Leading Voices

Glean insights from this diverse cadre of leading minds in philanthropy.

Rhea Suh: Upholding Democracy

When we at The Giving List spoke with Rhea Suh last year (“Bringing Environmental Justice Home”), she had just taken the helm as President and CEO of the Marin Community Foundation after leading the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York and serving in the Department of the Interior for the Obama Administration. This year she settled into life in Marin County, where she regularly sports a Golden State Warriors jacket. “I relinquished my allegiance to the Brooklyn Nets,” she jokes.  With its nationally treasured landscape, Marin County is a dream locale for the environmentalist to take her “doodle mix” [...more...]

The ‘Other,’ Kalyan Balaven

As the first person of color to serve as Head of Dunn School in Los Olivos, California, Kalyan (“Kal”) Balaven is, in many ways, a long way from his youth in the San Francisco Bay Area, where his family found itself houseless, surviving on what Balaven calls community wealth.  From an ethnic perspective, Balaven says that he’s always thought of himself as “other.” An outsider identification that informs his work today as the head of an esteemed private residential school with a rich history that didn’t always include leaders (or many students) that looked like him. “The idea of being [...more...]

Mona Sinha’s Journey to Gender Justice

It’s a long way from Calcutta (now called Kolkata) for Mona Sinha, Board Chair of Women Moving Millions. Growing up in a family of three girls, Sinha could never escape the feeling that her parents had really wanted a son. She’s since overcome this feeling of inadequacy, but it informs her world view and her approach to philanthropy which works to build a gender equal world where everyone is valued for who they are. Supporting gender justice, for Sinha, is part of her DNA. “I grew up very well cared for. I’d watch my mother dole out the food for [...more...]

Lifting up the Region that Gave Her So Much

Nicole Taylor’s passion for “power-building” and lifting up those living on the margins has its inspirational roots 350 miles south in Los Feliz, Los Angeles, where her Jamaican immigrant mother’s spirit of giving and of service was, according to Taylor, unparalleled. “She just continuously gave to others and expected me to do the same. Even though we didn’t have literally anything to give, I was always expected to help.”  Despite being raised in Los Angeles, Taylor, CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the largest community foundation in the nation, feels a deep debt of gratitude to her adopted region. [...more...]

Philanthropy’s Opportunity to Leverage Trillions in Federal Spending Towards Equity As told to Daniel Heimpel

In the summer of 2022, Don Howard, the President and CEO of The James Irvine Foundation, penned an essay for The Chronicle of Philanthropy calling on the field to ensure massive federal infrastructure spending was allocated with an eye to equity.  Pointing to the $3.1 trillion pouring into the economy through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the American Rescue plan, Howard called out the need to go beyond “repairing roads and bridges, upgrading water infrastructure, expanding broadband access, and building a national network of electric-vehicles,” but changing “who decides who builds and who benefits.”  Before coming to Irvine [...more...]

Evolving from ‘Checkbook Philanthropy’ to Community Collaboration

When Susan Hirsch started Hirsch Philanthropy Partners in San Francisco in 1999, the field of philanthropic advising was nascent.  As one of the nation’s first philanthropic advising firms, Hirsch set out to change the game from “checkbook philanthropy” to a much more collaborative experience where donors work with the community, and together they embark on a mission to create change.  “People come to philanthropy at different times and for different reasons,” Hirsch says. “One of the important values for us is that we meet people where they are. Then we look for opportunities to motivate, educate, and create ideas.” To [...more...]

Time to Switch ‘Our Investment Thesis’?

Michael Tubbs was just 26 when he was elected mayor of Stockton in 2016. Raised by a low-income, single mother, he became the youngest-ever mayor of a large American city. Under his leadership, Stockton was named an All-America City in 2017 and 2018 by the National Civic League.  Tubbs was named a fellow at MIT media lab, was a member of Fortune’s 40 Under 40, and he launched a groundbreaking Universal Basic Income program in Stockton that has led to pilot programs in cities across the nation, thanks to his Mayors for a Guaranteed Income coalition. Made up of mayors [...more...]

Systems-Change Provocateur

The 2013 murder of an 8-year-old named Gabriel Fernandez at the hands of his mother and her partner, dominated the headlines of the Los Angeles Times and every other news outlet in the region. Outraged, the County Board of Supervisors empaneled a Blue Ribbon Commission to make recommendations to improve the county’s sprawling child welfare system. One called on child-serving public agencies to partner with philanthropy. Philanthropy stepped up with one of its most prominent cheerleaders, Wendy Garen, the longtime President and CEO of The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation. In the near decade since, Garen, with partners across philanthropy and [...more...]

With a Musician’s Ear, Armando Castellano Steps Aside and Listens

As one of the only Latino students in a big elementary school, a young Armando Castellano was put in a challenging situation.  “It was right after the laws had changed, and they were allowing people of color to move into these neighborhoods,” Castellano says. “I experienced an incredible amount of racism. It really chipped at my self-esteem. But somehow in music class I felt more at ease.” His experience at school encouraged a lifelong passion for classical music. But it also illustrated the reality of living within the antiquated, racist hierarchies of our country. As Castellano progressed from a fledgling [...more...]

