Lessons from our past Presidents' Forum gatherings

Presidents’ Forum facilitators Mike Allison and Yavilah McCoy

Presidents’ Forum facilitators Mike Allison and Yavilah McCoy

The Presidents' Forum creates a space where CEOs can candidly discuss the most difficult issues and trade-offs around racial and ethnic equity and think through these important issues with others facing the same or similar questions. The first two gatherings (in December 2018 and March 2019) were facilitated by Mike Allison and Yavilah McCoy, who share some of the valuable things they’ve learned in this Q&A.

After the two Presidents' Forum gatherings, what would you say are the top takeaways you hope participants took?

Mike: There’s a sense of community in their work to advance racial equity in philanthropy that they are able to take away with them. They also gained some additional clarity about what they’ve already done, what’s worked, and where the best opportunities are to move the work forward.

They’re able to contextualize their work to date, celebrate it, but also through that clarity be better able to think about where the work needs to move forward from here.

Yavilah: People seemed really appreciative of the opportunity to hear from other folks in their leadership circle about what it’s like to be able to do this work from a leadership development space. I think they valued most the opportunity to take those resources and roll them out with each other.

The group that gathered in March was smaller, and sharing went deeper quicker. Folks wanted to stay connected and even asked for ways to stay connected beyond the meeting, even earlier in the meeting. They seemed to recognize the gift in the listening partnerships and the coaching that we added in the second gathering, too.

What common themes did you see in the tips and ideas that came forward from participants in the December meeting and the March meeting?

Mike: They’re pretty situational, but I would say that the idea of writing up what the journey to date -- to share with other institutions but also to memorialize the work -- that was an interesting one that came up at the last meeting.

Yavilah: They talked a lot about how they can not only have good ideas but also bring their boards with them. It’s relational -- how do you work best with a board member who is challenging? Or what happens when … ?

Running through case scenarios seems to be more meaningful to them than offering resources.

Why do you think gatherings like this are important for foundation leaders?

Mike: Foundation leaders don’t have many opportunities to consult with a group of their peers. They’re in touch with each other individually, but to have a peer group like this, I think it’s pretty unusual and very valuable. I think it enriches the conversation.

Being with that community also gives them an opportunity for reflection and discussion in a relaxed environment. A lot of times, it’s really go, go, go, constantly moving to the next task or challenge. To have that opportunity to step back, journal a little bit, have some quiet time to reflect, and to have individual conversations with their peers is really valuable.

Yavilah: Leaders in philanthropy are positioned to always culturally be the one people are asking questions of, so creating a space where they can ask questions and process, without worry, is important to them, too.

That process of asking questions includes vulnerability. It’s risky. To move racial equity work forward, you need faith, trust, courage, and fearlessness. You have to come from the realm of humble leadership -- the part of leadership where you don’t know everything.

These gatherings are about helping people exercising that specific muscle. It hurts the first time you try to pick up a 400-lb. dumbbell, and it’s enough to make many people want to quit, but you have to keep going.

What outcomes do you hope from the first two events? What outcomes have you already seen?

Mike: One of my hopes was that they would come away with both more clarity, ideas, and strategies, but that they also would come away more deeply committed to the work.

I know that most of the people did walk away with some new ideas. I would say it’s a pretty deeply committed group to begin with to choose to spend this time on this topic, but it gave them a sense of being part of a bigger movement, and that serves to reinforce their commitment.

Yavilah: I hope that they stay connected in community with one another, beyond the day and a half, and that there will be some energy that bubbles up from this group and makes its way to the broader field. That is something to really look forward to.

Eligible past participants can register for the next Presidents’ Forum event on June 3-4 at the Equal Justice Initiative's Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL.

Misty Mathews