Jessamyn Lau, Peery Foundation

TITLE: Executive Director

FUNDING AREAS: Poverty, social entrepreneurs, East Palo Alto and Bay Area youth

CONTACT: Visit PeopleFinder for email and phone number (paid subscribers only)

IP TAKE: The best way to introduce yourself to the Peery Foundation is through a recommendation, but you can also put in a direct phone call if you don’t have a connection. Peery is looking for new grantees with outstanding and committed leadership in its local, regional, and global portfolios.

PROFILE: Although the Palo Alto-based Peery Foundation was established in 1978, it didn’t hire its first staff member until 2009. That staff member was Jessamyn Lau, a woman who helped shape the foundation’s initial giving strategy and portfolios. She began as a Program Leader and now serves as Peery’s Executive Director

The Peery Foundation invests in early- to mid-stage social entrepreneurs through local, regional, and global grantmaking portfolios. Lau and her staff oversee one-time and multi-year unrestricted grants that range between $1,000 and $100,000 per year in size.

Lau earned a BA in Fine Arts from the University of the Arts London and a MBA at Brigham Young University. Today, she serves as an Advisory Board Member of BYU’s Ballard Center and has worked extensively with Ashoka U, an organization that connects a global network of entrepreneurial students, faculty, and community leaders to impact the education of millions of students. She’s one of the leading forces in training young people about social entrepreneurship, often using business principles to solve social problems. “We want to prepare students to think about how to put their talent and resources towards the most effective solutions to their community’s problems,” Lau wrote.

Lau has spoken publicly about her non-traditional career path and how her background has influenced her priorities and passions. Lau explained to Jonathan Lewis, Founder/Host of Café Impact, how there are alternative paths to finding dream jobs in social justice. Before joining the Peery Foundation, Lau dropped out of high school, enrolled in art school, worked as a waitress, and taught in China. Her background exemplifies something that the Peery Foundation represents, too: that hard work, adaptability, and calculated risks really can pay off in the end.

To get a better understanding of Peery Foundation grantmaking, I asked Executive Director Lau a few questions. Here’s what she had to say:

What is the one piece of advice you would give to prospective grantees about your foundation or your specific portfolio?

The best way to approach us is through a recommendation from someone who both knows you/your work well and knows us/our work well, who can see strong potential overlap and sends over materials or a website for us to check out, before making an intro between us. This helps us manage our time, as a very small team, and respects your time as you prioritize which funders have high potential.

We encourage you to give us a call if you're in doubt as to whether we might be a good fit for you or not. There's a lot of nuance that either we're still working out, or is hard to articulate on our website. We'll be responsive to your inquiry and upfront about whether it makes sense for you and us to spend time digging in to your model.

What is the theory of change behind your grantmaking?

Overall: We experiment with, practice, and encourage others to adopt more grantee-centric practices in philanthropy, in order to better support outstanding leaders addressing issues of poverty.

Local: Partner with and fund schools and programs demonstrating consistent commitment to significantly impacting educational outcomes in order to increase choices for East Palo Alto youth.

Regional: Establish and grow the best models that build self-reliance for Silicon Valley youth and families in poverty.

Global: Invest in, serve, and build capacity of scalable models delivering quality goods and services that improve lives and livelihoods of the poor.

Are you looking for new grantees? If so, what are you looking for?

Yes, though in our Local Portfolio our grant making is driven by the needs and priorities of the Ravenswood City School District principals and administrators.

In our Regional Portfolio we're actively looking for social entrepreneurs with scalable models that increase economic options for youth and families in Silicon Valley (San Francisco-San Jose).

In our Global Portfolio we're actively looking for social entrepreneurs using market based approaches (recognizing that some issues don't have market based solutions) to improve livelihoods for the poor.

What characteristics do your grantees tend to share?

Outstanding and committed leadership. We try to understand whether leading an organization is a highly fulfilling job for someone at this point in their career, or if their life experience has cumulatively led up to and dedicated them to this work. We also seek to determine if that level of dedication is coupled with a proven track record of execution and experience.

Are there any big changes or new initiatives at your foundation that grantseekers should know about?

Not with regard to grant making—if anything, we're currently focused on trying to better articulate what we already do as grant makers. On a broader scale, we launched the Funder Feedback Tool earlier this year, which will enable us to solicit and listen to anonymous feedback on our work and interactions, from grant seekers, grantees, and others we work with. We hope to hear both reaffirming and critical feedback that we can use to hone and refine an increasingly grantee-centric approach to philanthropy. You can read more about the Funder Feedback Tool here, and here.