December 06, 2021

Oregonians Can Do Hard Things

President and CEO Max Williams Reflects on the Highs and Lows of 2021

At the close of 2021, President and CEO Max Williams shares his perspective on the past 12 months and what he wants to achieve before he transitions out of his role in 2022

What were the biggest takeaways and surprises of 2021?

We had hoped that 2021 would be a transitional year of working through COVID emergency response. In a lot of ways, that was true: 2021 was a deeper, more sustained response to COVID, in which much of the work begun in 2020 continued.

I think what we didn't necessarily know, going into it, was that 2021 would itself be another year of ongoing challenges, brought about by the continuing need to operate in COVID-emergent circumstances. That was one of the surprises.

What are some examples of work that began in 2020 coming to fruition in 2021?

One is Project Turnkey. The Legislature authorized $75 million in 2020. But our involvement in the acquisition of 19 properties and releasing those funds to local community groups or local governments who were taking the lead in their communities of establishing shelters for unhoused people — all that work really happened in 2021.

Another example is our work around summer learning for kids. The state essentially granted OCF $40 million, which in a very short period of time we granted out to literally hundreds of organizations around the state that are supporting kids — in particular, responding to specific needs of children and families from Black, Indigenous, Latina/o/x, and other communities of color, immigrant/refugee communities, children from low-income families, children with disabilities, and children living in under-resourced rural communities. Whether it was Boys and Girls Clubs or YMCAs or helping swimming pools in communities reopen or supporting mentoring programs — you name it, we distributed dollars to a whole variety of programs for kids ages K through 12, and all of that hard work took place in 2021.

A third example is OCF’s contribution to the Community Rebuilding Fund. We were asked by the Governor to establish that fund the week after the Labor Day Fires in 2020, in partnership with our friends at Meyer Memorial Trust and The Ford Family Foundation. It wasn’t for immediate emergency response but would actually help advance community rebuilding in the longer-term. Together we committed to raise $10 million, and I'm really pleased that we were able to meet that goal. The vast majority of those funds have been released this year to help eight counties and multiple communities directly and deeply impacted by the fires.

What challenges stand out from the past year?

I think it's fair to say that we were all hoping that COVID-related issues would be more short-term disruptions. So I think it's been daunting to continue to push on these issues on a regular basis for everybody. Not just for OCF or for philanthropy, but literally for everybody getting up every morning and feeling like it's Groundhog Day all over again.

Here I want to make a really big shout out to the OCF staff. To get all of those dollars out the door, at the speed we did, with the efficacy we did and holding to our standards and being good partners with lots and lots of other people, individuals and businesses; government partners and nonprofit organizations…the staff have worked really, really hard. At the same time, we want to recognize that while OCF is doing really important hard work in getting dollars to nonprofits, the real credit goes to the people on the ground who are delivering actual services to kids and families and seniors and the hungry and the homeless and the needy all across the state.

The disappointing thing is to see the continuation of the need. That's been a real challenge.

What lessons did OCF learn in the past year that you hope we will carry forward?

Three lessons come to mind.

The first is, we can do hard things. It’s been an important resilience-building experience to take on some of these challenges as a statewide community foundation. I'm speaking for OCF but this applies to lots and lots of Oregon organizations. Organizations that never before were in the business of helping families get food, turned into temporary food pantries for families during COVID. Organizations that had never once figured out how to deliver their services remotely, learned how to do that. With our philanthropic dollars, we could help sustain those organizations while they figured out how they could continue to provide really critical services to people on the ground.

We can reach deeper into communities to direct our impact toward the greatest need. For years, OCF has operated a community grants program where people apply, we review grants, and we make those awards. As it became clear that COVID was having a disproportionate impact on some people, including people who couldn’t work from home, those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, many families and kids of color — we saw a whole lot of reasons why we couldn’t wait for organizations to come to us. We needed to get more resources to the most vulnerable and disproportionately impacted communities. That’s taught us how to more effectively reach in, connect and begin to build deeper, long-lasting, authentic relationships with organizations that are serving those populations, some of which had not been on OCF’s radar screen, because they were very small, or very locally-focused, or did not exist two or three years ago. It was an opportunity borne of crisis that will help us build more and deeper community relationships.

We can move quickly and responsibly. During this time, we’ve done things we've never once considered. Truthfully, given our current processes and the careful way in which we work, we might have taken six months to a year to think through and plan for some of those things. Amid COVID, sometimes we were making those decisions over a weekend. The risk of inaction was much higher than the risk of action. So we made decisions, and if we got them wrong in some way, we made the necessary adjustments. But we decided organizationally that we were going to act and be a little bit bolder in where to step in, and how. That flexibility and boldness are some of the things I hope we’ll carry forward.

Given your transition out of the President and CEO role next year, what are your priorities over the next 7 to ten months?

I would love to say that COVID is gone, and that it’s time to move on to other important work, but the reality is that we’re still dealing with related issues, and I’m continuing to manage through the immediacy of those situations. I'm committed to being CEO up until the moment of the handoff, so that means continuing to “call all the balls and the strikes.”

