Alex Toma is the Kevin Bacon of peace community funders. Nominally, she is executive director of the Peace and Security Funders Group, but through a variety of positions she’s held, people she knows and causes she champions, it’s hard to get even six degrees of separation from Ms. Toma.
Oh, yeah, and she’s 35.
Her age and her gender afford her standout status in a philanthropic world dominated by men, and—how to put this—older people. According to a recent survey, more than 70 percent of leaders at large nonprofits are male. (Hmmm, does that sound low?)
Her story gets better. Mom is a political refugee from Romania who moved to Jersey City in the 1980s, without English or much money, and without her two very young daughters. She saved money until she had enough to move them to Long Island, N.Y., with the promise of better schools. Alexandra was 6.
After graduating magna cum laude from the University of Virginia, majoring in foreign affairs and psychology, she went on to get her M.S. at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and was ticketed for a life in the diplomatic corps.
Oops, she didn’t pass the foreign service exam.
“That was the biggest shock to my little Alex system,” she admits
Her teacher and mentor, uber-diplo Bob Gallucci, advised her not to worry about a linear route to the goal and instead to take on the classic Washington education. So after a year as a research analyst at a national security think tank, she went to work for two years on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant to Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D., Mass.).
In 2006, she joined the funding world as director of the Peace & Security Initiative. Toma discovered she had a aptitude for networking and bringing folks together, a talent she refined as executive director of the Connect U.S. Fund. Connect, which wound down last year, was a donors collaborative backed by six top foundations, and was a pretty big deal in the security space for a while. Toma got to know everyone who was anyone is this field. When it was operational, Connect made annual grants to 242 organizations, totaling $10.8 million.
Toma describes her job as “cat herder,” saying, “I love being that catalyst, connecting people, weaving together the networks.” She represented Connect at meetings of various affinity groups, including PSFG, which just happened to be looking for an ED. Since September, she’s the "one" in the one-and-a-half staff running the group. “I’m very efficient, but we’re hoping to staff up to two-and-a-half soon,” she says, without a touch of irony.
Dream job? “Working as a policy adviser in the executive branch.” Short term? Makin’ like Bacon. “I’m going to continue to weave those networks.”