Who Is Fred Blackwell? Nine Questions for the CEO of The San Francisco Foundation


Fred Blackwell has led The San Francisco Foundation since 2014. He is among the nearly 50 social sector leaders that Vivien Hoexter and Linda C. Hartley interviewed for their new book, Big Impact: Insights & Stories from America’s Non-Profit Leaders

Who has had the greatest influence on you as a professional?

I tell this story often. The most influential people in my career have been family members. It comes from both sides of my family. Most of my career has been around social justice because of my mother, and around the importance of place because of my grandfather. On my mother’s side, I come from a family of nonprofit professionals and community organizers. From a very early age, I was exposed to this part of the world of work. I was exposed to concepts of social and economic justice. I went to the school founded by the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, I often say, as a result of spending all that time with my mother and uncle.

On my father’s side is an unlikely influence. My grandfather grew up in South Carolina and moved to Harlem, where he was eventually able to open a bar and grill around the corner from the Apollo Theater. He said two things. One was: “When you leave New York, you are not going anywhere.” The other was: “If it’s not a Cadillac, it’s not a car.” At the time, driving a Cadillac in Harlem was the ultimate. I used to visit my grandparents and spend time at the bar. My grandfather’s connection to that place influenced me.

Thus far, what have been the worst and best events in your life, and what did those experiences teach you?

I will start with the worst. This is my second tour of duty at the San Francisco Foundation. My first was as a fellow. I stayed on after my fellowship to work on a project with the Hewlett Foundation to take a comprehensive community revitalization project in West Oakland, where I grew up. I went in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. At the time, there was a kind of apathetic leadership in City Hall around revitalization issues, and I got really mired in the neighborhood politics. I struggled around two foundations working with one another. I was also trying to play an operational role in a very low-income community. It didn’t go well. There were a number of things I learned. One was that it is nearly impossible to organize a community around money, particularly one that is not a wealthy one. Money, as a tool to dangle in front of folks, was not the right tool. There were all kinds of issues about race and ethnicity that surfaced. I was really disappointed, but I draw on what I learned from that project frequently.

My proudest moment was when I was working for Gavin Newsom in San Francisco. The mayor hired me to take from soup to nuts the concept of making local government more responsive to schools and neighborhoods struggling the most. We found that half of the families where the kids were being removed from their homes lived within walking distance of one of the Seven Corners, which was the Skid Row of San Francisco. We designed a program to go to the residents and ask them how services could lead to better outcomes. I was knocking on doors throughout the community.

One particular place was the Alice Griffith housing project in Bayview-Hunters Point. The residents were the most upset and most ready to make a change. All the things we were talking about would not take hold because housing conditions were so deplorable. We had to combine that work by tearing down the housing without displacing the people. We put together a program and a finance plan. After making promises we were not sure we could keep, we got a Choice Neighborhood Grant and made it happen. That was a pretty profound moment. We have been raising private dollars at the San Francisco Foundation. It is in the third of five phases of development, and people are living in it.

What, if anything, keeps you up at night?

We have embarked on a very ambitious agenda for the foundation, which is putting race and class at the forefront, so that the rising tide lifts all boats. It’s an issue that is so much larger and more complex than the foundation can address on its own. The magnitude of that challenge and keeping it feasible are what keep me up at night.

What is your philosophy of life?

I have a quote in my office from Benjamin Elijah Mays [the civil rights leader and president of Morehouse College from 1940 to 1967]. He said the true tragedy is not not achieving your goals, it is not having goals for which you are reaching. Having goals, taking risks and not being afraid to fail are very important things to keep in mind, particularly working in the social change world. It’s important to swing for the fence and have realistic, attainable goals that are still ambitious and bold. You can’t be afraid not to reach those goals. My philosophy is about being bold, but not careless and frivolous, particularly in a country where we have set some very lofty goals that have not been reached yet.

What is the greatest misconception about you?

I come across as pretty laid-back, easy-going and friendly. But underneath that is a tremendous amount of intensity around what needs to be accomplished. The misconception is that the laid-back exterior means a lack of intensity.

What is the most important thing you tell young people who are thinking about making careers in the nonprofit sector?

I try not to let this come off the wrong way. I believe very strongly that there is a difference in the sector between social service and social change. People need to identify early on in this field which one they’re engaged in. Social service to me is something that can be turned off and on. You can turn off the lights and go home. Social change is a lifestyle that calls on you to do things in ways that are a little bit different, edgier, and more fearless.

In some of my recent commencement speeches, I have talked about the difference between a rock and a coffee bean. If you put a rock in water, it will displace the water, but the water will return to its original state. If you put a coffee bean in water, it changes the taste and texture. When you remove the bean, it looks and tastes different. I always tell young people to seek to be a coffee bean.

What new opportunities do you see for your organization in the next five years?

We have pushed all our chips in the middle of the table around a bold equity agenda for greater racial and economic inclusion in the Bay Area region. That is at least a 10-year focus for the foundation. I feel it is the defining challenge of our time. We have this fabulous economy here, with limitless opportunity, and there’s almost a gold rush mentality, but many people feel locked out. There are many people in the Bay Area who have been working on this for years on the ground, but they’ve been operating without an adequate amount of support and cover from the public sector. We are actively engaged with our grantees and donors. With the partnership and support of our Bay Area Leads donors, we are leveraging our reputation and grant-making as we expand and become more visible in our civic leadership role. We’re hoping to enlarge the circle and shine a light on what works and what doesn’t. We want to use our influence to bring a new set of players to the table and hopefully tap into the passions and interests of Bay Area philanthropists so they’ll want to join us in addressing equity in the Bay Area.

How are the choices of the very wealthy private philanthropists influencing traditional foundation giving?

That’s a great question, and one we grapple with frequently. The way this gets characterized, at least in the Bay Area, is that on one hand you have the folks who have newfound wealth and are bringing a greater level of commitment to impact measurement and data. People describe a traditional approach to philanthropy that seeks a different kind of impact, and I feel that is a false dichotomy. People with newfound wealth could learn a lot from established philanthropic individuals and institutions so they don’t repeat the mistakes of others. I think those engaged in more traditional philanthropy could also learn from the former group. We should be aiming for a sweet spot between the two groups.

What is the one thing you would say to your colleagues who are leading nonprofits seeking foundation funding?

We understand that we are a foundation in the business of providing grants and fueling the works of nonprofits. I would really like them to look at us as partners, and think not only of how we can provide funding for their work, but how we can use our reputation and influence to change the trajectory of how things are happening in their communities. I want to go beyond the transactional and move to more of the transformational. Part of it is us making ourselves available and articulating our desire to be in that kind of relationship.

Vivien Hoexter and Linda C. Hartley are principals of H2Growth Strategies LLC, which provides strategic planning, fundraising and governance counsel to mission-driven organizations. H2Growth has partnered with more than 100 organizations to raise over $1.5 billion. For more information about the book and the authors, please visit http://www.h2growthstrategies.com/book.