Rhea Suh, President and CEO, Marin Community Foundation: Leveraging the power and talent of the grassroots

Jun 2, 2023

Rhea Suh has served as president and CEO of the Marin Community Foundation since 2021. She previously led the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), where she expanded its social justice and environmental justice work and co-chaired the Climate Action Campaign, a collaborative of environmental and climate organizations. From 2009 to 2015, she served as assistant secretary for policy, management, and budget in the U.S. Department of the Interior. Prior to that, she was a program officer and manager in the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s Western Conservation Subprogram and a program officer in the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Environment program.

Philanthropy News Digest (PND) spoke with Suh about the community foundation’s efforts to help donors implement an equity lens, her outlook for intersectional support for environmental and climate justice, lessons learned from her experiences working across sectors, and her perspective on diversity efforts in the environmental movement and the nonprofit sector.

Philanthropy News Digest: What has been your top priority at the Marin Community Foundation (MCF) over the last two years? Can you share any early results? And what is your top priority for your third year in the job?

Rhea Suh: MCF was in great shape when I joined—terrific donor base, dedicated staff, amazing grantmaking opportunities in Marin County and beyond. But I think, collectively, the institution felt that given all of those strengths and capacities, we could and should try to do more to increase our impact in the world. And so we launched a strategic planning process to look at everything within the organization, the landscape that we’re operating in, the relationships we have, and the trends impacting our field. We have challenged ourselves with this idea that the whole of the Marin Community Foundation should be greater than the sum of its parts.

It is a question of how we leverage, how we capitalize upon all of our incredible assets and talent. For example, how can we use our deep expertise in issue areas—whether it be education, health, the environment, or justice initiatives—to identify opportunities for donors to work collaboratively, to learn and to have greater impact by finding strategic intervention points?

For my third year, I am very excited for less planning and a lot more doing.

PND: In 2021, MCF launched The Lens, which allows “donors to add an increased level of intention to their philanthropy by using an equity framework”—a “gender equity lens” and a “race equity lens,” which “can also be combined with other lenses, to illuminate the intersectionality of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and physical ability.” Can you describe briefly how the foundation helps donor apply those lenses to their giving and investing?

RS: Our Philanthropic Partnerships team realized many donors were increasingly interested in equity and justice work but unsure how to incorporate it into their established giving. The Lens is an opportunity for us as an institution to start important conversations about intersectionality and bring a tangible way for donors to explore new strategies in their philanthropy. As we as a foundation strive to advance equity, we want to invite our donors to join us on that journey.

I am super proud of the team for being so creative and thoughtful in building a tool that is both rigorous in design and utterly customizable to a donor’s personal passions and interests. Once they know how to apply, say, a race equity lens, to an issue area that they have been funding for years, they start to naturally see the opportunities to do so everywhere.

We work with more than 550 donors, and they are as diverse as the spectrum is diverse. Some of those donors are highly engaged and we are in regular contact with them. For others, we have a more sporadic relationship. The Lens provides us an opportunity to work with them in an equal way, as it can be applied to every individual philanthropic journey.

PND: While at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), you championed a $600 million settlement for the residents of Flint, Michigan, for the city’s toxic water crisis—a case that highlighted the intersectionality of environmental justice. Are you optimistic that increased awareness of environmental and climate justice issues will lead to greater support, both philanthropic and public?

RS: It’s a little bit hard to ascribe the terminology “optimistic” to anything that relates to climate and environmental justice issues. That being said, it is getting a lot more attention—the attention that, quite frankly, it has deserved for some time. So that is heartening. But the most important part about that attention is that it needs to be maintained. These are not the kind of challenges that one can easily find a solution to. Flint is still ongoing. They’re still digging up the pipes; the replacement continues; the recovery continues. And for those communities that haven’t yet received the attention that they deserve, it’s a fight. I would hope that the interest is maintained. Thinking about the need for justice or for equal opportunity for all communities shouldn’t be an afterthought; it shouldn’t be something that just comes at the end. It should be a forethought; it should be baked into how one thinks about all of our strategies, and I feel very, very strongly that, unfortunately, it hasn’t been for a lot of environmental and climate policy, and so I’m glad that it's increasingly being included. But it needs to be thought through in its entirety, from the beginning all the way to the end, as the long-term propositions they are.

PND: Years before you joined NRDC, you were a program officer for conservation, clean energy, and other climate change-related issues at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Having worked to advance environmental issues from both the funder side and the nonprofit/advocacy side, what do you see as the greatest challenges and the greatest opportunities for philanthropic support in that field?

RS: One of the big challenges that I have long felt is philanthropy’s inability to understand and take advantage of funding at the grassroots level. When you think about it from just the institutional foundation perspective, you’re trying to use a limited amount of money to make outsize impact, by using leverage. And folks often discount the tremendous leverage that grassroots organizations offer, because of their inherent local nature.

