Re-posted with permission of The U.S.C. Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy
Leading Boldly: A Generation of Change at the Weingart Foundation
October 26, 2020 – Fred Ali, President and C.E.O. of the Weingart Foundation and Monica Lozano, Weingart Foundation Board Member joined Jim Ferris, the Center’s Director for a conversation on the changes that have unfolded at the Foundation over the last two decades. They recounted transitions that have taken place since Ali joined Weingart as President in 1999, in board leadership, organization structure, culture and points of emphasis in their approach to philanthropy.
The Weingart Foundation was forged in the latter part of the 1970s and for two decades was governed by friends and business associates of Ben Weingart, a highly successful real estate developer in Los Angeles. Towards the end of the 1990s change was afoot, though it was gradual. as the long-serving board members transitioned off, and created the opportunity for recruiting a new generation of board members who were civic leaders reflecting the diversity of Los Angeles, illustrated by the appointment in 2005 of John Mack, President of the L.A. Chapter of the National Urban League, and Monica Lozano, then the Editor and Publisher of La Opinión.
Lozano recounted that she was recruited by Steve Soboroff, who joined the board in 2001 and would become board chair in 2008. “Steve was clearly the bridge between the past and the future. I think about John Mack and I, as bridge builders. But it was really Fred who was going to lead. And I think understanding that dynamic set us up for what became the beginning of the future of Weingart.” A future where the Foundation evolved from a board-driven foundation to a shared governance model of a partnership between the Board and the President.
As changes took hold at the Board level, Ali set to work on creating an organizational culture that would listen and learn from the communities it served. As a former nonprofit executive, he wanted to ensure that the foundation staff understood the communities that were at the heart of Weingart’s mission, and hired individuals with nonprofit experience and who reflected the diversity of Los Angeles. During Soboroff’s tenure as chair a number of additional organizational changes were instituted some formal such as terms and making the C.E.O. a member of the Board, as well as some informal, including a strong trusting relationship between the board and staff. Along with these changes, the Board’s confidence in Ali grew as it increased his authority and responsibility. Ali noted, “That trust empowered me to lead, I always felt that I was encouraged. Encouraged to be bold, encouraged to come forward with new ideas.”
This enabled Ali and the Foundation to respond to the Great Recession by making two important pivots: shifting from program and capital support to general operating support, and a growing inclination to partner with the City and County governments. Both approaches underscored an interest in expanding Weingart’s impact. While the Foundation had a long-standing strong reputation for doing good work, these moves reflected the growing connection of the Foundation to the community and its leadership role.
The next step in Weingart’s evolution occurred during Lozano’s tenure as Board chair, which began in 2014 and continued through 2019. As is customary, Lozano and Ali were discussing his performance review, and Ali recounted that Lozano noted that he had prepared the usual metrics but pushed those aside and asked the question: “Fred what do you really want to do here? You don’t have to answer right now.” Fred’s response was: “No I think I know what I want to do. I think we ought to use all of our resources to advance social, economic, and racial equity.”
In 2016, the Foundation announced its commitment to equity and has been working to carry through on it ever since. As Lozano reflected, it was not only what Fred suggested, and the imperative to address the inequities in the region that the Board recognized, to not to tinker around the edges, but to jump in with both feet. And since then, that is precisely what the Foundation has been doing, including developing a program for movement leaders, funding advocacy and organizing, and investing all of its assets for impact.
As the conversation wrapped up, Lozano offered two suggestions: 1) make one scary decision a year to push the foundation to take risks and do something that is not comfortable; and 2) to make sure your strategy is informed by the community. To follow this advice “takes courage…which is why you have to do it in partnership.”
Jim Ferris, Center Director, summed up the conversation by noting the possibility of using transitions to transform the Weingart Foundation was fueled by a trusting, enabling and empowering relationship between the executive, the board chairs, and a diverse board of civic leaders.
The conversation, hosted by the U.S.C. Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy, was sponsored by the Irene Hirano Inouye Philanthropic Leadership Fund. Named in honor of Irene Hirano Inouye, the fund elevates and amplifies the role of philanthropic leadership, bringing greater attention to the issues of shared governance between foundation boards and executives.
The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy promotes more effective philanthropy and strengthens the nonprofit sector through research that informs philanthropic decision-making and public policy to advance community problem solving. The Center is a part of the U.S.C. Sol Price School of Public Policy, which works to improve the quality of life for people and their communities, here and abroad.