A Conversation with Anna Faith Jones
Brahms. The name pirouettes from her tongue and dances about her office. I loved the way Brahms feels under your fingers very pianistic. As if cued on an imaginary piano to accompany her recollection, Anna Faith Jones fingers gently meter the sweeping rhythms of a piece not performed in years, yet still so familiar.
Jones scoffs at naysayers who berate funding the arts as way too esoteric if the goal is eliminating poverty. She recalls standing at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial once as a young girl. In the twilight, she listened transfixed as famed African-American contralto Marian Anderson sang under the watchful eye of Abraham Lincoln, unifying the immense audience transcending all boundaries of gender, age and ethnicity. Each note soared high above the walls of racism erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution who had barred her performance in Constitution Hall. Yes, Jones knows firsthand that the arts minister to a poverty of spirit, and through philanthropy, help to improve the human condition.
Back in her 24th floor corner office, Jones own recital upstages an otherwise impressive view of downtown Bostons cobblestone walks, the Charles River and MIT. Its simple propspictures of loved ones and a few, carefully placed pieces of artsymbolize what means most to this daughter of heritage. Jones father, the preacher son of a former slave, became the first African-American president of Howard University. He admonished her to give back. Jones mother taught her the importance of family in more ways than onedaring to wield quietly its economic leverage to command respect.
Jones melded those influences with a lifelong love of the arts and turned them into aspirations to teach music history that faith quietly channeled into the nurturing of her own family, a stint as a professional real estate broker, and later, into part-time directorship of a foundation, which culminated in a full-time presidency.
These days, faith is a topic on many lipsbut perhaps nowhere hotter than the home of the Boston Foundation itself. There, the talk is about a particularly remarkable faiththat of Anna Faith Jones, this years Distinguished Grantmaker. Jones faith, as president and CEO, brought the conservative, 80-something foundations governance structure to the state attorney generals office in the name of stewardship and accountability. That same faith increased the foundations asset base ten-fold over the course of a quarter century. Last year alone, the Boston Foundation distributed $53 million, making it New Englands largest grantmaker.
Jones tabletop concerto comes to a rest as peaceful as the gaze of her newest grandchild, smiling in its sweet repose as her screensaver. This seems a swan song of sorts, as Jones has announced plans to leave the foundation at the end of June.
The Bible says in the book of James that faithwithout worksis dead. Perhaps what Anna Faith Jones has shown philanthropy is that workswithout faithare dead.
What challenges have you faced in this sector that has been historically white and male-dominated?
Have you seen a change in the face of management in philanthropy?
What would you say to those that scoff at funding the arts in relation to eliminating poverty?
What makes the arts such a pressing concern today?
People who work in urban settings will tell you the arts are hugely important, particularly for people whose lives, for the most part, have been joyless. Talk to someone like Bill Strickland in Pittsburgh, who brings young people in and introduces them to themselves. Through the arts they affirm who they are and their basic value in the culture in which theyve been raised. Then he says, look, you can do anything. The arts are central to a healthy community, and there ought to be broad access to participation in them.
Youve seen the foundations asset base increase ten-fold during your tenure. Whats the advantage of having the time to grow versus sudden growth?
Well, how do you become a $1 billion organization? You equip yourself to become a $1 billion organization. You cant keep running to catch up with growth. So, not knowing beforehand whether it would work, I decided to try and make the case to the board that if we wanted to grow, we had to invest in strengthening and expanding our infrastructure. That was just common sense. So, I hired a consultant to research and bring in all the data on comparable salariesbecause if you want good people you have to pay them. Then, with board approval, I changed the organizational structure and hired three top vice presidents. I could not have gone on to lift the trust and change our investment management without Jim Pitts, our vice president for finance and administration. I knew what I wanted to do, but he carried it out.
What inspired you to want to change the foundations governance structure from trust to corporate form?
What would you say about the competition community foundations are facing from financial services agencies like Fidelity?
When we are talking among ourselves, community foundations will admit that the charitable gift funds have been good for us. Fidelity has marketed that fund far and wide, and theres no way community foundations could have gotten the same message out about what we do. So we say were just like the gift fundbut we have much more to offer donorsthe professional support, information services, and whatever else they need to mold a philanthropic program that meets their interests in this community.
Last year nearly half of the foundations grants were donor advised. Has this caused a shift in focus from programs to asset development?
Are there donor-advised grants the foundation wont make, or is it whatever the donor wants?
How do you view the foundations role as a convener?
In that vein, would you describe educating society about foundations as being the most important issue facing the Council on Foundations?
There is a strong sense, especially as the issue of taxes comes up again, that 1969 was not the first time Congress focused on this sectorand its not going to be the last. In this context, it becomes clearer and clearer that theres no full understanding of the role of philanthropy in America, and that foundations can be perceived as nothing more than tax shelters.
Is that why accountability is so important?
But its bigger than the money. We really need to get back to the heart and soul of what philanthropy is all aboutfoundations using money to bring people together around a need, and to forge partnerships that will strengthen our democratic society.
How have you dealt with the perception of foundation arroganceinstitutionally and personally?
Institutionally, something we did in the persistent poverty program, for example, was to go into the community and ask people about their condition, how they felt about themselves. No one had ever actually asked the people what their concerns were, and listened. We did that, very much on purpose. And here in this office, the protocol is that whenever a grantee comes in for a conference, the program officer goes out into the reception area and greets the person and brings them back to his or her officenot a support staff person, not the receptionist saying, Go through here and turn left and go down, etc. And when you finish, you take the person back out into the hall. That kind of respect for people has always been a part of who we are. We also make our conference rooms open to nonprofits to use at no cost, which makes a statement to the community.
But how do you go about making grantees feel that theyre not supplicants?
Is that training part of an orientation for program officers when they come to the foundation?
Part of doing this work in philanthropy is growing personally. This is a contact sport. You must learn something about how you deal with people and how you treat them. Money is only a vehicle for bringing people together around a need.
Has anything interesting been done in terms of planning for your successor since you announced your intention to leave the foundation?
I went about this as a plan of institutional development that was keyed into our growth. When I brought in the vice presidents, I said it was because I didnt believe an organization that was getting this large and complex could run with only one person knowing how everything fit together.
Having also gone through a strategic planning process, this place could probably run for a year without executive leadership. And now there are three people who not only know all about their critical areas, but also know how they fit into a whole pattern.
An organization this large should staff itself in such a way that the board can also look within for new leadership.
Looking back, what hard lessons have you learned?
What do you plan to do after leaving the foundationis this really goodbye?
My family is expanding again. I have three grandsons, and one on the way. So, as the fourth grandchild comes in June, I want time to spend with them. Children are wonderful, and they develop so fast. It makes me remember what it was like seeing the world through the eyes of my kids as they grew up. And theres nothing more important at this time in my life.
Allan R. Clyde is associate editor of Foundation News & Commentary.