Shaping the vision

Penelope McPhee planned on changing the world. She just never figured she’d be doing it this way.

“I had no doubt that I would be working for a newspaper or somewhere in the print media,” says McPhee, president of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation.

Instead, she landed in the broadcast media, producing cultural documentaries and arts programming for a Miami public television station, where she won five Emmys for her programs.

So how does someone with a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University end up leading a $130 million private foundation?

Running the foundation is really not that different from working in journalism, McPhee says. She left the public television station to join the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami, where she served as vice president and chief program officer, directing the planning, development and implementation of the $1.8 billion foundation’s grants program.

“I loved working for public television,” she says, “but (the job description for the foundation job) was so intriguing, and the skill base — it sounded to me as I was being interviewed as though the skill base for a program officer was very much the skill base of a television producer. It was about identifying good ideas, finding the people to implement them and putting together the pieces to make it all happen. That’s what a program officer does, and that’s what a TV producer does. It turned about to be an amazingly smooth transition from one career to the other. I found it was a niche for me.

“The reason I went into journalism in the first place was because I thought I was going to change the world. That was the whole calling, if you will. This became a much more hands on, less objective way of doing that.”

McPhee, who arrived at the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation from the Knight Foundation in April, has no regrets about turning to philanthropy.

Arthur M. Blank, owner and CEO of the Atlanta Falcons and co-founder of The Home Depot, created the foundation in 1995 to share his civic values and the joy of giving with his family. The foundation has granted and committed more than $130 million to support youth development, preserve green space, sustain the arts and enhance quality of life. The 2004 budget calls for $30 million in funding.

Smart Business spoke with McPhee about her plans for leading the foundation through a new strategic vision.

How do you measure success?

This is something that foundations are really struggling with. I would say that Blank is ahead of the curve.

We’ve recently hired a new vice president for strategic planning and evaluation. The role that he will play is incredibly important because it will help us determine at the beginning of our assessments what success will look like — whether that’s about land acquisition in our green space program or whether that’s about improving the quality of child care centers — that’s a … collegial process of figuring out together what is going to be the story of success three or five years down the road, and what do we need to put in place now to be able to tell that story.

How important is it to see the impact of your work?

It’s very important. To have some conclusion to effort is very rewarding and fulfilling. At the same time, much of the work that we’re doing, and probably the work that has the potential to have the greatest impact, will take the longest and will be the slowest and will have the most setbacks, and we have to be able to identify benchmarks along the way that demonstrate progress. It’s easy, for example, to look back at three years of the environmental initiative that just concluded and say, we were able to preserve over 1,100 acres of green space.

That’s definable, measurable and quite rewarding and fulfilling. And I think the family justifiably feels quite proud of that, and they should.

Do you run the foundation as though it were a for-profit enterprise?

Absolutely. No question about it. Like any well-managed organization, we have a budget and we work to make the operation as efficient as we can and add value to all of our shareholders.

The question for foundations, of course, is, who are the shareholders? We have a different set of shareholders than the for-profit company because the family and the trustees are certainly shareholders; the community is a shareholder — the people that we’re trying to affect, whose lives we’re hoping to improve, are shareholders. It’s my job, and the job of all of the staff, to be a good steward of Arthur and the family’s resource.

Was there a problem coming into an organization that had just redefined its strategic focus?

I came here because I resonated with family’s values, with the foundation’s mission and the plan. Strategic plans are a roadmap to a destination. So, if I didn’t believe in the destination, it would not be a good fit.

That said, a roadmap is just that — it shows the destination and all the routes to get to the destination. But the strategic plan didn’t pick the route. That’s really what my job as the leader of this organization is, to help us define the actual strategies that will get us to the outcomes that the strategic plan aspires to.

For me, the strategic plan is a living document, and it’s exciting because it offers the opportunity to be entrepreneurial, to takes risks for a kind of continuous innovation without being so specific about the strategies that I feel I’m just coming to implement someone else’s work.

How did your experience with the Knight Foundation prepare you for this role?

I feel like everything I did at the Knight Foundation was grooming me for this job. In my role as vice president and chief program officer there, I was responsible for overseeing the implementation of that foundation — a $2 billion foundation’s — strategic plan.

That strategic plan, like the Blank plan, was focused on outcomes, and it was focused on community, really reaching down into communities to figure out what they needed, what they wanted, where the foundation could have the most impact and be the most relevant.

It was a great training opportunity. The difference is, instead of working in one community — now Blank is focused primarily in Atlanta — at Knight, I was working in 26 communities, and that was tough. I’m very pleased to be able to concentrate on one community, to really get to know the players, to really develop the partnerships in the kind of intimate way that the Blank Foundation has done in the past and can continue to do.

How important is it for an organization like yours to go through a strategic planning process?

In the same way that it is critical for a for-profit organization, it’s very important for any organization to continually assess how its activities are lining up against its mission and its values.

The current thinking from organizational experts about this generally says that this is a continual process, that it can’t happen once every five years. Being sure that all of your activities are aligned with your mission and aligned with your values is a constant and continuing process.

I think it’s as critically important for us, even though our bottom line is different. Our bottom line is about impact, not dollars, but we still have a bottom line.

Do you get everyone involved in the process?

It does involve everybody down the line. Ultimately, it’s about alignment. I can speak all I want, but if folks aren’t doing every day when they come into the office activities that contribute ultimately to our outcomes, then they’re out of alignment.

That is a constant and continuous conversation. I had a staff meeting where I asked everybody, ‘What are the five things you’re spending the most time on? And what are the key deliverables you’re responsible for right now, and are these things in alignment? Are you spending time on the things we’ve all decided matter?’

I made them write it down.

We’re in a transition phrase. The nature of the work for the staff has
changed dramatically in (the time I’ve been here). They didn’t have an evaluation director before, so they didn’t have someone talking to them at the beginning of the grant process about what are we looking for three years out.

That’s a new way of working. We have to accommodate all of these new expectations in an existing culture.

Is the community part of the evaluation process?

That is certainly one of the things I’ll be measured on. If our work isn’t relevant to the community, we can’t accomplish the outcomes we’re seeking.

They’re too ambitious for us to be able to do by ourselves. We can be a catalyst for them. We can put resources and energy into them, but if, in the end, we’re not bringing along others — sometimes leading and sometimes following, because there are others in the community doing work in these areas as well — then we won’t reach these ambitious outcomes.

I don’t think I can emphasize strongly enough how we see ourselves as a partner at many levels — a public/private partner with government, a foundation-to-foundation partner with other funders, a foundation-to-corporation partner with businesses, and, of course, a partner with the nonprofits who ultimately implement the work.

How important to long-term success are maintaining and building partnerships?

Critical. Critical. We are not an operating foundation. We don’t run programs. We can give money, we can facilitate, we can be an intellectual resource, but we don’t implement programs, so we must rely on strong nonprofit partners.

We need to strengthen them when they need infrastructure support, because if we want to achieve the outcomes that we’ve established for ourselves, we need to work through this network of partnerships. That’s how foundations operate.

How involved is Arthur Blank in the foundation?

His values underlie every aspect of the foundation. He has made it explicit. He was with us again at a meeting this morning and made it explicit that the work of the foundation is his life work now.

He’s passionate about what we’re doing. He believes, and I think he did at Home Depot and does here, believes in hiring a strong staff and letting them implement the work. But he’s fully engaged and wants his family to be fully engaged.

HOW TO REACH: Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, www.blankfoundation.org or (404) 367-2100