Honoring the Legacy of John Wright: Navigating the Future of Philanthropic Policy Work in his Footsteps

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Honoring the Legacy of John Wright: Navigating the Future of Philanthropic Policy Work in his Footsteps
By: Marlon Williams, Vice President of Collaboration and Policy, Philanthropy New York

The New York City community recently lost a great friend and leader in John Wright, a tremendously talented policy strategist and lobbyist who left a lasting impact on our policy work. John was more than a public policy consultant who worked with non-profit and philanthropic organizations. He was one of the few people who used his influence and access to upend the systems of racial injustice deeply embedded in our city. His disdain for injustice was only matched by his commitment to change and upend the systems that created it. In John, I found a co-conspirator whose outlook inspired me to look even deeper at the systems I exist in and challenge the status quo that says that the philanthropic sector should only protect its interests in favor of a model that actively works to serve and follow the lead of the most marginalized communities in our city.

Our Work with John

We met John and his colleagues at The Wright Group when Philanthropy New York sought to hire a lobbyist after several years of building our capacity to engage with local and national policymakers. Our membership saw that PNY could play a leadership role in convening and organizing philanthropy’s engagement with a new Mayoral administration in New York City. We had identified the need to build a renewed relationship with City Hall and wanted the new administration to see philanthropy as a valued partner providing a critical testing ground for interventions to our society’s core issues.

John and the talented team at The Wright Group truly understood and embraced the potential to move beyond transactional relationship building and towards transformational relationships with policymakers. This transformational approach to lobbying aligned well with our organizational values centered on equity and anti-racism. His focus on working with and on behalf of non-profit organizations working to serve Black and brown communities made him a particularly well-aligned partner for PNY.

Our partnership with John and his team has immensely impacted how I think about approaching this goal and the organizational strategy we’ve built. For example, The Wright Group helped us to hone in on our goal of exercising the power philanthropy holds from the financial resources provided and towards a focus on using the sector’s soft power to drive effective and impactful change. Our sector’s power doesn’t simply lie in the money we provide but also includes our ability to wield influence and create a more productive operating environment for non-profits working to better communities throughout the city. He also helped us dream bigger about what was possible by speaking to the collective power of philanthropy and supported us in thinking freshly about how we could work with non-profit sector partners collaboratively and strategically.

Looking forward

As a colleague and friend, I look to John’s legacy daily as a source of inspiration and learning on building a stronger and more productive relationship with City Hall and other stakeholders in the public policy space. It serves as the ethos for all of our work – from when we testify in front of the city council advocating to strengthen New York’s non-profit ecosystem by eliminating unnecessary administrative burdens that city agencies impose on non-profits to when we travel at the end of the month with a group of prominent New York grantmakers to lobby policymakers with Foundations on the Hill (FOTH).

Many people in the sector have begun to recognize the importance of building relationships and partnerships with non-profits and communities rather than imposing our own solutions. Many in the sector have started to realize that we must work toward understanding and addressing the root causes of social and economic issues rather than just treating the symptoms. John’s legacy in our work is a small example of how one brilliant man impacted an entire sector, resulting in large institutions rethinking their approach and emphasizing community-led solutions and organizing. I commit to continued work to help this sector honor and embody the true meaning of the word philanthropy and, in doing so, honor John’s legacy as well. We at Philanthropy New York will remember his teachings on strategy, relationship building, and the power of philanthropy and continue to work toward a more equitable future. We invite you to join us in honoring John as we move forward on this journey.



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