Another big priority for me is to make sure that everything is lined up and ready to roll for our next strategic planning process, which begins in 2022 and will continue into 2023. I really want to make sure that the new CEO has the opportunity to actively participate in that strategic process. So I’ll be working on making sure that, as soon as that person comes in next year, they can take on that responsibility and move forward.

Editor’s note: Max Williams shaped and stewarded OCF’s current Strategic Plan, built upon the belief that the best way OCF can address the long-term challenges facing the state is by convening and amplifying the tremendous talents of a statewide network of everyday Oregonians: individuals, businesses, nonprofits and government — working together to inspire impactful giving, advance opportunity for all of Oregon’s children and deeply engaging communities in solutions tailored to meet their needs. This recently updated version reflects how our work has evolved to respond to the distinct challenges of the past two years.  While poised to embark on a new strategic planning process in 2022-23, OCF remains committed to the goals and objectives that Williams helped define and achieve during his tenure.

A third priority is ensuring a warm handoff to the new CEO and with our donors. People often forget, because we so often focus on the grant-making side of the business of OCF, that every grant we make, every dollar we spend, every person we employ, everything we do is because there's a generous, willing, committed donor who has given OCF money to create the fund that's doing that particular kind of work. And so I'm really hoping to spend a big chunk of my time between now and my departure connecting with donors and then helping the new CEO effectively connect with those donors going forward.

What advice do you have for OCFs next leader?

I’m not sure the new CEO will want my advice. If I was the incoming CEO, having something in print from the old CEO saying what advice they would offer seems a little bit presumptuous. That being said, the answer, I think, is to listen.

There are lots and lots of voices and people who have information and different points of view about issues and community.

I believe in OCF as one of the few places where you can still bring together people from different regions of the state, different ideologies, different backgrounds, even different viewpoints about how philanthropy can make a difference in their community — they can still come together under the banner of the Oregon Community Foundation, with a commitment to improve the lives of all Oregonians.

It may be one of the only organizations in the state that has the legitimacy to actually play that role. And it's also sometimes an uncomfortable place, because in the midst of great division, people want you to pick sides on every issue. And then they want to castigate you if you haven't picked the side they're on. So it’s a complicated place for OCF to work, and yet I think it's absolutely essential. I come back to this job being one that requires a whole lot of listening before you make decisions, because it's really important to hear people share their point of view.  We’re having a lot of conversations right now about how just “being more neighborly” is a way to begin to come together — to work together, to have difficult conversations, to see one another’s humanity and heal some of the divides we see across the state.

Philanthropy faces many challenges right now. Whats missing from the conversation?

We’re at a time when all institutions are being held to account for how they've conducted themselves and done their business, and philanthropy is no different. I don't think that's bad. At the same time, I worry sometimes that, in the drive to correct wrongs, we’re losing sight of philanthropy’s tremendous, positive capacity to improve people’s lives. There are incredible examples of philanthropy making huge impacts and doing things that almost no one else could do.

Understandably, people are really frustrated with increasing wealth disparity, and that’s one of the reasons that OCF is investing in efforts and programming and strategies to try to figure out how to actually narrow that wealth gap and create opportunity for people in Oregon to live a better life.

At the same time, there are generous people who are giving their money to try to make things better. To critics of those people, I’ve always said, when you’re done going after the wealthy people who aren't doing anything to give back to their communities, then you can address the people who are. The problem is, it’s the people who are actually doing things charitably who you can find, and who therefore draw the criticism, as opposed to the billionaires or the millionaires or even the “thousand-aires” who just keep quiet.

There are a lot of generous people in Oregon trying to do the right thing in their small town or in their community. It’s not Bill Gates. It’s not Mark Zuckerberg. It’s not Elon Musk. It’s the on-the-ground, real-life, day-to-day-in-the-community philanthropist who is the hallmark of the Oregon Community Foundation. These are people, who most people don’t even know, who are doing this really great, community-focused grant-making. And I'll spend the rest of my post-OCF career defending them, their commitment to community and their commitment to giving back.

Were living in a time of terrible divisions. What about the past year or two gives you hope?

You know, this in some ways is a 9/11 moment. You’ll remember the incredible sense of strength and unity and togetherness that the country had at that period of time. And then it started to evaporate. I think many of us feel the same way about this experience. And maybe it evaporated a lot sooner in this experience than it did after 9/11.

And yet, I would say from my vantage point, watching this group of people who OCF gets to work with who are in many ways the most committed and the most generous Oregonians in the state, it’s incredibly gratifying. It’s heartening to see the investment of these dollars from all sorts of people from all different walks of life, religions, race, ideology — how many of them didn't care about any of that — they simply wanted to activate their philanthropy to try to help their neighbors. I think that's an important takeaway in a moment when it's easy to be suspicious of everybody's motives and be negative.

We’ve seen an incredible sense of that neighborliness in the past couple of years, and that is what makes it possible for us to do hard things. Because we know that when push comes to shove, Oregonians really do care about their neighbors and are willing to put other issues aside.