A view of Boston's historic Pilot House from the harbor

Matt Conti

From the President – July 2014

After his first two months at Barr, President Jim Canales shares what he’s been learning and some key themes to guide us on the road ahead.

It has now been two months since I joined the Barr Foundation, and it seems a good time to share some initial impressions, as well as to provide an update on some of our activities.

As I had anticipated, I have learned a great deal during these initial weeks on board. I have met with leaders and residents from across the Boston area in both one-on-one and larger group settings; I have toured parts of Dorchester and Roxbury, among other neighborhoods; and I have shared meals with leaders in East Boston and Jamaica Plain. In all of these settings, people have been enormously generous with their perspectives, opinions, suggestions, admonitions, and encouragements. This has left me inspired by the passion and commitment of so many for this region, challenged to ensure that Barr plays a constructive and respectful role as a good partner, and energized by the tremendous sense of possibility and aspiration.

Certain themes have emerged repeatedly: a shared sense of opportunity in Boston during a time of change; a keen interest in maximizing the multiple resources that Barr can bring to addressing the region’s challenges; and a hunger for more authentic collaboration and partnership with Barr and others to realize the opportunities before us. These themes certainly resonate for me and offer a preview of the broad directions we need to explore as we plan for the future.

In addition to these more positive themes I have greatly appreciated the candor of those who shared their challenges and frustrations with foundations including Barr. I know such sentiments are not limited to my recent conversations but are part of a broader dialogue about how organized philanthropy has been evolving. Much has been written recently (including by me in this recent piece for The Chronicle of Philanthropy) about what the shift to “strategic philanthropy” has meant for the nonprofits that raise funds from foundations.

In some quarters, nonprofit leaders describe feeling treated like “contractors” hired to advance a foundation’s agenda rather than being supported to fulfill their own mission. In other cases there is a disconnect between what foundations are willing to invest in and what they seek by way of outcomes put succinctly by one leader I spoke with: “You give us two years of money and seek five years of outcomes.” This too is an important backdrop as Barr develops its plans for the future.

At the same time as I have been engaging externally ,I have been meeting with each of our program teams to take stock of our existing work across the Foundation. In my view, successful planning for the future should begin with a clear-eyed assessment of what has worked what has been less successful what we have learned in the process and what this all suggests about the competencies and skills we already possess and those we aspire to. Achieving clarity about these areas not only honors work done over many years but also offers a solid platform upon which to build new areas in the future.

Beyond these activities within our programs we are also starting to explore how to more fully leverage communications as a tool to extend Barr’s impact and complement our grantmaking. As we seek to use communications in more strategic ways we will continue to focus on drawing attention to the efforts of our partners and to highlighting the issues we support. This is not an exercise in institutional self-promotion. There will be more to report on this dimension of Barr’s work as we learn from others who have done this effectively and with the right tenor. The most effective philanthropy is a balancing act—between being proactive and reactive, focused and flexible, between science and art.

The list of dichotomies goes on. Since resources are finite and need is infinite, foundations must be clear about their goals and the outcomes they seek; at the same time, finding that sweet spot where clarity of purpose balances with adaptability of execution strikes me as crucial. Searching for that balance will remain a principal focus for me and the trustees as we continue to shape the future of the Barr Foundation. I look forward to sharing more in this space in the months ahead and to the continued opportunity to learn from many of you.

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