One of the most exciting things about being at a community foundation at this point in my career is being able to see the opportunity for leverage at scale—for community foundations who have historically been very tied to place-based local grassroots organizations to band together as a network.

The disconnect between what’s happening on the local, grassroots level and what actually gets funded at a much more macro level is a bit of a tragedy. What comes out of the local level is the leadership for movements or policy or government; it’s where local leaders build their chops and their strengths and their credentials. It’s also where movements are born and emerge. So if no one’s taking a harder look at how you nurture that at a local level, if you’re just focused on the policy level, you’re talking about a very narrow spectrum of social change, right?

One of the most exciting things about being at a community foundation at this point in my career is being able to see the opportunity for leverage at scale—for community foundations who have historically been very tied to place-based local grassroots organizations to band together as a network to enable larger funders to realize opportunities at scale. There was just an announcement that four community foundations [MCF, New York Community Trust, Pittsburgh Foundation, and Denver Foundation] have established the Community Foundation Climate Collaborative. There are more than 900 community foundations all across the country, and the network will enable us to band together to share best practices and leverage opportunities to attract larger institutional, private, and philanthropic dollars, and potentially federal dollars. That’s been a missing link that I hope will in some way ameliorate this big chasm that we’ve seen with grassroots funding.

PND: Given your experience as assistant secretary for policy, management, and budget at the U.S. Department of the Interior in the Obama administration, how do you see the role of philanthropy in relation to the public sector in addressing environmental and other social issues? How effective are public-private partnerships?

RS: Private philanthropy and conservation have had a long and very productive marriage. Some of the most treasured national parks came from donations from philanthropists. There’s still an important need for engagement between philanthropy and government, and in this example that I just gave of how community foundations can be the distribution network for what government wants to do with some of the [Inflation Reduction Act] funding for climate change—that money is intended to help local communities build up adaptation strategies, resilience strategies, and build infrastructure. It’s leaning more on the community foundation world to help ensure not only that the dollars are going to the organizations that have capacity and the wherewithal to spend them well, but that those dollars can be leveraged by other donors within communities that we serve.

I think community foundations are seen as not only the last resort for plugging some holes, but increasingly as the go-to for some really important social services programs. That’s not sustainable by any stretch of the imagination.

So I think there are many, many opportunities for ongoing relationships. But seeing it from a community foundation lens, government is complicated; it is evolving and, in many cases, contracting, whether for ideological reasons or budget reasons. And oftentimes I think community foundations are seen as not only the last resort for plugging some holes, but increasingly as the go-to for some really important social services programs. That’s not sustainable by any stretch of the imagination. There’s not nearly enough money in private, institutional, and community philanthropy to tackle the enormity of the social problems that we have and to take over any role that government should play.

PND: How does your varied cross-sector experience across the philanthropic, nonprofit, and public sectors inform your current work at MCF? Is there a specific lesson learned that you keep in mind?

RS: I genuinely feel incredibly lucky and blessed that I’ve had the opportunity to have so many different experiences, to be able to see so many different angles of a problem, to have different perspectives towards issues. I’ll give you two concrete examples of how that’s shown up in in my career. When I was at the Department of the Interior during the Obama administration, I played a role in establishing a national prioritization system for federal land acquisition. There’s this big pot of money called the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It’s generated through essentially taxes of oil and gas, but the money goes back to four land management agencies to purchase critical lands that help their management mission—whether it’s restoring boundaries or improving habitat corridors. But each of these agencies had their own prioritization mechanisms and way of developing the list, even though the lands are all contiguous. Coming from the private foundation world, I just thought that was crazy, to have that much money be so under-leveraged. So I helped the agencies establish a way to prioritize at least a portion of their money for national initiatives, and that enabled them to really go after big landscapes collectively. These deals were prioritized because they were really important for species conservation, habitat protection, and overall ecological protection. So that’s one example. It’s always about leverage and collaboration: What are other people doing? How do our interests intersect?

Another example of what I learned from government that I’ve brought into my career since is—to be honest with you, it took me a while to learn this, but—political appointees come and go. The folks that I felt were the best at those jobs were the federal civil servants, all of the folks that stand the test of time, regardless of who’s in the administration, the people who are just doing their jobs and doing them really, really well for the most part. So being able to understand how to not just rely on them but how to really unleash their visions—that will last way longer than any president or political appointee. Trying to capture the ingenuity of staff, to work to get the most out of your staff as a leader—the best lesson for leadership is, in many ways, to lead from behind. At the end of the day, you not only have to love what you do, you have to love who you do it with, and I learned the importance of having good colleagues around me at all times.

