President's Corner

Building a 21st-Century Organization

February 8, 2010

Luz Vega-Marquis
By Luz Vega-Marquis
President and CEO

Marguerite Casey Foundation is at the cutting edge of social-sector thinking and practices.

I have been exploring what it means to be a 21st-century organization and assessing Marguerite Casey Foundation’s current position and readiness for the future, particularly during these challenging economic times. In 2008 and 2009, Foundations and corporations experienced investment losses that will affect grantmaking in the years to come; 2010 portends to be another difficult year economically. It is important that we not only take into consideration the financial challenges facing our sector but that we examine trends that will inform our work.

My thoughts were spurred, in part, by the report Convergence: How Five Trends Will Reshape the Social Sector, published in November 2009 by The James Irvine Foundation. The report identifies and discusses the trends expected to have the most impact on nonproflts and Foundations in the near future:

  1. Demographic shifts: With younger generations entering the work force and leadership positions, and with increasing diversity and the effects of globalization, the nonprofit sector and our society are experiencing an infusion of new perspectives, experiences and values.
  2. Technological advances: New technology tools and the rise of social media present new ways of communicating and performing work.
  3. Networks that enable work to be organized in new ways: New technologies and new norms for working collaboratively increase the potential impact of networks exponentially.
  4. Increased interest in civic engagement and volunteerism: More people are getting involved in activism and in their communities; at the same time, options for volunteering are increasing with the development of new technologies and online platforms for connecting interested individuals with causes.
  5. Blurring of sector boundaries: Socially minded endeavors are no longer confined to the nonprofit sector as businesses increasingly emphasize corporate social responsibility and nonprofits experiment with for -profit ventures; the nonprofit sector, however, continues to struggle for respect from other sectors.

Exploring the trends is fascinating for three reasons: first, to understand more deeply the context in which we operate; second, to discover that we employ the vast majority of practices regarded as “futurist” and have been responsive to key trends; and third, to absorb the trends and explore not only how we can make Marguerite Casey Foundation a 21st-century organization but also how we can push our grantees to operate as innovative organizations so that they have the most impact possible.

The authors of Convergence state that successful non profits will demonstrate several core aptitudes, including:

  • Going beyond representational diversity by leveraging diverse ideas, approaches and talents in support of an organization’s mission and strategy.
  • Using technology as part of an overall communication plan.
  • Expanding organizational reach through networks and coalitions, and organizing work as a collaborative, evolving process rather than as something that can be controlled internally.
  • Creating opportunities that maximize and leverage contributions from an ever-wider range of individuals.
  • Pursuing cross-sector partnership opportunities and leveraging collaborative and competitive strategies to fulfill the mission.

For most organizations, the convergence of the five trends and aptitudes discussed in the report demands a rethinking of what it means to be a nonprofit or philanthropic organization, how to define one’s work, and how to work across traditional boundaries within organizations, with constituents and partners, and with society. Fortunately, Marguerite Casey Foundation already demonstrates the core aptitudes, ranging from how we manage our staff team to how we engage our grantee partners in a collaborative process to organize our work. Equally important, our grantmaking approach fosters those aptitudes among our grantees. Our general operating support, our emphasis on network building, our communication platform, and our efforts to connect grantees in collaborative work have supported innovation among our grantees and prepared them for the future.

Early on in its development, Marguerite Casey Foundation positioned itself at the intersection of these key trends because we identified them as essential to building a movement with and for families, and to contributing to a society in which all people have the opportunity and support to thrive. Marguerite Casey Foundation is at the cutting edge of social-sector thinking and practices, and, even in the face of the recent economic downturn, we have kept our eye on the future.

In 2009, we initiated a new grantmaking program to support emerging networks, convened our grantees and families to engage in a dialogue about what comes next for Equal Voice, invested resources in creating mechanisms to capture the lessons from our work, and launched new communication tools, all of which reflect the innovation that comes from a team diverse in ideas, perspectives and skills.

Looking forward to 2010, our responsiveness to the trends and economic challenges will be reflected in our grantmaking strategies, in our emphasis on network development among grantees and across sectors, in our communication strategies, and in our investments in continual internal improvement. At our February 2010 meeting, we will be joined by the leaders of Catholic Charities USA and National Council of Churches USA to discuss faith communities and Movement Building. That conversation will extend our ongoing dialogue about how we can cross traditional sector lines and pursue the kind of organization we aspire to create: one that is nimble, creative, opportunistic and strategic.

