The Exit Interview with Michele Prichard: A Grantmaker’s Reflections on Philanthropy and Community Building

March 4, 2024

Michele's interview provides a glimpse into the world of philanthropy through her experiences and insights over 34 years at the Liberty Hill Foundation in Los Angeles. Her retirement from a senior role signifies a new chapter in her journey to create lasting change. Through democratic philanthropy, community engagement, and profound dedication to systemic solutions, Michele's story is an inspiration to all seeking to make a meaningful difference in the world.

How did you get your start in the world of philanthropy?

It was a bit of long road!  When I graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, my first job landed me in the company of the renowned environmental scientist, Dr. Barry Commoner, who founded and directed the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems there. Notably, he collaborated closely with anthropologist Margaret Mead to establish the Scientists’  Institute for Public Information dedicated to making scientific information accessible for citizens and the media on key policy issues. He linked environmental issues to broader concerns around poverty, public health, national defense, and social injustice.

At that time, his focus was on biology, particularly how toxic substances and nuclear energy impacted ecological systems. He wrote many books and articles on the subject. In 1970, he graced the cover of Time magazine. A striking image divided his face – one half obscured by pollution-belching factories in somber shades of black, white, and gray; the other side radiated with vibrant greens, animals, people, and sunshine. The caption hailed him as the “Paul Revere of the Environment.” This pivotal year marked the passage of the Clean Air Act, soon followed by the Clean Water Act, revolutionizing environmental policy.  Commoner is included in The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Peter Dreier, 2012).

Dr. Commoner's mentorship had a profound impact on me. He emerged as an early advocate in the anti-nuclear movement. Back then, there was a fervent drive to construct nuclear power plants across the US as an alternative energy source to reduce dependence on Middle Eastern oil. The implications were vast, although climate change hadn't yet solidified as a collective concern. It was a critical juncture, given the substantial risks associated with nuclear energy. Dr. Commoner played a pivotal role in exposing the hazards and rallying against the construction of these power plants.  Ultimately, we triumphed, as legal challenges and increased costs prevented their establishment. The victory was a result of a combined effort, with environmental lawyers, activists and grassroots movements all contributing to the cause.

I moved to California and took my next job as the Administrative Director at the Southern California Council of Churches, an association of protestant denominations with representation from other faith communities. Its mission was to facilitate faith groups working together on different social issues of the day. This is how I first met Liberty Hill, I joined their community funding board in 1984. In those early days, activists were organizing and developing programs and solutions, but they didn't have 501c3 non-profit status. These are what we called “kitchen table” groups. They were rolling up their sleeves to help organize communities to have a voice and work for justice.  Our founding director, Mary Jo Von Mach, did not want to give grants to any entity that didn't have 501c3 status. The Council of Churches had a broad social justice mission and was able to accept money and regrant to those small groups. Liberty Hill funded a lot of issues long before other grantmakers such as homelessness, police abuse, Central American refugee resettlement, peace and disarmament.


In your 34 years at Liberty Hill, how did your work evolve?

Joining Liberty Hill as Executive Director in 1989, I witnessed the organization's evolution from supporting tiny, grassroots kitchen table groups to becoming a pivotal partner in driving social justice.

My first year, we only had two and a half people on staff. We were in a little basement office, you know? I think our budget that first year was maybe $150,000 dollars. That paid for all the staff, operations, and whole granting budget! Our grants were typically two thousand, three thousand dollars. Five thousand dollars was a big grant back then!

The founding motto of Liberty Hill was “Change, Not Charity.” We thought of it as a form of democratic philanthropy and operationalized it through a community funding board that made all grant decisions. We had a couple of donors who sat on that board, but by and large, it was community activists. We were dedicated to the principle that the people who knew the issues, knew the streets, and knew the solutions should be the ones making decisions on grant allocations. So that was very fundamental to Liberty Hill’s formation. The other way we interpreted “Change, not Charity” was that service is crucial to keep people alive, but, we also needed to think of systemic solutions to problems, not just providing band-aids.

Early on, I went to meet the President of the Southern California Association for Philanthropy (now Southern California Grantmakers). He said, “you all don't qualify for membership.” We were just too weird, you know? It was like we were a public foundation. We didn't have family trustees. We had this community funding board. We were funding community organizing and they couldn't put their heads around it. But we hung in there and as we built the foundation and gave bigger grants, discovered impactful community groups and built relationships, we were invited into membership.


Would you like to share any reflections on the field of philanthropy?