PND: The U.S. environmental movement has been criticized for its lack of diversity in the past—starting with John Muir—and the 2021 Green 2.0 NGO & Foundation Transparency Report Card found that, while environmental NGOs are employing more people of color, foundations continue to fund more white-led organizations than those led by people of color. One of the issues you worked on as assistant secretary was diversity in the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Can you briefly describe the outcomes and how you envision progress on diversity in the environmental movement?

RS: Essentially my whole career has been steeped in the world of conservation, environment, and climate policy, and since the very beginning I had an aspiration for the movement to be more diverse, to reflect more diversity in terms of its composition and in terms of its activities. It’s been a long several decades, and I am not sure how optimistic I am. I’m really heartened to see new leadership at the Sierra Club and at Greenpeace. I think that’s incredibly exciting and notable. But I don’t think that you can achieve what needs to be achieved just through hiring. I’ve come to believe that there is a reckoning that hasn’t fully been conducted within the environmental movement about its origins; I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the origins of the movement stem from individuals who were misanthropic at best and racist at worst, and what that means for why we do what we do and who it is we serve. So there is quite a lot of work to do, and it’s deeper work that goes beyond hiring practices or training programs to what an organization believes is core to its mission.

I’ve come to believe that there is a reckoning that hasn’t fully been conducted within the environmental movement about its origins...and what that means for why we do what we do and who it is we serve. So there is quite a lot of work to do.

With the work that we did at the Department of the Interior around diversity, each agency had to develop their own diversity programs instead of having the guidelines come from the top. We decided that it might be more interesting to actually ask each of the agencies: If you were to develop a diversity plan, what would it look like? I don’t want to overstate this, but it felt like it was the first time we asked them: What would you do? How would you tackle it? Why do you think it’s important?’

So when it landed in an agency like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it was actually pretty incredible to watch. This is an agency that had had some real challenges around hiring practices and retention in particular; in the Department of the Interior, our workforce was a lot more white than the average federal workforce would be. You could almost see that light bulb go off above their heads, because when they started talking about diversity, they said, Our whole mission is to protect biodiversity, so why have we not extended that to human diversity? Why have we not thought about the fact that, if we are going to be as resilient and effective and strong over the course of time, we need a diversity of views and perspectives and backgrounds and experiences? It was one of these profound moments where they fully understood why diversity was important from a mission perspective. So I think that for nonprofit organizations, the work has to really go all the way to their mission in order for it to be meaningful, for it to be durable, for it to be taken up by all that the organization does, for it to be successful.

PND: What do you think about the increased attention that Indigenous Peoples are getting in the field—not just in the U.S. but globally—given their stewardship of the environment and how they’re affected by climate change?

RS: I’m incredibly encouraged by it. Not only do I think that traditional knowledge and practice has so much to offer in terms of how we think about our own kind of resilience and survival and adaptability in these days of climate change, but there’s a direct correlation between historical, traditional knowledge and what it is we need today. And it’s an opportunity to better support, resource, and uplift Native communities, which have been some of the most subjugated, with many attempts at straight-out extermination—there are so many wrongs to right, but also many opportunities to do so.

When I started working on tribal issues—this goes back to my Hewlett Foundation days—I’d ask an organization working in northern Arizona, Colorado Plateau: What are you doing with the tribes, given that there’s so much tribal land here—a huge portion of the landscape is managed and governed by tribes? And the answer would be: Oh, well, they don’t really care. It was shocking. But I don’t see that anymore, at least not to that extent. There’s just so much more of a sense of opportunity, of a sense of humility, of a sense of partnership. So I’m really excited about all of that.

PND: As an Asian American woman who led an environmental organization and now heads a community foundation, how do you assess the progress on increasing diversity in leadership across the nonprofit sector?

RS: There is a huge shift that has been happening over the last handful of years. Of my professional cohort of leaders at community foundations, of those at large community foundations, I would say almost 50 to 60 have turned over in the last three to four years, and of that new cohort, the vast majority of us are women and/or people of color. So there is a generational shift that’s happening—people are retiring—but there’s also a demographic shift, and I see it not just in community philanthropy but across the nonprofit sector. There’s a lot of diversification happening at the higher ranks, and of course, I’m heartened by that.

At the same time, I have had the experience of being “the first” three or four times in my career—the first Asian American assistant secretary at the Department of the Interior, the first person of color leading a national environmental organization, one of the first Asian Americans and people of color leading community foundations—and it’s sometimes really hard to be a first. It can be lonely, and it can be complicated. And so I’m really grateful that at this point in my career, I have a cohort that I can lean on and look up to and get guidance and support from, because it’s super important. There’s a lot of pressure on new leaders of color, and it’s not just about running successful organizations that are healthy. It’s about breaking barriers, about changing paradigms, about a whole new playbook. It’s about mentorship and a new era of incredible social flux and change. This is a lot on any leader, and it’s already complicated to be a leader in this space during these times. Philanthropy is a dynamic space right now.

—Kyoko Uchida

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