A Time of Progress

Remarks from President and CEO Will Ginsberg at The Community Foundation's 2023 Annual Meeting, Lighthouse Point Park Carousel, New Haven.

By William W. Ginsberg / May 02, 2023

Good afternoon, all, and thank you so much for being here with us. Your presence – both remote and here in this beautiful, historic, iconic New Haven space – means so much. It signals a commitment to our community that matters greatly. You are The Foundation’s partners in the work of community in Greater New Haven – our fellow travelers, if you will. We are filled with gratitude.

On this occasion, the first thought that comes to my mind is how fortunate we are to live in this wonderful community and to have the opportunity, each in our own way, to contribute to making it better, both for today and for a future that we cannot yet imagine. It is in that spirit that I welcome you, and that together we face the work ahead.

Penelope Stewart’s wonderful rendition of “What a Wonderful World” is in exactly that same spirit, and so uplifting. How fabulous was that? Many thanks to Penelope and to The Chill Band and the Monk Youth Jazz Students. Your music makes this place come alive. The Chill Band will be playing during the reception following our program, so we will all get to enjoy them more.

While today may not qualify as one of those utterly glorious Connecticut spring days when the weather makes all seem harmonious in the world, it sure is better than last year. Remember the downpour when we gathered in this space for our 2022 annual meeting a year ago today? Indulge me please as I interpret that year-over-year improvement in the weather on the second day of May as a sign that times are getting better in our community; a sign that – after much pain and much hard work, and even acknowledging the profound challenges ahead – together we are emerging from the shadow of the COVID pandemic into a brighter day.

At The Community Foundation, that’s how we see it. From our perspective, this is a time of progress. Those very words – “A Time of Progress” are on the cover of our 2022/23 annual report, the first copies of which you will receive this evening.

To understand why I say that, let me briefly remind us all of the journey we have taken during the last thirty-eight months.

In the spring of 2020, in our message to the community, we spoke of unprecedented social isolation and disconnection, of Depression-era levels of unemployment, and of a social safety net stretched beyond the breaking point. Now, we can gather together, even if somewhat warily, both on an everyday basis and for special occasions like this one. Now, Connecticut unemployment is very close to a twenty-year low. And now, after three years of historic levels of public investment, the social safety net is largely intact even if inadequate.

Progress? Yes. While the void in our lives left by the family members, friends and neighbors lost to COVID will never be filled, we can see that much of what our community had pre-pandemic is restored.

But that’s not what we mean when we call this “a time of progress.” Because that’s not enough.

The last three years have been profound test for our society. I will leave the public health judgments to Drs. Marcella Nunez-Smith and Keith Churchwell, who we will hear from in a few minutes, but from an equity standpoint I believe that our society including our State has failed the test. Racial, ethnic and gender disparities have widened. City/suburb disparities have widened. The progress we might have thought we were making as a society in becoming more equitable has been shown to be inadequate in the harsh light of the COVID stress test.

DataHaven’s “Greater New Haven Community Wellbeing Index” for 2023, recently published with leadership support from The Foundation, bears this out in remarkable and excruciating detail. These data are a call to action for anyone committed to a more equitable Greater New Haven.

For The Foundation, the last three years tell us that the old ways of addressing these disparities weren’t good enough. Things need to change.

This is why The Foundation’s strategic vision can be summed up in two words: opportunity and equity. It is why these two words appear on the cover of our annual report, as they have for each of the last three years.

To The Foundation, opportunity and equity are not two separate goals but are one path forward. A more equitable community is one where opportunity is available to all – economic opportunities, educational opportunities, housing opportunities, opportunities for good health. An equitable community is one where the benefits of economic growth are shared inclusively.

As our post-COVID future becomes more visible in 2023, this vision of greater opportunity and greater equity in Greater New Haven seems more within reach. We can see extraordinary economic growth in the bio-medical and bio-pharmaceutical sectors that can drive broad-based growth in our region, and that carries within it the potential for social as well as physical and economic transformation. A core challenge in our community is to sustain and build on that growth to address our disparities and inequities.

Our community is stepping up to address this challenge in new ways. We see business leaders working to advance equity in these industries. We see nonprofit leaders working to build a more equitable small business sector. People and institutions are embracing new roles and new ways of doing their work. That is why we can say in 2023 that this is a time of progress.

In our annual report, you will see profiles of those from across our community who are showing us the way on this path of progress.

At The Foundation we have challenged ourselves over these last three years to think differently, to collaborate more fully, to listen to and to empower new voices, and to work in new ways that will drive greater opportunity and greater equity. And we challenged ourselves to spend more too.

