Opening Remarks by CEO Henry Berman at 2016 National Conference

September 26, 2016


The 2016 National Conference opened today in Chicago. Exponent Philanthropy CEO Henry Berman opened the conference with the following remarks: 

Good morning. Please join me in thanking the students from The Academy at The Music Institute of Chicago. Ria Honda, Karisa Chiu, Steven Song and Nathan Mo.

For those of you I haven’t met yet , I’m Henry Berman, the CEO of Exponent Philanthropy. Welcome to our National Conference. I’m glad you’re here and look forward to meeting you, learning with you and sharing our common experiences.

Like most of you, I’m a funder. In fact, I’ve been a member since 2003 when the small staffed foundation where I’m a co-trustee was endowed.  Along with my wife we use a Donor Advised Fund and a checkbook for our personal philanthropy. Together we are part of a giving circle and I’ve also served as the trustee for several charitable trusts.

So, I’d like to take a few minutes and speak with you wearing my funder hat.

About a year ago I met a fellow member, Miguel Milanes, a quiet, soft spoken man as we were putting together our video series, Philanthropy Lessons. These were produced to encourage sharing of ideas and techniques that promote openness in how we all practice our philanthropy. During each of our plenary gatherings as well as in a dedicated concurrent session on Tuesday, we’re going to share short excerpts from the series. On your table, you’ll find cards and I encourage you to fill them out to share your stories and then bring the cards by our booth in the Exhibit Hall so we can share them in the days and weeks ahead.

Back to Miguel. He spends time on the streets of Miami driving through neighborhoods. He sits in barber shops and laundromats. He looks. He listens. He learns.

Miguel Milanes is a funder, a grant maker, and he embraces a style of philanthropy that focuses not on the organizations he funds, but on the people he is trying to help.  Despite his quiet nature, or perhaps because of it, Miguel made a deep impression on me. Like him, we are all citizens in country, a society, a world, where the divide between those who have and have not grows wider every day.

Sadly, integrity and honesty appear beyond the reach of so many in power, and reliance on things that can be measured cleanly and neatly are either taken as holy gospel never to be questioned or discarded with abandonment of reasoned science, evidence and fact. 

In this society rifled with issues that need addressing and problems that need real solutions, Miguel chooses not to view them with only his point-of-view from the comfort of his office reading grant applications, but rather, from the perspective of the people who need help.

If you believe, as I do, that our giving, is a strong thread in the fabric that holds our society together; if you agree with me that we can make the world a better place, we must be willing to follow in Miguel’s footsteps and meet people on the ground, to look, listen and learn, and to do so with humility. I know from personal experience this is not easy and in fact, is often uncomfortable.

A big part of why it’s not easy is that more often than not we are unwittingly blind to our own biases and prejudices. I know I am and I constantly have to work hard to acknowledge and overcome them. It begins with recognizing myself – the self which defines me, the self from before I became a donor.

I grew up in suburban Boston with two loving parents in a stable household. My parents were both college-educated and professionals: my mom a librarian and my dad, a lawyer. My brothers and I went through a public school system that at the time was among the country’s best.

Our home had books on the shelves and there was never a question about a good breakfast before school or dinner on the table; heat in the winter and enrichment programs during the summer. I could ride my bike safely up the street and just lay it in front of a friend’s house without any question it would be there when I came out.  My parents were there to take me to good doctors and the water from the tap was both present and safe to drink. While not part of the 1%, I grew up and developed values in what I now appreciate was a privileged household. And. . .  I’m white, . . and male.

These values are part of who I am; my DNA – they formed me and permeate me. So when I became a foundation trustee, these were the same values I naturally used to filter decisions.

But here’s the catch:

I was making decisions about programs for children in communities totally foreign to my background: In Spanish Harlem and the South Bronx; and neighborhoods where I was the minority.  And I continued doing so for a long time before I came to realize that my vision didn’t help my focus.

At times I was nearsighted missing the obvious and at others,  farsighted, unconsciously, looking past the real issues at hand. 

It has taken me time to learn that my work as a funder almost always requires corrective lenses. It requires constant work and self-reflection to recognize one’s own biases and humbly look, listen and learn from the people we are trying to serve.

Different lenses help us recognize the diversity in our society and the inequity it often fuels.

