Passing the Torch
by Ellen Friedman, Compton Foundation
June 3, 2021
I will be stepping down as Executive Director of the Compton Foundation at the end of this summer. This decision is a response to a deep longing I have felt for some time to do work that is more local and community-based. I am inspired my study of Jewish meditation and activism that acknowledges our interconnection with one another and the planet and I want to bring that understanding more directly into my work. So, I am going to slow down, ask some new questions, and take some time to figure out how this will manifest, but I do know that this is the path I need to explore.
I started working in philanthropy in 1984, driven by a vision of advancing social justice by redistributing private wealth. During the 11 years I spent as its Executive Director, the Compton Foundation has shared this vision and worked to catalyze change in every facet of our work. We have transformed our investments to match our mission and have been active participants in the Divest/Invest Philanthropy campaign and the growth of the gender lens and creative economy impact investing fields. Our grantmaking has invested in cross-sector, relationship- based movement networks; the growing fields of culture change and narrative strategy; new innovations in issue-based civic engagement; advancing feminist and peaceful US foreign policy; and many other important areas. The leaders, activists, organizers, artists, filmmakers, writers, and policymakers we have had the privilege to support are a daily inspiration to me – and I know that their work is making this world better.
The past year has challenged all of us. It has also highlighted the systemic inequities of our world and demanded that we all reexamine how we are working for change and transformation. After much reflection, I have decided that it is time for me to find a new role in social change work and to make space for new leadership at the Foundation.
Over my four decades in the field, I have also come to see that most private philanthropy does not fundamentally challenge the structural inequities in our world, and instead serves to maintain the status quo. I am inspired by new voices that are asking hard questions about philanthropy: what it’s for, how it should be practiced, and to whom it must be accountable. I believe that we need to continue to have challenging conversations about the damage that hoarding private wealth can do to democracy and why the philanthropic field does not actively advocate for higher payout rates and tax reform. I am proud that the Compton Foundation has addressed these issues head-on over the past few years, and our discussions and analysis led to the Board’s decision to spend out the Foundation and to include a reparations project as part of the plan. Change is in the air.
This is an opportune moment for a new leader to join the organization. They will bring creative energy and new perspectives that will deepen the ability of the Compton Foundation to advocate for lasting change in the field. The Board and staff are aligned in their vision for the final four years of the Foundation’s life, continuing the dynamic and bold work for which the Foundation is known and holding close our values of relationship-building, creativity, and experimentation. The Board will be conducting a search this summer and we welcome ideas, recommendations, and applications.
It might seem strange that I am leaving Compton at a moment of such profound transformation in the field and in the world—but as I change my role and reorient my work, I feel it is EXACTLY the right time to discover a new way to serve the work of change, especially as an older, white woman who has benefited from many privileges in my life. There is a Jewish saying that “it is not your work to complete the task of healing the world, but you are not free from working on it.” In that vein, I believe it is the time for some of us to step back in order for other voices and ideas to step forward.
Thank you for your partnership and friendship over the years. I look forward to continuing our shared work in service of justice.
With respect, gratitude, and love,