In these ways, we have stepped forward. As you have heard us talk about since 2020, “Stepping Forward” is what we call our three-year effort to respond to the impacts of COVID and to advance racial equity in our community.

By the end of this year, The Foundation plans to have spent about $8.5 million more from our endowment in the years 2021-23 than the amount that would have come from our standard endowment spending rate. Our decision to spend at an unprecedented scale during these three years reflected The Foundation’s judgment in 2020, as approved unanimously by our Board at that time, that unprecedented actions were justified by the unprecedented level of COVID-related needs in our community and by the possibility of making progress – real progress – on matters of racial equity in the context of a national movement then taking shape.

To our knowledge, no other community foundation in the country took similar actions to temporarily put aside the traditional models of endowment spending in order to address the needs and opportunities of these extraordinary years.

Over and above these supplement endowment resources, Stepping Forward has benefitted greatly from very generous donor support to address these priorities, with new Stepping Forward-related gifts totaling more than $10 million since the onset of COVID.

Stepping Forward has enabled The Foundation to greatly expand the ways in which we are advancing opportunity and equity. 2022 was the year in which The Foundation’s Stepping Forward commitment hit full stride.

Allow me to cite some specifics:

In 2020, our community’s nonprofit sector was facing existential threats. Over the last two years, combining our regular spending with Stepping Forward resources, The Foundation has dramatically increased the amount of our discretionary grantmaking, both our larger responsive multi-year grants and our smaller grants of under $15,000. These grants are now almost entirely for general operating support. This has done much to stabilize the sector and enable it to be responsive to community needs.

Beyond general operations, additional Foundation grant programs have provided resources to address specific priority issues in our community ranging from basic human needs to expanding access to career pathways in local growth sectors of the economy to support for community art projects centering on racial justice and creative healing from the effects of the pandemic.

In addition to grants, The Foundation has also greatly expanded our capacity building efforts, offering many more and different workshops for local organizations. In doing so, we have put an emphasis on learning for nonprofit boards and staff as to how to embed racial equity considerations into their culture and their work. As an important example, more than 245 nonprofit representatives and donors have attended Foundation-sponsored workshops of the Racial Equity Institute.

In the spirit of working differently, The Foundation is also recasting our relationship with local nonprofits. Our goal is to bring the perspectives of those affected by the issues we seek to address, and the perspectives of the nonprofits that serve them directly, more into the design and implementation of our grantmaking and other community programs.

To advance opportunity and equity, The Foundation is now going beyond our core work of strengthening our local nonprofit sector. 2022 was a breakthrough year for The Foundation in a whole new area: working to make the for-profit sector more equitable.

The Foundation is working with a network of entrepreneur support organizations to build what we are calling the New Haven Equitable Entrepreneurial Ecosystem, or NHE3. NHE3 provides technical support, access to capital and grants to entrepreneurs of color and women entrepreneurs in order to break down longstanding barriers to opportunities in the small business sector. We have received very generous grant support totaling almost $9 million from the State of Connecticut, the City of New Haven and the Liberty Bank Foundation to support this work over the next five years.

As another example, as a result of concerted efforts over the last several years, today almost 20% of The Foundation’s assets are managed by firms owned at least 50% by people of color or women. This percentage is many times higher than the asset management industry nationally, which has an abysmal diversity record. Just last week, we held our first-ever convening on investment manager diversity, bringing other local endowments together with diverse managers.

As I hope you can see from all I’ve said, racial equity is not a separate silo of work at The Foundation, but rather runs through all we do, both in the community and in building our own institutional culture.

Our racial equity work is anchored now in the idea of creating a “new narrative” to shape Black futures in our community. For too long, the narrative in philanthropy and in society more broadly has focused much too little on Black excellence, achievement, legacy and wealth creation, and much too much on social and economic deficits. Even as we call out the history that has created the sharp racial disparities in our community, we are working to put forward this new narrative. To truly understand what I mean, I urge you to take in the Foundation-sponsored exhibit currently at the Dixwell Q House on the life of Constance Baker Motley, born and raised in New Haven, who would go on to become this country’s first Black woman Federal judge.

As I said earlier, 2023 is the final year of Stepping Forward. That means that this is the last year in which we will have the supplemental funding I spoke of earlier available to us. But what it does not mean is that the Stepping Forward priorities I have been speaking off – addressing disparities and advancing racial equity in the service of building a community of greater opportunity and greater equity – will change. Post-Stepping Forward, these will remain top priorities of The Foundation.

That said, I do want to be clear that with the scale-down of Stepping Forward’s supplementary funding in 2023, and with the decline in investment markets in 2022, The Foundation’s resources are down this year. At the same time, we have seen a surge in grant applications this year. We will have difficult decisions to make this summer.

