Change Leaders in Philanthropy: A Conversation with Sabrina Slade of John Rex Endowment

  • By Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, March 31, 2022

GEO’s Change Leaders in Philanthropy Fellowship (CLIPF) launched in 2016 to offer an intensive, peer coaching-focused learning experience for senior leaders in philanthropy. Over the last six years and four cohorts, more than 75 senior leaders in philanthropy have engaged with deep candor, vulnerability and generosity to support each other in leading comprehensive organizational change. There is so much to learn from peeking under the hood of an organization undergoing change - about human dynamics, invisible forces, power and the complexities of culture.

This blog series features the perspectives and stories of several CLIPF Fellows from the 2020 most recent cohort. We focused on what it really takes to shift organizational structures, strategy, culture, and practice - and what those changes required of them as leaders. While the stories are specific, the lessons are universal.

For more information about the Change Leaders in Philanthropy Fellowship, please visit our website.

Tell us a little bit about the John Rex Endowment and the change that you catalyzed, supported, and/or navigated.

Sabrina Slade: In April 2000, the UNC Health Care System acquired Rex Healthcare, the system in Wake County that included Rex Hospital. Funds from that transaction were designated to establish the John Rex Endowment to advance the health and well-being of residents. The Endowment is a private grantmaking and advocacy foundation.

Our mission is to strengthen organizations that center racial equity and justice to improve the social emotional health of children living in Wake County.

The mission was refreshed in December 2021 to explicitly focus on racial equity and justice. We believe that if we start with those most proximate to the issue, we build better safeguards and solutions to support everyone. Our board supported this shift wholeheartedly. I think this spoke to our efforts of having board members and staff work in conjunction towards racial equity goals. Because we began our racial equity journey together, there were no surprises and we learned how to speak a shared language along the way.

Before I arrived at the John Rex Endowment, the board and staff were already discussing systems change work and advocacy as they recognized that funding alone would not solve systemic issues in our community. This level of self-awareness enticed me to join the Endowment. As a private foundation, we have the ability to be proactive and make organizational shifts more quickly than some foundations, mainly because our decisions are staff and board driven. We can take our learnings from the voices of those most proximate to inequities and respond promptly to needs. We also pay close attention to trendlines that advances antiquated practices and language.

What will the change in mission mean in practice?

SS: We are a learning organization that is committed to constantly grow and evolve to meet the needs of children and families in Wake County. To operationalize our mission of strengthening organizations that center equity and justice, we will continue to reflect how we as staff and board can live into our mission. With an explicit focus on race, we are prioritizing the needs of those most proximate to systemic racism — Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and People of Color (BILPOC) agencies. Putting our mission into practice will help us contribute to the outcome of better health and wellness for all children and families in Wake County — BILPOC and white.

There has also been a lot of trauma over the last few years, especially for leaders of color in the nonprofit sector. Coupling the trauma experienced by the pandemic with historically being underfunded by philanthropy, there are opportunities for philanthropy to help nonprofit leaders stay in the field. To do our part, the John Rex Endowment will launch a Healing Justice Fund this year — prioritizing BILPOC leaders and their needs to heal as they see fit. We know that leaders of color have been unsupported and exhausted, so our grant application will be simplified and will intentionally not ask what they need to heal from. I am proud to lead this initiative and hope that we will be able to continue to provide these funds.

Lastly, the work of dismantling systemic racism is the responsibility of those benefiting the most from current systems. Therefore, my hope is that more white-led organizations will continue to find ways that they can not only participate in the racial equity work but commit to creating and maintaining anti-racist cultures where everyone can thrive.

What were the keys to getting your Board and Staff aligned around these changes?

SS: Again, having the opportunity to have the board and staff work in conjunction towards racial equity goals was important. We also engaged racial equity consultants to work with staff and board individually and collectively. We created an Equity Leadership Team so that we could move forward together in our learning journey. We also named our differences and provided opportunities to have racial affinity groups.

“My CLIPF colleagues helped me name the things that I was experiencing as part of my own reckoning with philanthropy and gave me the confidence to speak openly about them.”

We started our racial equity journey assuming that our board members who are volunteers might be unable to devote the time necessary to move the work forward, but they have gone above and beyond. For example, our Board Finance Committee started asking: how is race operating in our investments and how can we disrupt that? They took a proactive approach to examining the way our money was invested and by whom. Now they have a subcommittee focused on investing differently. Our Board Governance Committee is discussing how all of our board committees should be restructured in light of the Endowment’s new mission. Those conversations only happened as quickly as they did because the board was part of the conversation from the beginning.

What came up as the change unfolded? How did you care for yourself in the process?

SS: The work of racial equity is both rewarding and challenging, especially when you are working to solve issues that you are also faced with as a person of color. Before I joined the John Rex Endowment, the foundation’s staff and board members were acknowledging ways in which we had obtained our money, understanding that our founder had obtained his wealth from the low-wage and free labor of enslaved people. Looking back on our organization’s history and coming to terms with the ways in which we have contributed to harms in this country is part of the reckoning that many foundations are faced with today. This is an important part of our collective journey as staff and board.

My CLIPF colleagues helped me name the things that I was experiencing as part of my own reckoning with philanthropy and gave me the confidence to speak openly about them. I used one of the CLIPF’s articles about Racial Equity Fatigue to raise a discussion about how we could create conditions that were less exhausting.

For example, when individuals are building their equity muscle and learning to talk about race as an organization, there can suddenly be a slowdown or a pause—because it gets uncomfortable. This is a natural part of racial equity work. However, when this slowdown is used to stop the work of racial equity, it can be harmful, especially to BILPOC staff and board members. Suddenly the slowdown is masked as confusion about why racial equity work is really needed. I learned through my CLIPF experience that this manufactured confusion is common and being able to name this and talk with my peers about it was extremely helpful.

Philanthropic organizations have a responsibility to provide resources so that people can be resilient during racial equity work and heal at the same time. There is a lot of talk about self-care, but the most recurring themes include using vacation days to relax, eating better, and/or exercising more. While these are great self-care practices, they don’t address the root cause of why self-care is needed.

How did the Change Leaders in Philanthropy Fellowship support, provoke, connect or push you?

SS: It was extremely meaningful to learn more about myself as a leader—especially through our study of the Enneagram. I know a lot more about how I show up and I can be more intentional about it.

We were going through this cohort and learning to be change leaders during one of the most catastrophic experiences on a global level in our lifetime. People were dying around us and uncertainty became paralyzing at times. Because of this, my personal approach to change leadership has adapted, now being better equipped to shift as conditions change and CLIPF supported that in so many ways. I don’t know if I would have been able to effectively assist in revising my organization’s mission statement and having the crucial conversations that I needed to have without the support and insight that the fellowship provided me.

Sabrina Slade is Director of Racial Equity and Advocacy at John Rex Endowment.

This interview series is conducted by Jessica Beaman (Bearman Consulting, LLC), who is one of the facilitators of the Change Leaders in Philanthropy Fellowship.