We sat down with NEO Philanthropy President, Michele Lord to get her take on the state of philanthropy.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing philanthropy?
There is so much noise in this new environment we find ourselves. We have to stay focused and identify strategic investments we can make to help those on the ground take advantage of opportunities and forge closer partnerships across issues. We have to help folks link their work with other like-minded advocates and provide opportunities for them to think together and strategize together. Mainly, we must continue to encourage philanthropy to get themselves out of the silos they have been working in and truly collaborate with colleagues across issues and identities. This allows philanthropy to do what it is set up to do – be supportive partners and get the resources out quickly to those who need it.
Q: What was your journey like to get you to NEO?
My journey to NEO was definitely not a planned career path. I looked for work opportunities that allowed me to follow my passion, learn new skills, take on tough battles and embrace responsibility. I started out working at legal services in Texas in the early 80’s during the Reagan Presidency. From there, I moved on to work on the Hill in Washington D.C., so I could get closer to the development and oversight of policies and programs that impacted my clients at legal aid. I had an amazing experience there working on legislation like COBRA and Family and Medical leave. When I came to New York, I brought all of those experiences with me to the Mayor’s Office. I eventually moved on to my first job in philanthropy at the Norman Foundation where I had the incredible fortune of providing support to groups fighting important battles. In the early years of my philanthropy career, I was introduced to a mantra that has stuck with me all of these years – “noses in, fingers out!” I carried this mantra to my work at NEO over the past 15 years. It reminds me that our job is a simple one – to provide resources rapidly, responsibly and strategically.
Q: What is your vision for NEO moving forward?
I want NEO to continue to fully embrace our mission to be an intermediary that is committed to the advancement of social justice and human rights. We will continue to help funders find their way into issues, make smart grant decisions and become better partners with one another. I want us to ensure that our grantees and fiscally sponsored projects have the resources and support they need to do their work and grow stronger and more effective. I want us to remain strong in our identity – that we are an intermediary that is clear about who we are, what we are set up to do and that we do it exceptionally well.
Q: Who has been the most influential role model/hero in your life thus far?
I have so many people who have been a positive influence in my life, it’s hard to name just one. My parents and grandparents – who gave me the values I live by and instilled in me the courage to follow my own path—have been a consistent influence as I navigated through life. The many colleagues I have had the honor of working with who shared their brilliance, commitment and loyalty to making the world we live in a place where all people can thrive. Most importantly I am inspired on a daily basis by the amazing people we support through our grants and fiscal sponsorship. They are the most courageous and kick-ass people I know!
Q: What are the most important decisions you make as a leader of the organization?
Since we are not an endowed institution, I make decisions daily about how to raise resources and then allocate them across NEO. I want to make sure the decisions we make about the type of work we accept and the projects we take on not only support the work on the ground but also sustain us as an institution. We really have to operate as a business – a business with a social justice mission.
Q: Give us a peek into Michele outside of the office. What do you like to do when you aren’t at work?
Much of my time outside of work is centered around family and friends. My family is obsessed with good food – so we are always exploring new restaurants and markets. We love to travel, so we try to visit places that are a bit different that let us spend time outdoors and meet the locals in interesting ways. My daughter is a competitive horseback rider, so we spend a lot of time around horses. I like to say that my third child is a 10 year old warmblood named “Buddy” that weighs 1,600 pounds and eats a lot! We have been able to marry our love of travel with riding and have ridden in some amazing places around the world!
Q: What do NEO’s values mean to you?
This past year, the staff and Board of Directors came together to update and refine a set of values for NEO. The process – and the outcome – was so powerful because it got all of us thinking about how NEO’s values play out in our everyday life. We not only lifted up the values that drive our work and the values we respect in our partners, but we also lifted up the values we hold ourselves accountable to as colleagues and staff. I work with amazing people at NEO and our mutual respect for one another helps get us through stress of the times we are living in.
Q: What advice would you give someone thinking about getting involved in social justice work?
Be prepared to stay in for the long haul. This work requires you to take the long view because the change we seek for ourselves, our colleagues and our fellow humans takes a long time. You can’t come into this work thinking we can solve all the world’s problems overnight. It’s those small steps that we take every day that lead to big steps and even bigger changes. I would also recommend getting varied experience as you pursue a career. Government service is incredibly important because it teaches you so much about accountability and responsibility. Working at the grassroots or ground level is equally important, because that is where the real work happens and where you will be tested. And then philanthropy, as a place for you to step back, support others and be humble!
Q: In today’s political climate, do you find it harder to make strides in the social justice arena?
Yes, this is an incredibly scary and challenging time. The fissures that have surfaced over the past few years amongst us, the racism that has been legitimized and all of the rhetoric makes it harder to move forward. That said, I have been in awe of the voices that have risen up and the diverse leadership that has emerged. Despite the bleakness, there are folks pushing new ideas and strategies, and new alliances are being nurtured. As dark as it has felt at times, there is also such opportunity out there; I am hopeful that we can weather the next few years and equality perseveres.
Q: In your long career, how has philanthropy evolved?
I think philanthropy has gotten more diverse – in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation/identity and age. There are more folks who come to philanthropy with real world experience – and that makes a difference. I think we’ve come to realize the importance of having the philanthropy field reflect the communities we are trying to serve. The more diverse philanthropy becomes, the more effective we can serve marginalized communities.
Philanthropy is about getting funds and support to those fighting for justice on the ground. But it’s also about supporting the organizations that make the grantee’s work possible. Recently, I’ve seen more recognition of the need to support capacity for intermediary groups and an openness to making general support grants. I’m excited about NEO’s role in this evolving field.