By pursuing cross-sector conversations and staying ahead of trends, we open ourselves to the opportunities of the 21st century. In the coming year, we may propose a policy agenda for the Obama administration or support organizing efforts around gubernatorial transitions happening in six of the 12 states in which our grantees work. Exploring such ideas and making decisions about our next steps is done through the lens of the trends affecting our sector and our society, and what is in the best interest of families in the United States.

During the next year, I anticipate continued success with moving ourselves, our grantees and our families toward a better future. Thank you for providing the future-oriented leadership that has made the achievements of Marguerite Casey Foundation possible, and that has prepared us for more achievements in the future.

Looking Back at 2009

Marguerite Casey Foundation advanced its mission in 2009 with an array of efforts focused on improving the lives of low-income families and on positioning the Foundation for future success:


  • We paid $22 million in grants (discretionary, core and matching).
  • We implemented changes to the Home State Fund policies.

National Convening

  • We held a grantee and family convening, the Equal Voice Policy Convening, on October 9 and 10 in San Francisco, where we welcomed representatives from 158 grantee organizations and 82 families to discuss advocacy, policy and media strategies.


  • We completed close out reports for 83 completed grants, which were discussed with the board of directors and used to identify the organizations and strategies that best exemplify the Foundation’s goals.
  • We conducted the second annual cumulative impact survey of grantees.

Organizational Development

  • We controlled costs and stayed within our budget.
  • The staff exhibited excellence by doing more than was asked of them, particularly in terms of supporting our grantees during a tough year and meeting the Foundation’s needs during staff transitions.
  • We continued to develop the capacity of the leadership team to help manage the organization, and promoted Cynthia Renfro to the position of director of programs and evaluation.
  • We held an annual all-staff retreat to review our progress and plan for the upcoming year.
  • We continued to receive the highest marks from the auditors for financial management.


  • We won a bronze award for our Web site from the Council on Foundations.
  • We produced an outstanding annual report.

Equal Voice

  • We focused on transitioning the Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign into a national coalition.
  • We published the Equal Voice for America’s Families National Family Platform.
  • We took 150 families to Washington, D.C., to present the national family platform to elected officials.
  • We held the final meeting of the National Planning Committee.
  • We completed the Equal Voice documentary.
  • We developed and launched an online newspaper.
  • We released a request for proposals to support network building, and made grants to 18 of the 53 applicants.
  • We made presentations to Northern California Grantmakers and to Philanthropy Northwest to share the lessons learned from the Equal Voice campaign.

Looking Forward to 2010

During 2010, we look forward to the following:

Our 10th Anniversary

  • We will begin thinking about how to mark the Foundation’s 10th anniversary in 2011.


  • We will make $25.6 million in grants (provided our endowment holds up).
  • We will implement changes in regional grantmaking strategies, including the addition of the Appalachia region (Tennessee and Kentucky) and changes in the Southwest region (for example, grantees will be grouped by state so that all grant recommendations for New Mexico will come before the board in April, those for Arizona in August, and those for Texas in November).
  • We will conduct grantee site visits.

National Convening

  • We will hold a convening in Chicago to build grantee capacity for policy work.


  • We will conduct an impact assessment of grantees that examines the capacity of grantees, their policy wins, and their progress toward network building.
  • We will complete the third annual cumulative impact survey of grantees.

Organizational Development

  • We will conduct a review of internal structures and make appropriate improvements.
  • We will invest in staff development, which will include engaging new staff in examining our approaches, exploring the possibility of reinstating staff development resources, and holding an all-staff retreat.
  • We will complete another grantee perception report with the Center for Effective Philanthropy.
  • We will move to a new office site.


  • New publications will include an annual report, a Movement Building paper, the Equal Voice Policy Convening proceedings paper, and a history of the Foundation for the Governance Committee.
  • We will strengthen relations with local media outlets.
  • We will complete a revised style manual.

Equal Voice

  • We will determine the future structure of Equal Voice -including the possibility of creating an AARP-Iike organization — by talking with grantees to gather and vet ideas.
  • We will craft new language to describe the meaning and purpose of Equal Voice.
  • We will market and distribute the documentary.
  • We will launch the online newspaper as a communication and action-alert tool.

Community Engagement

  • We will support grantees in the six states with gubernatorial transitions.
  • We will pay attention to events in Seattle related to the killing of police officers, and we will support community dialogues with local leaders.


  • We are pleased to report that we have hired Ericka Smith-Cox as program officer for the West region, Chad Jones as program officer for the Deep South region and Karen Urlie as administrative assistant. We welcome all and look forward to their many contributions.


  1. What is your assessment of our performance during the past year?
  2. Do you see challenges and tasks that we have overlooked?
  3. What more can we do to position the Foundation as a 21st-century organization?

Building a 21st-Century Organization