A Message from CEO Kathryn O'Neal-Dunham

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

A Message from CEO Kathryn O'Neal-Dunham

Have you ever done something that you expected to feel familiar with, only to find out how much there was to learn? I thought my previous role at Philanthropy New York would hasten the transition to CEO. I understood the organization, I had relationships with the team, and I held a deep respect for our members. Early in my tenure, Deb Velazquez offered me a gift of wisdom that I am only now fully appreciating. She said that as an internal hire, I bring a bias toward action. She reminded me that inhabiting the CEO role required a real shift and that it would take time to see the organization through a new lens. 

In the same spirit of sharing that has long been valued in our Philanthropy New York community, I have been contemplating this advice, and I offer a few reflections on what I am learning and seeing through a new lens. 

Redefining Leadership at Philanthropy New York

Reimagining how we define and share leadership across Philanthropy New York took early priority in my transition. We have some remarkable talent in our organization, and I am eager to see their deep institutional knowledge and passion for our community applied in new and impactful ways.  Yi-Ching Lin (Vice President of Learning), Hajrina Shehu (Chief Financial Officer), and Nora Cusanelli (Communications Manager) received well-deserved promotions and are taking on expanded leadership. 

I’m also excited to welcome new leaders to our team, not only because of their potential to advance our work but also because the process was as meaningful as the result.  We have been making changes throughout our recruitment process to ensure that we not only attract talent with the skills and experiences needed to deepen our racial equity practices but that the work of getting to know candidates is as important as the outcome.  We developed new interview questions to help us better understand the experience and expertise candidates bring to advance racial equity practices. We created a detailed compensation philosophy to guide our salary ranges, and we consistently include salaries in our job postings to counter historically entrenched salary inequities.  We share interview questions in advance so that our conversations are made richer by candidates’ ability to be reflective instead of reactive.  And, we have begun compensating finalists for the investment of time and effort in a process that we hope has been valuable to both our team and those that interview with us. 

Our new team members are joining Philanthropy New York prepared to lean into our values as they step into their roles. Ariane Cruz and Javon Robinson joined PNY in July as Philanthropy Fellows.  Over the next two years, they will support your capacity to convene and collaborate around critical issues. We also welcome two longtime PNY members to our staff this fall: Donita Volkwijn is our new Senior Director of Member Engagement, and Stephanie Boarden will join us in the newly created Chief of Staff role.  Both leaders have contributed to some of PNY’s most popular programming, and their roles will be key to helping us build our future strategy and direction.  

I encourage you to read the full announcement to learn more about the accomplishments of these individuals and how the changes will positively impact the Philanthropy New York community. 

Realigning our Work at Philanthropy New York

My transition created space to reconsider the what and how of our work as well as the who. The words of author Ronald Heifetz have been a beacon for me during this time of change and opportunity for PNY. In his book, “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership,” Heifetz said, “Adaptive challenges can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties. Making progress requires going beyond any authoritative expertise to mobilize discovery, shedding certain entrenched ways, tolerating losses, and generating the new capacity to thrive anew.” 

Beyond a personal commitment to shed some entrenched ways and acknowledge the loss of cherished aspects of my old role, I am taking stock of the ways our team has mobilized discovery both internally and in how we show up for our members. We are negotiating assumptions we have always held dear, especially our belief that there is “one right way” to work. We are finding our voice on issues of racial equity that impact our sector and our members as individuals. And, we are imagining a program model that keeps the best from the last 18 months (i.e., accessibility and reach of virtual programming) and leverages the power of in-person relationship building. 

Racial equity is the primary lens through which we are considering changes at Philanthropy New York. That requires us to shift our own accountability structures and build new ones for our membership. Our board has decided that responsibility for our internal equity commitments will rest at the Executive Committee level so that it is held as one of the highest priorities in the governance framework. And, in an exciting shift for our membership, we will launch a Racial Equity Working Group later this fall. Guided by the insight of our former Committee for Equitable and Inclusive Philanthropy members, we are designing a working group that will invite equity champions from member organizations to come together in deeper partnership and collaboration to build actionable and accountable steps toward change.   

I am excited about the possibilities these changes enable, and I know that our work is just beginning. I made a request of our Board earlier this year that I now make of each of you: to hold a posture of curiosity. To show up ready to inquire. To make space for generative conversations. To not hold tight to everything you knew before. That’s what equity work —and really, all philanthropic work — requires: shedding those “ways we have always done things” and allowing ourselves to imagine something new. I am eager to participate in these efforts at Philanthropy New York, both for and with our members.

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