During the LA riots and civil unrest in 1992, all grant makers were looking at themselves to grasp the situation and find answers. First, it was the police brutality of Rodney King that everybody saw on television. It was a “George Floyd moment” and the city just erupted. There were fires and ransacking and what became clear was there was a huge racial divide in Los Angeles, as well as very profound poverty and inequality. Everybody except the community organizers were surprised. To figure out what to do was going to become the project of our lifetimes.

In the aftermath of 1992, the LA Urban Funders came together to understand what philanthropy could do to meet the moment. They invited Liberty Hill to join a committee to visit organizations who were doing the groundwork in the LA communities affected by the riots to understand the conditions that gave rise to them. We decided to take a bus tour and I suggested that we visit some Liberty Hill grantees that were already doing work with our small grants. As we traveled from place to place my colleagues remarked to me, “Oh wow, what are all these groups?” “All these people are so amazing. Their work is incredible.” Liberty Hill has always been there for small organizations who were making big changes with the modest grants we provided.

Our most famous story happened on this trip! We visited an organization called the Community Coalition. It was founded by Karen Bass, an organizer who is now the Mayor of LA. She served as the Speaker of the Assembly of California, and a US Congressmember from 2011-2022. She had received a three-thousand-dollar grant from Liberty Hill in 1990 to address the problem of the crack/cocaine epidemic. In South LA at the time, the police were just using battering rams to bust into crack houses and arrest people, and she had a different insight on the social and economic roots of the epidemic.

Bass organized a conference that pulled together faith leaders, organizers, social workers, medical staff, and neighbors.  It became the Community Coalition and went on to do great community organizing and advocacy around the social determinants of health. That’s what we would call it now. The rest is history. She's now our first African American woman Mayor and remains very close to Liberty Hill and the network of community organizations that we helped to get off the ground with seed funding. It’s fair to say that we wanted to see changes in philanthropy and promoted what was then the radical idea of working upstream.


How do you feel philanthropy has evolved?

After the riots and LA Urban Funders, we got invited to join the Southern California Grantmakers. We were expanding and a little more professionalized by then, and the value of community-based groups and structural solutions became obvious. We continued to participate in educational programming to help other funders understand issues and we also learned there were a lot of things we didn't know.  By working with our foundation colleagues, we got a better understanding of a lot of things.

We were the first grantmaker in LA to fund environmental justice—to name it and call it that. We were able to do that initially with some funding from legal settlements that were won by different environmental groups. We started with this little pot of money. Then we got a big break.

The California Endowment was just getting started around that time, and they made a big investment to provide multi-year funding to Liberty Hill to address environmental health and justice through an approach that combined research, community organizing, and peer learning. Then, the California Wellness Foundation, under the leadership of Earl Lui, also decided to fund environmental health and justice, following Liberty Hill’s lead. Liberty Hill was the tip of the spear, but these other big foundations had the scale of resources to really shape the field.

Liberty Hill’s own fundraising has evolved too. You never stop fundraising in a public foundation since we have to raise all the money that we give away. We started with individual donors who had inherited wealth and that was our main funding. We then innovated with a fundraising dinner, where we were able to attract Hollywood money and gain some visibility. Then came the next era of raising money from other foundations because they saw Liberty Hill as a valuable partner in advancing social justice.

I feel like now there's a big movement towards trust-based philanthropy. You know, balancing power inequities and including community in grant making allocations and decisions. There is now almost universal appreciation for the need to build relationships with grantees. There's a lot that has been adopted by many foundations and foundation associations. So that's my story, the big arc of 34 years. You know, it is really different now and so much has changed. I am proud that Liberty Hill was a forerunner of so many practices that are now more accepted in philanthropy.


Why have you chosen to step away from your full-time position at Liberty Hill now?

I have chosen to retire from Liberty Hill due to a deep sense of satisfaction and a promising array of opportunities. Retirement opens doors to exploring diverse projects and fields. Retirement will allow me to fully embrace new challenges while reflecting on a career rich in experiences. With a focus on systemic solutions over quick fixes, I believe that change should extend beyond charity to enact meaningful and lasting impact. For example, I have joined the national board of Greenpeace which is a powerful platform for addressing climate change, plastic pollution and ocean protection.  Especially given their global reach and hundreds of thousands of supporters, it is an opportunity to make a real difference in a new way.


What have you found valuable about HEFN Membership?

HEFN has provided an invaluable learning community for me and so many others.  Kathy Sessions did an excellent job early on in guiding funders to find their way and identify the key issues we should focus on. Throughout my career, having access to the educational programming put on by HEFN and other affinity groups has greatly enhanced our collective understanding and made us better grantmakers—and changemakers!

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