Revealing the Fundamental Resilience of People and Place

Revealing the Fundamental Resilience of People and Place


This month, Jeff Clarke interviews Richard Woo, CEO of The Russell Family Foundation in Gig Harbor, Wash. This is the fourth interview in an ongoing series of interviews with philanthropic leaders from around the region and across the nation. See Jeff’s previous interviews with Anne Kubisch of The Ford Family Foundation and Kelly Brown of the D5 Coalition.

Jeff Clarke: You’ve had quite a diverse set of professional experiences. Prior to joining The Russell Family Foundation, you worked in the nonprofit sector and led the Levi Strauss Foundation, where you worked in global philanthropy and corporate social responsibility. For the past 14 years, you’ve been a leader in family philanthropy at The Russell Family Foundation. Based on those experiences, how do you view the world? What are your thoughts about organized philanthropy within that world view?

Richard Woo: I’ve been fortunate to find satisfying work throughout my career from teaching sex education in San Francisco Chinatown to global grantmaking with the Levi Strauss Foundation and family philanthropy in the Great Northwest. The common themes among those very diverse experiences are: people, places and communities. I believe you cannot separate one from the others.

An artful storyteller once told me that all great stories revolve around people or places — and most often the connection between both. As soon as you begin a story of people, the listener wants to hear something about the setting, the landscape, the place where that tale is centered. Likewise, every narrative about a place comes alive when you know who is there. The inherent relationships among people, places and communities require that we, in philanthropy, seek opportunities to serve and solutions that honor these interconnections — to make what is often invisible more visible. When organized philanthropy sprinkles its “magic fairy dust” around a community (grants, technical assistance, capacity-building, convenings) — we do so with the hope of making the invisible more visible — to reveal the fundamental resilience of people and place.

To do this well, I feel “organized philanthropy” could stand to be a bit more dis-organized in its approach, that is to say, more risk tolerant, more patient with the ambiguous, the uncertain and the chaotic. Our willingness to see far-reaching and sometimes fuzzy connections may lead to unconventional solutions such as the Empire Health Foundation in Spokane and its initiative in Eastern Washington to fight childhood obesity by converting school lunch programs to scratch cooking of fresh, local food while raising the culinary skills of cafeteria workers.

What about your pre-family philanthropy experiences and your world view led you to The Russell Family Foundation in Gig Harbor?

As the executive director of the Levi Strauss Foundation, I oversaw corporate grantmaking, employee voluntarism and philanthropic programs in 40 countries. The far-flung scope of that work provided me an exceptional education in global business, cultures and change. During my 12 years at Levi Strauss & Co. and the Levi Strauss Foundation, our grant programs focused on community economic development, HIV/AIDS and social justice. The scale of those efforts across so many communities was satisfying but I was seldom in one place long enough to personally witness the longer term results of our work.

It was that longing for the legacy of place that drew me to The Russell Family Foundation, where I was invited to become the first executive director outside of the family to lead the enterprise. In the early years, I savored the opportunity of working hands-on in a start-up foundation with a founding family whose own success was rooted in business and entrepreneurship. After 14 years, I’m still enjoying the creative spirit and pace; as well as witnessing up-close the impact of the Foundation’s philanthropy.

You relocated from the Bay area to the heart of the rural Pacific Northwest. How has this move shaped your perspective about rural? If yes, how?

My roots are rural. I was born and raised in the 1950s and 1960s in a small farming community in Central California where my father and his brothers raised cotton, safflower and alfalfa. My father was a second generation farmer and the first born son of 19 children — which is why, in part, he didn’t finish high school or attend college because he was needed on the farm. Consequently, education was the fundamental aim of my parent’s dream for their children — my brother and me — for which I am grateful. The education I pursued was what drew me from the country to the city and the profession that eventually took me around the world and to the Northwest. Even so, the values I hold today about community, responsibility and service were deeply shaped by my rural life experiences.

I understood early on in my small town of 5,000 people that I was visible, I had a place, I was Bill and Patricia Woo’s son. There were bonds of community connection that brought both privileges and responsibilities. For example, as a young boy I was extended the privilege of trust to bicycle to the neighborhood store, hand the owner my mother’s shopping list and ride home with groceries — the cost of which were noted on a tab to be settled later between the grocer and my family. As a teenager getting into mischief about town, it was not unusual for an adult to stop and ask: “Would your father appreciate knowing what you’re up to?”

In high school, my friends and I organized a peace rally at the local park in response to the Vietnam War. While my father and I disagreed about the war, I was personally moved when he helped us assemble the rally’s makeshift stage built from produce bins off the farm. Small town rural life taught me the importance of trust, interdependence and deep relationships. As I’ve moved with my career through a variety of urban landscapes, I’ve pursued those values regardless of setting because they are true and timeless to community building.

Having said all this, life in the country was not always rosy and idyllic. After all, my youth in rural America was centered in the 1950s and 1960s — a time of emerging turmoil sparked by dramatic social changes tied to the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, the War on Poverty, Women’s Rights and more. I fancied myself a student of all those movements in a community clinging to a comfortable past. As mentioned before, in my small town, “I was visible, I had a place.” While there was much to commend about that, my visibility and place were also shaped by race and class. Being a fourth generation Chinese American from an established farming family did not shield me from harsh experiences of bias, exclusion and isolation. As a result, my commitment to social justice was also a product of my rural life experience.

You are a member of a Philanthropy Northwest CEO cohort focused on diversity, equity and inclusion in philanthropy. Could you briefly frame the issues and share why the cohort has been a positive experience?

