Triangle Community Foundation Board Chair Chris DeVita never expected her career to be centered on philanthropy, having initially focused on the legal field, but ultimately she had 24 years to embrace and lead ideas on how you shape legacy to create impact as founding president of The Wallace Foundation.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Chris was the eldest of four children. Her father was a police officer and her mother a homemaker. She spent 12 years attending an all-girls parochial school, went on to Queens College in New York and then received her law degree from Fordham Law School.
In terms of what Chris knew of philanthropy growing up, she says, “Well, we were a family of six on a policeman’s salary, so I learned to share. First at home, and second, through our church, where service to others was an important teaching. I was also a Girl Scout, so the concepts of servant leadership, I think, got embedded in different ways. Growing up I would call that ‘small p’ philanthropy. I then learned about organized philanthropy when I had the opportunity to become involved with what’s now the Wallace Foundation.”
Chris’ introduction to organized philanthropy came from her experience as inhouse legal counsel at Reader's Digest. Dewitt and Lila Acheson Wallace, the founders of Reader’s Digest, were both still alive at that time, but soon passed away within a few years of each other. Their estate plan was fairly complicated but ultimately all their assets, including their company, were to go to their private charitable foundations. Chris was part of a team charged with creating a plan that would best honor the interest of the donors, the interest of the company, and the interests of the foundations. She thought it would be a two-year assignment. “Well, two years turned into 24!”
Chris says in retrospect she never looked back. “It was such an amazing honor and opportunity to be there to help figure out how to create a plan from a legal, investment, financial, and tax standpoint - which took three years, by the way - but also then figuring out how to ‘create’ philanthropy. How do you identify the historical interests of the donors and connect that to problems that need attention in today’s world? What kind of difference do you want to make? How do you know you’re making it? I certainly learned more during my tenure running the Wallace Foundation than I ever would have had I stayed practicing law. It’s also interesting that since the Wallaces never had any children they assumed their company was going to be their legacy, but I think it has been the Wallace Foundation that has become their legacy, which has been really satisfying to be a part of.”
Settling in North Carolina was unexpected for Chris and her husband, both of whom were life-long New Yorkers. They became familiar with the area while visiting their two children, who came to school here. They decided to move after one particularly brutal, snowy winter in New York and have since fallen in love with the place. “We like all the things that people who come here like about it – the intellectual life, cultural life, outdoor life, a direct flight to Europe from RDU, great medical centers, great universities, and still four seasons, with winter the shortest and hardly any snow!”
Once Chris was settled, she began to look around at the nonprofits in the area. Triangle Community Foundation naturally popped up on the radar screen pretty quickly, and she called Lori to set up a meeting. “This was in about 2012, and that's how I began to know Lori and the Foundation. I initially served on some grantee advisory committees, and then was asked to join the Board.”
Reflecting on the 10 or so years she has been affiliated with the Foundation, Chris thinks the Foundation has become more thoughtful about its work. “To my mind the relationships and help the Foundation provides to grantees has deepened. The Triangle Capacity-Building Network is a perfect example of this. Funding things like back-office infrastructure is ‘unsexy’ but absolutely crucial for an organization to succeed. The trust-based philanthropy showcased by the Network is really inspiring and has brought other funders along. It is a mark of leadership that is, I think, the epitome of what community foundations can do and do well, using both its spotlight to shine a light on issues that are really important but not ‘exciting’ to fund, and the ability to bring others in the community to the table. To me there is a ripple effect, like a pebble thrown in the water, that I think highlights the unique role a community foundation has to play as an idea generator and a convener.”
Looking forward, Chris hopes the Foundation further embraces the role of convener. “That is such an important role the Foundation can continue to play - identify an issue, bring people together, and talk about solutions. I'd like to see an even broader set of participants at the table, including policymakers, academics, and people who bring other assets to a discussion. To continue the ripple metaphor, that helps amplify the weight of the stone that goes into the lake.”