Lee Pelton on the “Triple Pandemic” and Importance of Equity

by Karen Lieberman-Daly

Posted July 19, 2021

In this month’s At the Helmour Senior Vice President Karen Lieberman-Daly sat down with Lee Pelton, the newly appointed President and CEO of The Boston Foundation. Karen and Lee discussed the common threads in his illustrious career in higher education and his new role, the greatest challenges facing Boston, and his vision for the Foundation’s future impact.

Karen: How did your time at Emerson, and long career in higher education, prepare you for your new role as President and CEO of The Boston Foundation?

Lee: A colleague recently remarked about me in the Boston Globe that I was never a typical college president, I was a city builder – and I think that’s true. I have always been deeply civically engaged, and have long believed that nations look to colleges and universities to solve their most pressing problems. As the President of Emerson, I felt obligated to help the nation, our communities, and our citizens to live lives of hope and promise. It’s a commitment I’ve always held, and that work continues for me at The Boston Foundation. As I’ve jokingly said several times since taking this role, civic leadership has always been a part of my life; now I get to do full time what I was doing part time.

You joined the Foundation at an interesting time, as it embarks on a new strategic planning process. What do you see as the most pressing priorities for the city?

It’s clear that Boston, despite its best efforts and decades of spectacular growth, remains a tale of two cities – one that’s prosperous, and one that’s struggling to make ends meet. It is arguably one of the nation’s most expensive and most unequal cities. And what I have been calling the “triple pandemic” of COVID-19, economic devastation, and the very public exposure of racial injustices that have long plagued our city, have all brought these inequities into even sharper relief. So, while the last many months have been extraordinarily challenging, they have also provided us with an astonishing opportunity. I know this may sound pollyannish, but wherever there is a challenge, there is an opportunity – without fail. My job here at The Boston Foundation is to identify and seize the opportunity to rethink and reimagine our role and how we might help shape Boston in the years, if not decades, to come. We’re going to need strong, committed, and collaborative leadership to do so – and I emphasize collaborative because we cannot do it alone. We need collaborative leadership in our public, profit, nonprofit, and civic sectors to address these inequities. And The Boston Foundation needs to be—must be—at the forefront of that change.

The three problems that you identified—COVID-19, economic devastation, and racial injustice—have wreaked havoc over the past 18 months and are huge problems in and of themselves, but collectively, they’re gargantuan. So, where do you begin?

You begin with a fundamental and core focus on equity. Some people confuse equality with equity. But equality is about equal inputs and equity is about equal outputs. So, we focus on equity, and through that lens, the urgent need to dismantle and interrogate the systems and long-standing structural barriers that prevent many of our citizens, especially those from underrepresented groups, from full participation in American democracy, in general, and in Boston, in particular. That’s where we’ll start.

How do you imagine drawing upon the resources of the Foundation to accommodate these new objectives and goals?

There are three principal elements of our work. The first is civic engagement. My belief is that The Boston Foundation is the civic leader of Boston and the region because of our ability to partner with and convene folks around a common cause and set of problems. This collaboration, along with our history of highlighting issues through our research (such as the Boston Indicators) is very significant because it shines a bright light on the current challenges in a discursive way and through critical inquiry. That’s the first element.

The second element of our work is our donors and donor-advised activities. We focus on helping our donors to identify needs where they can put their philanthropy to good use.

And then, unlike many community foundations, we also have a discretionary fund, the Endowment for Boston, where we can make our own gifts on a discretionary basis.

So, we need to make sure that these three elements—our civic leadership, donors, and grantmaking—are working together to address the issues at hand. Last year, we awarded $215M in grants through our donor-advised funds and our discretionary fund. It was a record-breaking contribution and really speaks to the sense of urgency that we felt when there was great need in the city and beyond.

Do you envision collaborating with other funders to address these vast needs of the city?

Yes, and there are two parts to this. First, I think the degree to which there are funding organizations embedded inside The Boston Foundation is not fully recognized. For example, the New Commonwealth Fund, which has been much talked about, is embedded within The Boston Foundation. And as is King Boston Fund, which has raised about $16M just in this last year to support the construction of the Coretta Scott and Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Boston, as well as to build a civic rights resource center in Roxbury. And those are just two of a long list of funding organizations that sit inside The Boston Foundation. So this is a key way that we partner – by providing these entities with the financial and administrative support that they need to thrive.

We also partner with other funders that are grantmaking, and during the triple pandemic, we have approached grantmaking the same way so many of them have. We have eliminated or streamlined reporting requirements, we have converted grants to general operating support, we have released payments earlier to nonprofits, and we have stopped asking them to continuously submit new proposals but instead use proposals they have already submitted elsewhere. And we have examined our tendency to invest small amounts in small nonprofits, when a larger investment would make a more significant and lasting change.

This kind of new approach to and practices within grantmaking have had such an impact. How much do you think they will endure? Because it feels like it could be the beginning of something very special, where there’s a real opportunity to create long-term, positive change in Boston.

I think there absolutely is an opportunity, and I think these changes will be permanent. The impulse has been a collaborative impulse – to lead these nonprofits from behind, rather than ahead, and to lead with some humility. It’s incumbent on us at The Boston Foundation, and at all large, grantmaking organizations, to not retreat from the progress that we have made.

You’ve only been in the position of President and CEO for a couple months, but are you having fun?

I’m having a lot of fun. I get up in the morning and I ask myself this question: “How will I improve lives and strengthen communities and neighborhoods today?” That is my job, and it is the most satisfying job that I could imagine for myself.

Every month, Development Guild leadership spends time with leaders from across the nonprofit sector to hear their perspectives, what’s on their minds today, and what they believe the future holds. Read more At the Helm interviews.

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