights and observations shared with me by colleagues.

Yet, this is more a “one-off” than it is deep collaboration, which is talked about so much in philanthropy circles these days but rarely occurs. It’s not too difficult for two program officers to check in and coordinate on grantmaking in a given docket. It’s something very different when funders come together to develop and implement a strategy with pooled funds. I’m sure there are other examples, but one I would point to is  Partners for Places administered by The Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities (TFN). Visionary philanthropic leaders conceived this innovative program with an eye to leveraging far greater impact by joining together.

For those who work for family foundations, which the Bullitt Foundation once was, we are stewards not only of the money, but also of the donors’ values, spirit, and reputation. I’ve watched many colleagues navigate complicated interpersonal dynamics of family relationships, struggling toward shared priorities. This is particularly true of newly established foundations where it may take  a few years of muddling before the board and staff clarify what they most care about and want to accomplish.

I drove my grantees crazy asking them to operate with a sense of urgency. I’d ask my colleagues in philanthropy to do so, too. If there’s a choice between two worthy things to fund but one truly has an element of timeliness or the possibility for transformational change, do that! Don’t be afraid of policy and advocacy, especially when the work is based on sound research and is smart, sophisticated and strategic.

What are your thoughts about best program officer practices?

For me, first and foremost it has been about the grantees. I tried to learn from veterans like Ted Smith, former executive director of the Kendall Foundation, about how to work from an attitude of respect, not from any sense of entitlement or arrogance as too often abounds in philanthropy. I frequently exhorted grantees to get out of their echo chamber and be careful not to “buy their own PR.” The same is true for program officers. Finally, I tried to bring to the work my “senses” of urgency and humor.

What are you most proud of?

That is an easy question. I believe that the focus on equity and inclusiveness will be my legacy work at the Bullitt Foundation.

The 2006 midterm elections made me realize that, for the environmental community to remain relevant, it was imperative to broaden the base. I started having conversations about working with communities of color, as hardly any of our grantees had people of color on staff or on their boards. I viewed this as a “sin of omission, not commission.”  And I organized a mixer to help environmental organizations and social justice groups network, helping everyone get acquainted and connect across circles that didn’t often  intersect. And so began my campaign to “help the environmental community prepare itself to be effective in a multi-cultural society.”

My efforts were reinforced and aided by serving on the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities (TFN) board during a period when TFN committed itself to equity and inclusiveness, aiming to make these principles core to TFN and the field. This gave me access to great resources, knowledgeable experts, and a community of practice to turn to for advice.

I brought this back to Bullitt as the architect of what became a part of our Leadership and Civic Engagement program area. I challenged, inveigled, and coaxed our predominately white grantees to look at their organizations, relationships and alliances in a different way. It’s very delicate and scary territory. Only within the past year has the Bullitt Foundation started making grants to social equity and organizations that serve communities of color. In each case, while the group may not describe itself as environmental organization, there is a focus on an environmental issue such as transit or air quality. There is an understandable fear of making mistakes such as uttering an inadvertently insensitive comment and not having a second chance to undo the misstep. As critical as this need is, it was a lot to ask our grantees that already juggle more than they can handle to add something new and difficult to their “To-do” lists.

In the final docket I handled before leaving the Foundation, I was able to recommend funding two first-time grantees who serve communities of color – Latino and Asian. In both cases, the grants are supporting leadership development programs with funding that allows the scope and curriculum to expand to include environmental issues. The two organizations are keenly aware of the need to develop leaders who can represent and advocate for their respective constituencies to meet intense demand for participation on boards, advisory panels, public commissions and the like.  And to ensure that their communities’ needs and priorities, often health-related concerns connected to air quality, housing, employment, access to healthy food and open space receive time, attention and resources.

The key for me was to listen carefully and be able to interpret how what I heard from these groups fit into the programs and priorities for our environmental foundation. For those interested in making inclusiveness and equity more of a focus in your funding, don’t let the labels and the “boxes” – environmental justice, climate justice, transit justice – all valid and critical concerns – get in the way. Be patient but get to the heart of the matter where I bet you will find a way to work with a different mix of groups. 

Yet, as I reflect on what’s happened in the past eight years in a fits-and-starts non-linear fashion, I am pleased but not yet satisfied. This is deep and difficult work. Fortunately, many other foundations are beginning to direct resources to this work. National foundations like Surdna and Kresge have reoriented their programs and assert that an equity lens is a priority in their grant making. Social Venture Partners in Seattle has been working for a year on a “Diversity and Cultural Competency” initiative to determine how to be more inclusive. Today, I can point to many grantees who have stepped across the social, racial and ethnic divides to join with communities of color to protect the environment.

At a recent Environmental Grantmakers Association meeting, I heard this from Tonya Allen, CEO of the Skillman Foundation: “Diversity is when you count the people. Inclusiveness is when the people count.” I did what I could to bring this philosophy into my work at the Bullitt Foundation.

The “one month out” postscript: 

I am just completing my first month post-Bullitt. I have been able to stay connected to funder friends and colleagues at EGA, TFN and HEFN. I’m serving on HEFN’s annual meeting planning committee thanks to my recent election as a trustee of the Jenifer Altman Foundation. I’m relieved to have these important continuing connections, and relationships.

That said, I was offered great advice from a number of people including the very wise Kathy Sessions, who recommended taking a breather before plunging into the consulting work I had in mind. I failed to take the advice and found myself busier than I wanted to be this quickly. Still, it’s quite different than the routine I was in of working a full-time job with lots of travel. My garden already has gotten more love and attention this year than the past two or three. I read a 370-page book that had nothing to do with the environment simply because I could and I enjoyed it!  I went to a 7:30 pm movie on a Sunday night – guilt-free!  No doubt I’m still in transition, but I remain confident that I made the right move at the right time.

Amy Solomon is a former Program Officer of the Bullitt Foundation.  She has recently reopened her consulting practice to work on a mix of projects, some with the Bullitt Foundation.  She is a Trustee of the Jenifer Altman Foundation.

From our Blog

Senators Udall and Vitter
Blog posted on June 8, 2016
On June 7, Congress passed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, potentially the most important new, non-energy-related environmental law in a generation. Whether this...

Stay Informed