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Ten Questions with Barr’s New Vice President

Get to know Roger Nozaki as he reflects on his first weeks at the Foundation and goals for the year ahead.

How do you describe what you’re here to do?

My goal is to help create an environment for Barr staff and partners to do great work and have deep impact. That means working in close partnership with Foundation leadership, program teams, and Barr’s operations teams—both to build on Barr’s history and support its exciting new strategies, and to make sure we’re always listening, learning, and improving.

How have you spent these first few weeks?

I’ve been getting to know the staff, the culture and values of the Foundation, and how it operates. I’ve also started meeting with some of our grantees and other partners in the region to get a sense of the broader context of our work.

What has stood out to you from these conversations?

One thing that stood out to me was a focus on impact. On the Barr team, there is a seriousness with which staff take their work and approach the issue areas we are engaged in. This was particularly evident as they walked me through the thinking that went into the new program strategies. Grantees and partners I’ve talked with have also been very clear about the challenges we face and the urgency of our shared work. Across the board, staff and grantees are eager to learn from what we are doing and continuously improve our efforts in pursuit of the greatest impact.

I was also struck by the theme of gratitude among Barr staff. That gratitude is connected to a deep respect for and sense of responsibility to Barr’s trustees and to the organizations with whom we have the privilege of working.

What’s at the top of your priority list for the next six to 12 months?

In this first year, I plan to concentrate on three major priorities. First is to fully understand our strategies and the work of our partners, so that I can help support and accelerate our shared efforts. My second priority is to build an approach for learning and evaluation that pulls best practices from the field and aligns with the Foundation’s values. Third is to further shape Barr’s approach to investing in leaders—one of the Cross-Program Initiatives priorities Jim Canales introduced in March.

How do you see the role of learning and evaluation at Barr?

Barr is very much a learning organization already. People here are clearly eager to learn and to find the ideas that have the most impact and get us where we want to go. I’m excited to enter into a context with a dual emphasis on learning and evaluation, to be clear that we see evaluation as a tool not merely for due diligence, but for learning, improving, and increasing our impact: more effectively supporting grantees; strengthening our strategies; and sharing lessons with the field.

What do you think makes for strong leaders?

Constantly learning and pushing for change is at the center of everything strong leaders do. Leaders are developed in environments that foster intellectual curiosity. That is one of the lasting lessons I take from my time working with GE. I have never been at a place that thought so carefully and comprehensively about leadership development, both at an individual and organization level.

You’re joining Barr at a time of great turmoil in our country. Do you see a role for philanthropy in addressing this?

One of the things I often said to my students at Brown was that leadership on our critical social issues requires a paradoxical sense of urgency along with a long-term view. In many ways, the challenges we are facing now are the same ones we have faced in this country for hundreds of years. We absolutely need a sense of urgency to take action today. But we also need to consider the history that has brought us to this point, in order to address the very deep roots underlying these challenges.

Your career has spanned a number of sectors, including nonprofit, corporate, and government. How have these different vantage points shaped your approach to this work?

One of my goals for working across sectors was to help me understand how change happens broadly in the world and what change levers are available for each of those sectors. For change to happen, we really need all sectors engaged and aligned, bringing their respective leadership, perspective, and resources. Fostering substantive change requires us to connect programs, policy, advocacy, research, and innovation around a shared vision. I’ve found that philanthropy can influence these various levers for change in different ways, but is often most effective when it reaches across sectors to bring groups together under a shared goal.

Have you seen instances where philanthropy is unhelpful?

Philanthropy is unhelpful when it thinks it has the best idea in the room. Consciously or unconsciously, that kind of thinking can be easy to fall into—it’s one of the occupational hazards of our sector and its power dynamics. Keeping strong connections with the communities and grantees we serve is, in my view, the best way to stay grounded, and to avoid that kind of arrogance.

Now that you’re not commuting to Washington, D.C., for work, what are you most excited to do with your time?

Now that I’m living back home in New England full time, I’m excited to have more time with my family (my wife, two sons, and daughter) and getting reacquainted with them after two years in D.C. I’m also looking forward to exploring neighborhoods and regions in New England and getting to know the abundance of arts and cultural institutions here, which was one of the things I really loved about living in D.C.

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Roger Nozaki

Roger Nozaki

Vice President, Barr Foundation