Rick Noguchi, The James Irvine Foundation

TITLE: Senior Program Officer


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IP TAKE: If you understand Noguchi's own unconventional career path, his seemingly nonchalant attitude toward risk-taking makes perfect sense in his grantmaking at The Irvine. He studied English, earned his MFA in creative writing from Arizona State University, and 10 years later enrolled the George L. Graziado School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University. 

PROFILE: In a January 2012 interview, Rick Noguchi expressed his desire to see a collective movement of arts "organizations taking risks and trying new approaches." He explained that The James Irvine Foundation's new grantmaking strategy in the Arts includes three priorities: "piloting change," "strengthening change," and "sustaining change." The Irvine's highly publicized Exploring Engagement Fund exists to advance the "piloting change" priority. It gives organizations an opportunity to experiment with untested audience engagement strategies with the freedom to fail. Or, as Noguchi puts it, "we don't anticipate evaluating individual grants based on the success of the funded project per se."

Once upon a time, Noguchi served as Program Manager of the UCLA Extension Writer's Program, then worked in Corporate and Foundation Relations at their Anderson School of Management. He left UCLA to become a Program Officer in Arts and Human Development at the California Community Foundation, where he shaped grantmaking strategies in the arts, aging, at-risk youth, and disabilities. He joined The James Irvine Foundation in 2008 and became a Senior Program Officer in the Arts in 2010. Along the way he also filled programming, fundraising, and management positions at the Arizona Humanities Council and the Japanese American National Museum. 

Career milestones offer an incomplete picture of Noguchi, who has also published two award-winning collections of poetry and a children's book. His first collection, The Ocean Inside, tells the story of a young Asian American growing up in California through the metaphor of surfing. It creatively parallels Noguchi's own experience being raised in coastal California. Contrast this with his self-described "strong interest in strategic management and corporate responsibility to increase social impact while maximizing profit," and you begin to sense the creativity, complexity, and wide-ranging interests of this influential grantmaker. His Twitter feed (see below) offers another clue: it's filled with links to articles he's read, the topics bouncing from arts and music, to food, video games, and social justice.  

In 2009, the Foundation Center captured a conversation with Noguchi in their Philanthropy Chat podcast. In the podcast he discusses the Irvine's past Creative Connections Fund, which gave small and mid-sized organizations project grants up to $50,000 with the goal of growing diverse, community-minded cultural programming throughout California. Noguchi notes that the Arts program is aware of the financial and fundraising difficulties facing organizations since the national economic downturn. 

"In 2008, at the beginning of the downturn, our (then) president and CEO Jim Canales sent a letter to the grantees letting them know we are open to discussing grant terms. Many of the grant proposals and goals were written in a different economy, so we want grantees to consider their adaptive capacities. Irvine is open to adjusting the scope, timing, and budget of these grants as necessary."

That was then, but The James Irvine Foundation has also continued to value open lines of communication with grantees and responsiveness to changing economies, technologies, and membership. A 2012 blog post by Noguchi acknowledges the continued struggles of the nonprofit arts sector. He explains the foundation's decision to focus funding in Riverside, San Bernardino and San Joaquin Valley because "they are so drastically under-resourced by philanthropic dollars and have so much need." Sending support to these regions is an effort to recognize the informal and non-traditional artmaking that is already taking place, and give it a chance to flourish and make a greater impact.

Currently, the Arts Program of The James Irvine Foundation seeks to "foster a relevant, responsive nonprofit arts field in California" by supporting organizations that are ready to adapt to changing culture and technologies, and willing to work to better engage their communities. The Exploring Engagement Funds represent the first phase of a multi-year grantmaking cycle, providing "risk capital" for selected leaders and innovators. Recent grants span more traditional ballets, operas, and museums (though always with an eye towards their accessibility to under-served audiences), as well as digital storytelling, research initiatives, ensemble-created theater created by low-income communities.

Tweets by @RickN4IrvineFnd