On a Mission to Change the Energy of Money

While a UCLA undergrad, Valerie Red-Horse Mohl dreamed of being a filmmaker.  But Red-Horse Mohl needed a day job, and wound up at an interview with Drexel Burnham Lambert, the firm that changed U.S. markets through the high-yield bond. “I think I learned more from that experience than I would’ve if I had gone anywhere for an MBA,” the CFO of the East Bay Community Foundation (EBCF) says. With her “College-of-Life” business degree in hand, Red-Horse Mohl went on to found the first investment bank focused on Indigenous Tribal Nations where she structured and managed over $3 billion in capital, [...more...]

Using the Full Philanthropic Toolbox to Advance Racial Equity and Economic Inclusion

Colleen Gregerson led an exciting international development career raising $1.9 billion for global health initiatives, traveling to Africa and tapping philanthropists to end extreme poverty – all by her mid-30s. But after a decade with Population Services International (PSI), the now-executive director of Battery Powered – the nonprofit philanthropic arm of the San Francisco-based social club, The Battery – felt called to tackle challenges closer to home. “I began to feel a little bit like ‘who am I to go to these countries and try to help with their healthcare systems when we don’t have a very good or equitable [...more...]

Moving DAF Inertia into Action

David Risher is, like you’d assume of many high-level tech execs, into big goals. The Amazon alum’s nonprofit, Worldreader, has reached 21 million children across the globe.  But Risher’s goal by 2025 is to serve 25 million kids, get them reading at least 25 books a year, while expanding Worldreader’s budget from $10 million to 25.  “There’s no such thing as a wealthy society that’s not a literate society,” Risher says. “Without reading, it’s really hard to solve the big world problems.”  Funnily enough, Risher and his wife, Jennifer, sparked nearly $30 million in charitable gifts with much less defined [...more...]

Wilma Melville: Dogged Determination 

Wilma Melville is the most inspirational person I’ve ever met. She has done more during her retirement than most people have done during their entire careers. I recently had the pleasure of visiting her at the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation Training Center in Santa Paula, California, and then again in the hangar where she lives with her airplane. “Spark plug” is an overused term I have never used before. She is a spark plug. She is Annie Oakley. She is Amelia Earhart. Above all, Wilma Melville is an exhauster of my internal thesaurus of superlatives. One of the things [...more...]

A Life Spent Trying to Solve the Bay Area’s Biggest Problems A Life Spent Trying to Solve the Bay Area’s Biggest Problems

Fred Blackwell, CEO of the San Francisco Foundation, grew up in Oakland and did not consider himself the smartest or […more…]

Philanthropy is a Family Business Philanthropy is a Family Business

Charlie Casey inherited the family business, Pacific Foundation Services (PFS), and turned it into a philanthropic juggernaut.  After graduating from […more…]

Bringing Environmental Justice Home Bringing Environmental Justice Home

Rhea Suh spent years working for both the Hewlett and the Packard foundations here in the Bay Area before setting […more…]

The Future of Black Nonprofit Power in California The Future of Black Nonprofit Power in California

Wanted: $100 million for an organization you have never heard of to be given away as unrestricted grants to Black-led […more…]

Philanthropy’s ‘Jerry Maguire’ May Just Change the Game Philanthropy’s ‘Jerry Maguire’ May Just Change the Game

Lateefah Simon is on a roll. An eloquent and rapid speaker, she expounds on how philanthropy needs to change, how […more…]

Sparks Charts Justice-Charged Path for Masto Foundation Sparks Charts Justice-Charged Path for Masto Foundation

In 1942, Harry and Masie Masto – along with more than 110,000 Japanese Americans – were sent to a World […more…]

‘What Good Is a Platform if You Don’t Use It for Good?’ ‘What Good Is a Platform if You Don’t Use It for Good?’

I have known CNN host Lisa Ling for nearly a decade now. I never saw her as anything but a […more…]

‘You’re Not Going To Be a Philanthropist Forever’ ‘You’re Not Going To Be a Philanthropist Forever’

It can be argued that philanthropy swears too much allegiance to the idea of perpetuity. That the charitable foundations bearing […more…]

Come to the Conversation Curious Come to the Conversation Curious

“Come to the conversation curious.” If Emily Scott has a mantra, this is it. No matter what she is doing, […more…]

Money as Medicine Money as Medicine

In 2018, a Native American philanthropy professional dropped a bomb on the industry. In his book, Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom […more…]

Investing With an Eye Toward Equity Investing With an Eye Toward Equity

As president and CEO of the East Bay Community Foundation (EBCF), James W. Head has steered the nearly 100-year-old institution […more…]

Using ‘Whatever Leverage’ She Has to Help Vulnerable Youth Using ‘Whatever Leverage’ She Has to Help Vulnerable Youth

After 40 years of leading organizations dedicated to stopping domestic violence and supporting imperiled youth, JaMel Perkins knows a thing […more…]