Change Leaders in Philanthropy: A Conversation with Marisa Magallenez of Albuquerque Community Foundation

  • By Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, May 5, 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 yourself and what it was like to move from the nonprofit world to philanthropy.

Marisa Magallanez: I came to ACF in 2019 because I wanted to bring my nonprofit experience into the philanthropic space and grow in my ability to impact the community. I want to highlight how much culture shock I experienced coming into philanthropy from the nonprofit sector. Always having been a grantseeker, I remember having all these moments of “Oh! This is how the thinking happens! Oh! This is how funders talk to each other.” All of a sudden, things I’d had no access to before suddenly made more sense.

My previous organization was a family-run, female-centered powerhouse arts organization. Our staff and community were very diverse and complex culturally. When I entered philanthropy, I had never been in such a white space as a professional. As an example of what that meant, it took me almost two years to feel comfortable asking my colleagues to pronounce my name correctly. Being part of the fellowship changed this for me. On our very first day, you asked me to help you pronounce my name correctly – and then everyone said it. That unlocked something for me – everyone deserves to have their name pronounced right!

What is the change that you’ve been working toward in your role?

MM: As I came into the Change Leaders Fellowship, we had some senior leadership transitions, we were trying to center equity in our culture, learning, practice, and policy, and we had undergone a big restructure. And those are still the things we continue to work on. We are moving into a second phase of restructuring and I’m working with my CEO on developing the next generation of leaders for the foundation. I think of the work like a corkscrew – I keep coming around to the same things with new insights.

The foundation, just like many philanthropic organizations, is grappling with the question: what are we doing as an institution to work toward equity and justice. I think we are at a very open-hearted place in terms of our own evolution – and my job is moving that consciousness around equity forward. I think by doing this, we are creating the conditions for greater effectiveness.

I think so too! But sometimes that connection is hard to describe. How is the work you’ve been doing to align your organization internally important to the impact that you are seeking to support?

MM: I want to use a metaphor from my background – arts and dance. What I love about dance, particularly flamenco dance, is that choreography and improvisation are both essential. Dance is the balance of rote discipline and practice and the explosion of improvised expression. Improvisation requires great strength in muscles, skills and processes; it takes tenacity to get your body to do something in a specific way. At ACF, developing strong muscles around equity and having effective and solid processes and systems gives us the space we need to be creative and innovative.

So, in other words, we need to be ready to respond to the community and its needs. We do that by having a strong strategy, creating really good, effective grantmaking practices, building real, authentic relationships and learning to listen to communities. Our own work around equity prepares us to do those things.

What came up as the change unfolded – and what did you learn about your own leadership?

MM: This journey comes with stings and heart-ache. What I learned about my own leadership role was how comfortable I needed to be in chaos and how strong my convictions needed to be. I needed to constantly negotiate what was most important. Which hills would I be willing to die on? It has taken a lot of personal conviction. It took a long time for the team to believe that we could really make changes and that they would stick. Now I feel like if I leave, the values and practices will continue.

I want to say something about the dark side of this, though. The fatigue of being a woman of color leading equity at a white-led organization – that’s real. Now there are more of us who come from the nonprofit sector and more people of color at the executive level. We are starting to have an honest conversation about how we want to build and model an organizational culture that supports all staff.

What’s your next step?

MM: I’d like to see us continue to use the wonderful set of tools that we have as a community foundation to support bold change in this community. That’s going to take many forms, from impact investment to using our voice more actively around advocacy and public policy. To make those shifts, our values and culture work needs to be deep and ongoing. We need to get better and better at our work. We need to be relentless in asking: what do we need to do to help equity and justice prevail in this community?

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

MM: I had so many big Ah Ha moments over the course of the fellowship. When I started CLIPF, I knew we were restructuring and hiring people and making changes, but I had no idea what it would actually mean.

In a role like mine, there is such a need for space - just space to reflect and think. I felt a little guilty holding my three-hours of “admin time” for our sessions, but it was essential to my ability to make progress. The chance to learn tactical tools, hear other people’s experiences, to learn from colleagues who had already been through what I’m going through – the space always showed up at the right time.

To go back to my dance metaphor: the structure and content of CLIPF – its choreography – were exactly what I needed. The improvisational part was the particular group of folks at that time in my life and work and the particular magic of the times we spent together – the fellowship was the touchstone for my year. I’m sure each cohort feels this magic in their own way – it’s about the human connection and the moment in time.

Marisa Magallanez joined the Albuquerque Community Foundation in early 2019 and currently serves as its Vice President for Strategy & Equity. With a background in arts administration, Marisa has over 15 years’ experience in agile, resilient and community-centered organizations. Marisa has a strong background in organizational strategy, development, marketing and communications, project and event management and program administration.

Marisa holds an MBA with a focus in Policy and Planning from the University of New Mexico. In her free time, she enjoys horseback riding, hot yoga, and spending time with her dog.

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