A Letter from Kathryn O'Neal-Dunham

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

A Letter from Kathryn O'Neal-Dunham
CEO, Philanthropy New York

Dear Philanthropy New York members,

I am honored to write my first President’s message as the CEO of Philanthropy New York. While the role is new to me, PNY and this community are not. I am a former PNY member myself and served as our Chief Operating Officer for the last seven years. I’ve worn a lot of hats in my time with PNY. The first was a hard hat that I put on each week as we built out new offices at 1500 Broadway. Some of you met me wearing a facilitator hat when we rolled out PNY’s Leading with Race Equity program. For others in our community, you may recognize me from last year’s initial COVID member calls as I tried to wear two hats simultaneously: one as a moderator of a serious panel on federal and local policy needs, and the other as a Mom who was easily flustered by her 11-year-old son’s mid-panel interruption with a screen time passcode request. In all of these roles, I’ve been inspired by the commitment Philanthropy New York members hold to our vision of an equitable, sustainable, and democratic society. As I put on the hat of CEO, I aspire to be both a steward of and a catalyst for the collective vision that we have been building for over 40 years — and will continue to build together in the years to come. 

I assume my new position with a deep respect for each of you, and I do not take my responsibilities lightly. I acknowledge the complexity of my role as a white leader at a critical moment in our sector and in our nation’s history — one in which we are reckoning with the mindsets, systems, and structures that have perpetuated racial inequities for generations. I recognize that I am the downstream result of an upstream structure that has marginalized people of color and advantaged white people at their expense. I am committed to using the power I hold to be accountable for advancing racial equity, and I urge other white leaders to do the same.

Philanthropy New York’s Evolution
Philanthropy New York has continually evolved to meet the changing needs of society and our sector. Sixteen years ago, PNY adopted a statement on fundamental practices that laid out how grantmakers should steward resources in the public trust. As we wrote our Strategic Plan five years ago, we aspired to help the field imagine new ways of working that confront the U.S. historical context of philanthropy and the practices and policies that perpetuate systemic inequity. And one year ago, mere days before the shutdown, Philanthropy New York’s board approved a bold set of reimagined values to guide this shift. Since then, themes of violence against Black people, anti-Asian sentiment and hate crimes, and health disparities by race have dominated the landscape and amplified the call to make equity the through-line of our work.

Our Philanthropy New York membership is over 280 organizations strong. You each have a unique approach to your work and grapple with different challenges. Our mandate at PNY is to listen to your aspirations, understand where you are in your journey, anticipate what you need, and design supports that help you turn learning into action. We are conveners. Our work is aligned with what Farhad Ebrahimi of the Chorus Foundation describes as funder organizing. We develop both leadership and relationships to shift power for structural change. This work, as Farhad notes, “is to do much more than simply move money; it is about shifting structures — and cultures! — within philanthropy itself.” 

My Commitments as CEO
To realize the progress and change we seek, we must live into our values and continue to interrogate our intentions and practices. As CEO, I will use my voice, my vantage point of the broader sector, and the power of my role to advocate for the continued evolution of our sector toward equitable cultures and practices. I will ground my work in Philanthropy New York’s values and belief that leadership is nurtured through community and in relationship to one another.  This will often mean centering the voices of others — especially people of color on our staff and in our membership.

I look forward to sharing more with you in the coming months. I am eager to meet with members one-on-one to hear your aspirations for your work in the year ahead and to identify how Philanthropy New York can be of service to you. Please reach out; I welcome your partnership and feedback. And, if it interests you, perhaps we can swap stories of embarrassing Zoom moments! 

With gratitude,

Kathryn O'Neal-Dunham

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