And I mean diversity in every sense of the word: racial, economic, educational, gender, sexual and access to clean water, healthful food, good health care and more. Today, I am still haunted by the first time I met a family that had no books in its home. Not a single book. To me, that was incomprehensible and I have to admit I simply couldn’t relate. It was far, far away from the world I knew and where I felt comfortable. Yet as striking as that moment was to my psyche, it apparently was not enough to cause me to fully open my eyes, my ears and my mind, as this memory, that has eaten away at me for probably ten years, illustrates.

At the time  I was part of a team that chose not to fund a reading program. As I recall it was fundamentally a solid program but the decision makers – myself included – looked at it through our own privileged lenses.

One of the big factors that influenced our decision not to provide funding was their choice of literature. I honestly don’t recall the exact titles, but suffice it to say the program was using works by Malcom X and James Baldwin to engage the youth they were trying to teach. With our totally different backgrounds we felt they should be reading, Mark Twain or Louisa May Alcott. What was I thinking?

I proudly professed I wanted to help kids learn to read, yet in retrospect I can’t imagine being any more rude, patronizing, or inappropriate. What makes it worse – what has really bothered me all these years – is that I was so incredibly detached from the very people I was trying to help.

Without question I needed to exhibit more of Miguel’s approach and make understanding those I’m trying to serve a priority. I’m frankly ashamed of being a part of that decision for it highlighted my insensitivity. And at the time, deep down inside, I felt something wasn’t right – but I didn’t have the guts – or maybe didn’t want to recognize my inappropriate perspective.

My point is this: We need a strong understanding of the people we are affecting; the situations we are trying to impact. And to do that we need to listen to all the voices that comprise that reality. That means actively listening to the ultimate populations we are trying to help; listening to all the perspectives that influence their world, not ours.

So for me, because I fund early childhood education, that means listening to the children, parents and caretakers; listening to classroom teachers, educational administrators and the social services agencies serving the community. It means seeking opinions from diverse voices. Not only diversity of roles or titles or positions, these are not just boxes to check off on a list, but diversity of ideas and approaches, including all generations, backgrounds and perspectives, and especially those which are unfamiliar..and uncomfortable.

As I first thought about these remarks I scribbled down that “the world is changing; we’re at a special moment in time” suggesting that is why we should change our habits. But the world has always been changing.

As a nation we’ve experienced civil war and civil disobedience; exploration and exploitation; financial booms and depressing busts. We’ve been victors and victims, leaders and collaborators. Yet as philanthropists, we are the constant force which has the freedom and responsibility, to work above and through these issues for the greater good. Which is exactly why I  feel – and hope you do as well – that there is indeed a sense of urgency.

And so I pose the question to each of you: are you stepping up to meet the challenges? Are you willing to recognize your ownself, acknowledge your own biases, seek a diversity of opinions and perspectives, and persevere with the belief that a better world is indeed possible?

Your presence here at our conference this week suggests you are committed and ready to do that. For what each of us individually and all of us collectively cannot be, is silent in our words and more importantly, our actions. We cannot hide behind our inability to face our own blind spots and pretend we are addressing issues that ultimately affect us all.

Twenty years ago this organization began when our founders looked beyond blindspots and barriers for opportunities that met the needs of leanly staffed donors. Over time, they were joined by others, like many of you, who helped build this organization.

For two decades we’ve challenged ourselves to grow and respond to the world, ever changing around us and hopefully part of that change is because of what each of us does. We should all be proud. But we should not be satisfied. Inequity in all we do, and how we act is not an option. Nor is avoiding issues that make us uncomfortable. There is much to do and time is fleeting.

Miguel Milanes reminds us to not only invest in the community but to also be invested in the community. So as you move about the Conference this week, challenge yourself to learn new things. Attend sessions out of your comfort or knowledge zones.

Talk not only to old friends and new connections who think like you but also those who question you -- as you in turn, question them. For some of you it will be the first steps on the journey to new perspectives.

For those already on the path, extend your hand, share your wisdom and walk hand-in-hand. Guide each other. Connect with new ideas and resources, and become champions for the power your giving has when you focus on the change you want to make and not on yourself. That sharing is the essence of our Exponent Philanthropy community.