A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

By Going on the Road Together, Our Foundation Board and Staff Travel Far

“You need to get out and kick the tires,” is one of two key phrases our founder, Stewart Kean, used frequently when advising his board at the 1772 Foundation before he passed away in 2003. The other was, “I want you to have fun.”

Although these may seem to be casual statements, Stewart Kean actually was creating a culture of learning and camaraderie that persists to this day as we work to ensure the safe passage of our nation’s historic buildings and farmland to future generations.

Learning together as a team

By way of kicking the tires, our five board members are active participants in sites visits, convenings, and research trips. Guest speakers, usually at least three, are invited to each of our quarterly board meetings, which move around the country to coordinate with visits to funded projects. For 6-8 full days each year, our board travels and learns together, as a team.

For instance, an expert in farmland mapping recently spoke to our group and gave a preview of their soon-to-be-released publication. Our board members were able to ask questions and make observations about his work and how it might apply to our own farmland granting program. Because of our different backgrounds, our questions covered the spectrum from technical to design and practical usage. This is the heart of our learning culture: hearing from speakers, considering each other’s observations, and adding what we learn collectively to our group’s “database” of shared information.

Traveling together to sites

Getting boots on the ground is also important. Recently we visited the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC (followed by a dinner with a colleague from their staff), the Tenement Museum in New York, and the National Main Street conference in Milwaukee, where we fanned out to cover a number of sessions and met with their leadership. We heard from colleagues at Fordham University (Database of Burial Sites of Enslaved Americans), Roger Williams University (energy calculator for historic structures), Tufts University, and the University of Massachusetts (Digital Atlas project), and many fellow funders (regional food systems).

Each conversation is like a seminar for us, where we learn and discuss a topic that matters to our grantmaking.

The benefits of shared experience

The mechanics of this approach—bringing in guest speakers and traveling to sites—does bring challenges. There is cost, scheduling, late trains, and bad weather. But, we embrace these difficulties. Like basic training, being on a sports team, or working on a campaign or a group project, the shared experience of learning and travel makes us much stronger. It turns a board into a team who can reference trips we have taken and people we have met, and connect the dots between those experiences.

This approach not only keeps us in a “beginner’s mindset” but also shifts the focus from the individual to the group. We believe that our shared experiences help us trust each other as teammates and creates a more cohesive and risk-tolerant approach to our grantmaking. After a series of speakers and visits revealed critical gaps in historic preservation education, we decided as a team that we needed to take a risk and fund a pilot program for practice-based learning at two universities. Our shared experience made the need clear and our trust in each other gave us the confidence to make the leap into a new granting area.

“The benefits of intentionally creating a shared history go beyond hearing a dynamic young scholar or visiting a captivating historic site. It is also the funny van driver, the meal that went wrong, the overheated hike to the top of a lighthouse. These experiences make up the tiny threads that bind us together as we travel toward a common vision.”

It is worth noting that the benefits of intentionally creating a shared history go beyond hearing a dynamic young scholar or visiting a captivating historic site, though these are experiences we seek out. It is also the funny van driver, the meal that went wrong, the overheated hike to the top of a lighthouse. These experiences make up the tiny threads that bind us together as “pilgrims” as we travel toward a common vision. We are on a work mission, but there is joy and meaning in it for our team—what Stewart referred to when he said he wanted his board to have fun.

If we only sat in a board room (or worse, worked alone and remotely) and “graded applications,” we would miss out on valuable nuanced information about grantees and prospects, such as their leadership style, the landscape in which they work, and opportunities they so often bring to our attention. We would miss out on the lively discussion that follows, where each board member’s expertise comes to the forefront and makes our conversations and decisions stronger. We would not have the hundreds of micro-opportunities to bond as fellow travelers on a common journey.

Fifteen years after his death, Stewart Kean’s words still matter and help drive our culture of travel, experiential learning, and guest speakers. We are still kicking tires and having fun, and our grantmaking is better for it.

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Mary Anthony is executive director of the 1772 Foundation, based in Newport, RI. She oversees a grantmaking budget that focuses on farmland protection and historic preservation. Mary has a BA from the University of Connecticut and an ALM from Harvard University. 

Dan Ely joined the 1772 board in 1985 and was elected president in 2013, having been vice president for a number of years prior. Ely had a long career in corporate and international banking having spent 40 years with Citibank in NY, PA, and in The Netherlands where he served as Citibank’s senior officer in that country from 1980-1985. Ely retired as a managing director in 1997. Ely currently serves on the Finance and Land Committees of Raritan Headwaters Association and as a trustee of the Hamilton Partnership for Paterson, and he has been a long time volunteer fireman with the Ralston Engine Co. No. 1 in NJ.

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