Q& A with the 2017 Shannon St. John Fellows

In the summer, the Foundation employs students to work on specific projects as Shannon St. John Fellows, named in honor of our first president. This summer we were lucky to work with two talented students, Shelli Grogg (S) and Ebony West (E), both pursuing their Master’s in Public Administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They sat down with Jess Aylor, Director of Community Investment this month, to talk about their experiences working at the Foundation.

Q: What drew you to Triangle Community Foundation?

S: One of the things that excited me at first was the diversity in focus areas that the Foundation has. The fact that it was all encompassing – there’s environment, and room for arts, broader community development and important youth literacy. It showed where your priorities were and aligned with my values.

E: A lot of what Shelli said also brought me here but, ultimately, it was the community that the Foundation serves that drew me here. One thing I share with both my grandfathers is that we were all born and raised in North Carolina, unlike the rest of my family which hails from Virginia or South Carolina. I was able to share this NC connection with my paternal grandfather, who grew up in Little Washington growing up but my maternal grandfather, who was from Chapel Hill, passed when my mom was young so I never got the opportunity to meet him. I recently learned more about where he lived and worked in the area and it has made me feel a lot more connected to him and the region. I think I saw the Foundation as an opportunity to learn even more about the region and connect to it. (Ebony is from Charlotte)

Q: What projects are you working on this summer?

S: My main project is helping to figure out how to better share community information with our stakeholders. That includes helping to plan upcoming events for this year and in the future. A lot of that has been creating surveys and analyzing their results, researching what other foundations are doing and seeing what we have done in the past that worked, and didn’t work.

E: My major project is to help with the new strategic plan! I’m helping to draft the mission, vision, and values of the Foundation and assist the staff and board in thinking through strategies to achieve the Foundation’s aspirational direction. The Foundation is working to incorporate equity internally and externally, so I’m looking at peer foundations and trying to figure out how they are incorporating equity across the board and how we can learn from their efforts.

Q: You’ve both been here about two months now. What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned so far?

S: I feel like it’s been longer than two months because I have learned such a huge amount about community foundations, philanthropy, information sharing, and also just myself and my future career goals. But one of the things I have been the most struck by is how much goes on at the Foundation every day, and how it all seems to fit together so well. There seem to be a million things happening on a day-to-day basis in the office, from financial transactions to donor meetings to site visits and so much more. Every time I have the chance to talk with a staff member about their role and what they do I learn something new that the Foundation is doing that I had no clue was going on, and everyone is truly an expert in their role. It’s really cool to watch things seem to happen effortlessly from my point of view, but then talking to everyone you see just how much work goes into coordinating and making sure the work gets done.

E: Ah! It’s honestly about what community foundations do, what they have the potential to do, and surprisingly how that work looks different in every community. Researching what other foundations do to incorporate equity has been interesting, particularly in seeing where TCF is currently in creating equitable outcomes, but also how much room for innovation and growth there is has been interesting and exciting. It’s also interesting to see how grounded in the community a Foundation can be and the varying ways TCF brings people together.

From a personal standpoint, I’m able to see myself in this work a lot more now, I understand my place and the role I can have here and can take on to truly make an impact– especially as it pertains to equity work. I’ve done most of my work in grassroots organizing and, in my mind, working within a Foundation almost seemed like a level removed from seeing and being on the frontline of change and impact. It’s been interesting seeing the important role Foundation’s play in making it so that work like that can be done in our communities and also the impact that Foundations can have more directly to make a positive impact in the Triangle.

Q: If you had five minutes with a stranger who asked you about the Foundation, what would you tell them?

S: I feel like TCF is a connection point between those that want to help make change happen and those who are trying to implement those changes. I think the Foundation’s role in the community is to help donors build their passions and use resources to make the greatest impact, as well as support the many nonprofits and programs in the community to make the changes everyone collectively wants to see made. They are helping donors to create a broader and more strategic impact in the areas they are passionate about, while also developing the community through helping facilitate community conversations, supporting nonprofits, and bringing together all those pieces.

E: I think the Foundation is a bridge. That connects various people – donors, members of the community, those in the public and private sector – to ideas and honestly other people to better the community, and tackle the pressing issues happening in the Triangle. The Foundation is also a resource to these connected groups. A resource for funding, convening, story-telling, collaboration, and facilitation to address issues facing our community.

Q: What do you believe to be the biggest challenges that lie ahead for the Foundation, and philanthropy in general?

S: A big problem in philanthropy that I keep bumping into, is the need for collaboration. TCF, and other community foundations, seem to me to have the greatest vantage point to be the facilitator of this collaboration. There are so many great organizations and people out in the Triangle working every day to tackle really tough problems that are facing our community. But they might be approaching the problem from different angles or working with different populations – but at the end of the day they want the same thing, a better community for everyone. However, I still think there’s a lot of room for being more strategic in how this work gets done, including collaboration between all these different organizations and groups. Even just as simple as getting key players together to have a conversation and share information can go a long way. So, I think TCF has a great opportunity to use their position, reputation, and connections in the community to help be a convener, facilitator, or whatever it might be to help coordinate systematic progress in its focus areas and among all the partners working towards the same progress TCF is seeking.

E: I believe the most challenging thing that TCF and other CFs will be facing ahead is equity – primarily dealing with the changes that equity will require within their organizations, really. I think everyone recognizes that equity isn’t an ‘easy’ topic to talk about for some, nor is it an easy thing to incorporate or measure. Equity is about creating equitable outcomes and opportunity for everyone. It’s about sharing power across the community. In the past, I think Foundations have facilitated very downstream efforts to address opportunity and outcome disparities. To me that’s treating symptoms of inequity but not actually looking at the root causes creating those symptoms. We’re starting to see more and more Foundations look upstream at how institutions and systems create these disparities further downstream.

This isn’t an easy shift though. Addressing these inequitable systems and institutions will be hard and both internal and external changes will need to be made within Foundations to tackle issues of inequity. Typically change is perceived as a scary thing for a lot of people and, in my mind, major changes in the way Foundation’s work is what it’s going to take to make deeper, more impactful differences in the community. Changes in grantmaking, policies, donor outreach, hiring, investing, and so on.  Foundations will need to be bold and innovative if they want to effectively create equitable outcomes in the community. Making this shift towards equity will be a huge challenge but I’m excited by the amount of Foundations, including TCF, that are beginning to tackle equity work by replacing the fear of implementation with excitement for creating progress in the community.