The CEO cohort on diversity, equity and inclusion is one the most diverse groups of colleagues I’ve ever had the good fortune to work alongside in such a deep and intimate way about matters that affect us personally, organizationally and as a society. Put more simply: the cohort is built on trust, interdependence and deep relationships — the values I noted earlier as true and timeless to community building.

The cohort’s member make-up is diverse by many measures of difference: gender, race, sexual orientation, age, class origins, geographic scope, urban/rural, foundation staffing, governance and assets, political affiliation and so on. We are a community of learning, practice and support to one another. The cohort provides a confidential and respectful setting to explore our differences, plan for action, learn from our success and failure and encourage a continued commitment. We value one another in the cohort as peer advisors through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion. We seek each other’s counsel on ways to apply that lens to board governance, staffing models, grantmaking, foundation policies and community impact.

You have become an increasingly active and leading mission-investor from both issue and place-based perspectives. Could you talk about how you and your trustees frame mission investing as a way to increase your community impact? Could you also describe the various pieces of your mission investing portfolio (e.g. Divest – Invest, Canopy, Watershed etc)?

The Russell Family Foundation has been learning and practicing mission-related investing for the past decade. In philanthropy, I believe the odds of success are far greater when you apply a higher percentage of your foundation’s available resources — human, social and financial capital — towards your mission. After all, how much change do you expect to see with a 5% (minimum payout) effort? I’m not advocating spending down the endowment, but rather, let’s put the other 95% of our financial assets to work in service of our mission, alongside the 5% grant payout.

Here are recent examples of this mission investing logic. In the spring of 2013, The Russell Family Foundation decided to take action on climate change, fossil fuels and the divest/invest movement. The Foundation’s first step was to divest its endowment of holdings in the Filthy Fifteen, the largest, dirtiest coal companies in the U.S. In January 2014, the Foundation became one of 17 foundations in the U.S. and globally as founding signatories to Divest-Invest Philanthropy, a climate change movement which has since grown to more than 70 foundations. This fall, the Foundation re-directed funds divested from coal into an investment with Ecotrust Forest Management—a sustainable forestry fund in the Northwest. (Video)

Coming soon, The Russell Family Foundation is joining with other Northwest foundations to launch a collaborative enterprise called Canopy. Together these foundations aim to build a regional platform for shared investment research, investor education, capacity-building and co-investing for mission.

Can you talk a little bit about TRFF's philosophy on community engagement, collaboration and networks, and how they show up in your work?

The Foundation is working on the Puyallup Watershed Initiative, a ten-year effort with three goals: community engagement; strong local leadership; and clean water. The watershed is iconic originating at the headwaters of Mount Rainier running through forests, farmlands, suburbs and Tacoma’s industrial waterfront before emptying into the Puget Sound. It’s also complex, encompassing 1,000 square miles, 14 jurisdictions, two sovereign nations and every land use imaginable. The Foundation has committed up to a million dollars in each of ten years. We’re currently in year two.

To promote engagement, collaboration and leadership, the Foundation launched this initiative without a traditional request for proposal process or awarding one-off grants to individual organizations. Instead we asked the community-at-large to self-identify and self-organize around common interests related to how they viewed their place in the watershed. We then provided technical assistance, capacity-building and administrative support to the community through a third party intermediary organization.

The result is nine different “Communities of Interest” (COI) in the watershed working together to craft and submit collaborative funding proposals to improve engagement, leadership and clean water. The COI reflect a diversity of watershed themes including environmental education, agriculture, active transportation, just and healthy food, industrial water quality, environmental and social justice, and others.

This past summer, the first proposal approved by the Foundation was to the Environmental Education Community of Interest — a proposal co-created by 40 organizations (nonprofit, government and individual residents) based on a twenty-year vision, a ten-year strategy and an action plan for year one. Seeds are being planted for new ways of working. When COI participants were asked recently to describe the initiative, the most often repeated themes were: Community and Hope. This is stretching both the community and the Foundation… we hope for the better.

Transparency is an incredibly important element of the building trust / credibility equation. What are your thoughts on transparency and how well do you think The Russell Family Foundation has integrated it into its cultural DNA?

Earlier I used the phrase “make the invisible more visible.” When that happens, “transparency” is present. Where transparency is present, there is more opportunity to engage with one another as informed, knowledgeable and empowered partners. Over the years, we’ve baked transparency into our Foundation culture in a number of ways. For example, each employee’s annual objectives are shared across the organization and team objectives are tracked by all staff to promote focus, mutual support and accountability.

Each year, community representatives participate alongside Foundation board members, staff and alumni of Jane’s Fellowship Program to select the next cohort of Jane Fellows — local grassroots activists awarded financial support and leadership training. In particular, the insights of the community representatives and fellowship alumni “make the invisible more visible” to the Foundation. Jane Russell, the Foundation’s co-founder once said to me: “Richard, I don’t mind paying for your mistakes, I just don’t want to pay for the same mistake again and again.

In that spirit of lifelong learning and transparency, the Foundation posted on our website a video about one of our “instructive failures” — a program-related investment that collapsed and how it fundamentally changed the way we do mission investing going forward.



Submitted by Harolynne Bobis (not verified) on Wed, 10/22/2014 - 8:51am

I've known Richard Woo since he came to the Northwest and the Russell Family Foundation and yet I now know more about him from this short interview than I had expected to learn.

Thanks to you both.