In this Q and A, we speak with CEO Fred Blackwell and the foundation’s first Chief of Staff, Brandi Howard, about this new role and how it could help the organization achieve its goals for racial equity and economic inclusion in the Bay Area.
Q: Fred, let’s start with you. Why did you decide to create the role of Chief of Staff?
Fred: I’ve been CEO now for five years, and we are three years into our equity strategy. This felt like a really good time to take a look at what the next five years would look like and what it would take to achieve our goals. I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved since we launched our equity strategy, but I also know that if we are going to be successful, we’re all going to have to step up our game, starting with me.
Since I am not able to clone myself, the next best thing is to figure out how to use my time more efficiently and effectively so I could play an important external role for the foundation, and to be more present inside the walls of this organization. After much consideration, the board and I decided that a Chief of Staff could help me and the management team to stabilize the organization, integrate the tools that it is creating, and align our approaches and frameworks in a deliberative way.
We also need to create an internal culture of equity and inclusivity that’s commensurate with our external equity goals.
Q: What were the qualities you were looking for to fill this role?
Fred: It was a tall order, but I wanted someone who was organized, who had experience with organizational development, experience with philanthropy, and if at all possible, someone who also understood the San Francisco Foundation’s culture. I also wanted to find someone with an intellectual understanding of this work, who had an understanding of the Bay Area, and who had a personal connection with the equity agenda—in other words, someone who had a lived experience in this work.
I was also really interested in finding someone who had the ability to challenge my assumptions and my processes and could push back when necessary.
Q: Really? Everyone says that but they don’t really mean it.
Fred: Well, when they get to know Brandi they’ll know I mean it! She has a sense of urgency about this work and understands just how important it is, and if she sees me going off track or has a way to help me and the foundation improve our approach to it, she is absolutely willing to say so.
Q: What will her role be?
Fred: My goal is for her to intermediate in a way that is helpful to me, to our staff, to our grantees, and to our donors. She’s going to help me use my time as effectively as possible—not as a gatekeeper but as someone who is able to help interpret and organize the work and manage the flow of information in a way that allows me to be more present and more efficient.
Q: Brandi, why were you interested in taking on this challenge?
Brandi: I have a very diverse background, but what has been constant have been my roles in organizational change; from start-ups to major shifts in business. When I was young, I was the person who supported others through difficult times—I was the intermediary in my family and was able to wade through the murky things. This has served me really well throughout my career and in my life. I’ve also always been comfortable with change, but I recognize that not everybody is. As the foundation moves into this new and exciting phase, I think I can help pay attention to the change, the people who are responsible for moving it, and those who are affected by it. As Fred often says, we’re in pursuit of a destination that none of us has ever seen before. To me, that’s incredibly exciting and I want to do whatever I can to help us get there.
Q: What do you think success will feel like?
Brandi: If we get this right, our grantees and organizational partners will see us as a true partner, and we’ll be able to build deeper levels of trust. Staff will feel that leadership embrace the same level of commitment and excitement to the equity agenda internally as we have externally—and we’ll be able to nurture a culture of understanding of how each and every one of us contributes to our vision of equity.
Q: What do you think Fred does best?
Brandi: He’s obviously a great communicator, he is authentic, and he has the ability to motivate and earn people’s trust to follow the vision.
Q: What are Fred’s, um, opportunities? Where do you think Fred can benefit from this position and the person you are?
Brandi: There are so many demands on his time and attention. First, I plan to have an eye on the various moving parts here so that he can make decisions according to what’s happening now. I will also work with him to consistently communicate about how decisions are made and how they are linked to the foundation’s vision. I may also have to help him say no from time to time.
Q: Fred, does that sound about right to you?
Fred: Yes, Brandi is going to help me stay grounded, be more structured and disciplined, and for lack of a better word, proselytize the racial equity work. I’ve said this before, but I really want to win, and by that I mean that I think we have an opportunity to advance racial equity and economic inclusion so that everybody’s lives are richer, more fulfilling, and reflect who we want to be as a society. To do this, it will take all of us showing up in a different way, and that means that I will have to show up in a different way.
Q: What do you think the obstacles to success might be?
Fred: There are certainly challenges. It’s a new role. That always presents both opportunities and challenges. I’m hypersensitive to the need to communicate the what, why, and how of this change. In some ways it’s counter to the way I operate. I’m real comfortable with fluidity, but a little structure should be good for me. At the same time, I don’t want to be so rigid and so dogmatic about the role that we lose the nimbleness and fluidity of what we’re trying to achieve.
Q: What is it about Brandi’s background that make her a good fit for this job?
Fred: Brandi is reluctant to toot her own horn, so I’ll do it for her. She has this really rich background in business, working in communities, in academia, and in nonprofits. She has worked as a doula, mentoring young women in her community, provided end of life care; she’s worked in Jamaica and Haiti, and so much more. It’s really an amazingly rich combination of experiences.
Q: Brandi, how do you think you’ll draw on all these experiences in your new job?
Brandi: This role is kind of a jack-of-all-trades. Throughout my career, I’ve often served as a bridge between communities and organizations. In graduate school I learned how to take my skills from the for-profit world, which can be very functional, and translate them into helping others in the social sector, which can sometimes be abstract and theoretical. This helped me launch citywide health initiatives in New York City, advocate for families in black infant health programs in Berkeley and throughout Alameda County, and work with the Alameda County public health community and First 5 Alameda County, managing home visiting services.
In the end, coming to the San Francisco Foundation, first as a program officer for the Koshland Program and now as Chief of Staff, reminds me that I have been taken on a very important journey. I feel like there’s something I’m supposed to give and to receive here and I’m very excited to have that opportunity.
Fred: You rarely run into some who combines that 360-degree view of society from private sector, public sector, nonprofit, academic, and community, combined with a passion and commitment to the things that are most important. That doesn’t just walk through your door every day. The more I got to know Brandi, the more it became clear to me that that was the kind of person that I needed for this role.