James W. Head speaking at an event

Dear EBCF Community,

It’s hard to believe, but my time at the East Bay Community Foundation is fast coming to an end. Last week, I shared with our staff and board of directors that October 29 will be my last day as President and CEO. The search for my successor is proceeding apace and until that person is named, Pamela Calloway will serve as Interim President and CEO. I have known and worked with Pamela for many years and am confident that she and the staff will continue to advance the work we have started together. There is much to be excited about in EBCF’s future.

As I write my final letter to you, I reflect on our nearly seven years together with gratitude, pride, and a hopefulness about what is to come. When I joined the foundation, I knew what an extraordinary opportunity it would be to build on EBCF’s more than ninety years of service to the community.

Having worked at the San Francisco Foundation for over a decade, I had spent a great deal of time working to advance social justice and to increase public, private, and philanthropic resources to communities of color, but I was also well aware that community foundations can be slow to change.

When I came to EBCF as CEO, my goal was to begin to build a partnership with our donors, corporate, and foundation stakeholders to build support for a formal commitment by the foundation to make racial justice and racial equity our primary area of focus.

This took time, but I had plenty of help. Our board of directors did incredible work to articulate our commitment in our mission statement and vision of “A Just East Bay;” our program staff built our discretionary grantmaking around organizing and movement building, as well as support of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) led organizations; our finance team began the powerful work of committing to use all our investable assets to advance equity and justice; and our development team worked closely with our donors to advance deeper education and community experiences, as well as new ways to partner with us.

I am also deeply grateful to my counterparts at the San Francisco Foundation and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. I could not have asked for two better collaborators in Fred Blackwell and Nicole Taylor. You might think that our foundations see each other as competitors, but we don’t. Our region is so lucky to have these leaders, who understand that advancing racial justice and racial equity requires us to build something bigger than any one of our organizations.

Similarly, as a foundation with a large base of donor advised funds, building a true partnership with our donors has been essential, and yet we must also acknowledge the notion of donor intent. As you might imagine, we have had difficult conversations over the years when some of the values of EBCF and of our donors felt out of alignment. But as EBCF has clarified its direction, mission, vision, and values, I’ve seen acceptance and approval from the majority of our donors, with growing desires to align their giving to the life-improving community solutions EBCF supports.

There are some things that I’m particularly proud of. The foundation’s relationship with Kaiser Permanente, our largest fundholder, has flourished. It began under the leadership of their CEO, the amazing Bernard Tyson, and has continued to grow after his untimely passing in 2019.

EBCF helped launch ASCEND:BLO, an initiative that has emerged as a powerful model for how to support the growth, sustainability, impact, and sense of community among Black-led anchor institutions in the Bay Area in order to ensure the long-term vitality of those organizations and the communities of color they serve. We certainly didn’t do that alone. We are grateful to the many donors, foundations, corporations, and other partners that have devoted significant time and resources to advance that work. I do believe that the work we’ve done over the last several years has brought the kind of attention and talent that we wouldn’t have attracted if we hadn’t moved in this direction. Without seeming immodest, I feel there’s a real sense that as an institution EBCF is helping to set a new standard for community foundations and philanthropy in general. I won’t hog the credit for that either — this work has been embraced by our board, our staff, our donors, and our partners.

Of course, these past years have been such a challenge for anyone working to advance racial equity in the context of the most divisive election in our lifetimes, a global pandemic, and blatant and toxic expressions of racial hatred. All I can say is that we always tried to put our community first and act out of respect and compassion for people most harmed by injustice.

As I head out the door, I am receiving many messages of support and congratulations, which I will cheerfully accept. History will be the real judge of how I did over these past years. When I finish at EBCF, I will leave with more than 40 years of experience in this work, devoted to community betterment. I look forward to taking a bit of time to tend to some health issues, get some rest, and spend quality time with my very patient wife, Bernida, and our son Chris. After that, I believe there’s value in sharing what I’ve learned with others, as well as continuing to work and fight to achieve justice for all.

As for my successor, for whom our hard-working board of directors continues the search, I offer a few pieces of highly unsolicited advice:

  1. In the words of the great John Lewis, don’t be afraid to make good trouble. There is more than enough room to push the envelope in changing how community foundations function and how they operate. With improvement and experience, community foundations can truly become the “civic home for all”.
  2. Philanthropy in general could use more constructive disruption. Pay attention to the critiques about philanthropy and philanthropic giving that have emerged in the past several years. The pandemic and the energized social justice movement may have pushed this debate to the side a little, but these conversations continue to be relevant. Philanthropy needs to be much less top-down and much more driven by what communities actually need. Some funders might not want to hear that, but it must be said.
  3. Find a way to come to terms with the paradox of working in the field of philanthropy while trying to advance social justice. I have tried to reconcile in my own mind that the vast majority of wealth that feeds philanthropy was created as a result of a social and economic system that at best is guilty of taking advantage of those who are poor and most marginalized, or at worst has its roots in systemic racism and white supremacy. But don’t let that stop you from using those resources to redress the damage they caused in the first place and helping to build something better and more just. Remember Dr. King’s statement: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

Serving as the president and CEO of East Bay Community Foundation has been an exciting and rewarding opportunity to lead an organization that was truly interested in changing. Of course, change is a moving target. But the goal of trying to figure out the best ways to ensure that communities can thrive is one that must continue to be the north star. I hope that I was able to have a small part in helping to steer this ship toward that goal.

And I thank all my friends, colleagues, donors, and partners for allowing me to join you in this journey.

James W. Head
President and Chief Executive Officer
East Bay Community Foundation