I said before that our country failed COVID’s equity test. Yet, in contrast, I want to say that our community of Greater New Haven has passed COVID’s generosity test. With flying colors. Our donors – whether contributing through The Foundation or directly to nonprofits through the Great Give – have stepped forward too, marvelously well I might add.

In 2022, more than $31 million was given or transferred to The Foundation. Both gifts to endowment and gifts for current use were at much higher levels than our averages in recent years.

I know that many of our most steadfast and committed donors are here with us this afternoon, in this room or remotely. Your support means so much. The Foundation is deeply honored to be of service to you and to so many who believe in and love this community, and whose personal visions for our community’s future are expressed through what they do for others and what they give. We are so grateful.

Tomorrow and Thursday are the 2023 Great Give. The community’s response through the Great Give essentially doubled in the early months of COVID in 2020 and stayed at that new substantially higher level in 2021 and 2022. Jackie Downing will speak to the Great Give in a few minutes, but for now let me urge you all to support the more than 500 local organizations – the wonderful nonprofits that do the daily work of community all across our region – in this year’s Great Give as you have each year.

All of what I have been describing, and so much more that I haven’t described, would not be possible without the wonderfully talented, experienced, committed staff of The Foundation. I say that every year, simply but importantly because it is so true. What a privilege it is for me to work with these colleagues, to see and hear each day (even if remotely) both how committed they are to the people and the future of this community and how wise they are in understanding what makes this community tick. Community commitment and community wisdom are what defines this very special group of people. I am grateful to all of them beyond telling.

I know it’s unwise to call out just a few members of our staff team but I am going to do so in two particular regards:

  • First, because others have already done so. In recent weeks, two members of our staff have been honored by our community. Jackie Downing recently received the 2023 William Lanson Community Leadership Award from the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, our community’s highest recognition of lifetime civic leadership. And we have also received word that Kara Straun will be honored in June by the New Haven Chapter of National Coalition of 100 Black Women with its Economic Empowerment Advocacy Award for the Girls of Color Mentoring Network Project of our Community Fund for Women & Girls. We are so proud of you, Jackie and Kara.
  • Second, because it takes so much to put together our annual report, particularly at the same time as a big event like this. To Angela Powers, Matt Higbee, Kathleen Cei, Carmen Burgos and Liz Espinoza – thank you! And thank you to so many who contribute to this book…it’s really the entire organization.

The Foundation’s eleven Board members, each an extraordinary community leader in her or his own right, bring remarkable wisdom, expertise, depth of commitment and breadth of experience to our work. In doing so, they don’t hold back. For all the diversity of their roles, perspectives, and life experiences, they are united by a powerful shared sense that this community can serve its people even more fully and by a shared belief in The Foundation as a force to realize that an even brighter future. Our Board empowers our staff, urges us to do more, and supports us as we try. That makes this work a joy.

So I offer my heartfelt appreciation to all of our Board members: Enola Aird, Maysa Akbar, Heather Tookes Alexopoulos, Keith Churchwell, Vlad Coric, Joe Gordon, Terry Jones, Fernando Muniz, Marcella Nunez-Smith, Greg Pepe and Valarie Shultz Wilson. To our newest members who’ve joined in 2023 – Enola and Vlad – I say a special welcome.

And, in addition, special thanks are due to two great New Haveners whose seven-year terms on our Board ended at the end of 2022: Roxanne Coady and Nick Norcott. Nick was our Chair for two years and served in Board leadership for four. Both he and Roxanne brought so much wisdom and commitment to our work.

I particularly want to say what a remarkable privilege it is to work day-in-and-day-out with our Board leadership team: our chair Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith and our Vice-Chair Fernando Muniz. Their dedication to The Foundation is matched only by the amount of time and effort they give. For me, their counsel is invaluable. Marcella and Fernando: I thank you so much, although just saying thank you seems far from adequate.

Before we turn to the main event, I want to leave you with one final thought. You don’t have to take notes, because it’s right here on the inside cover of the annual report that you’re about to get a copy of:

We believe that by coalescing around a shared vision of greater opportunity and greater equity, and by working together in new ways, our community will make progress in meeting the challenges of our time.

It is now my great privilege to turn this program over to two of the great leaders in our community, Drs. Marcella Nunez-Smith and Keith Churchwell, both Community Foundation Board members as I mentioned.

In their work and in their leadership roles, Marcella and Keith are at the heart of what matters most in this community: how we care for one another, how we become more equitable, and how we move forward. I thank them both.

Will signature

Will Ginsberg, President and CEO