Foundation capital

The Skanner News – Obama nominated as new CEO of Oregon Community Foundation

The new CEO of the Oregon Community Foundation is an Oregon native with a federal leadership background.

On June 28, the OCF board named Lisa Mensah its next CEO, only the fourth in the foundation’s nearly half-century of activity.

Mensah served as President and CEO of Opportunity Finance Network for the past five years. Prior to that, she was successfully chosen by Obama for the position of Undersecretary for Rural Development in the US Department of Agriculture, where she served for two years.

The OCF described Mensah as “widely regarded as an expert on access to capital in struggling and low-wealth communities and the role of finance in social, economic and racial justice.”

The daughter of an immigrant from Ghana, Mensah holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. She began her career in commercial banking, then spent 13 years at the Ford Foundation, ending her time there as deputy director of economic development.

“My optimism is not unfounded,” Mensah said. The Skander.

“I’ve seen things work.”

The Skner spoke with Mensah about her vision for OCF, where she will begin her term in September. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Skanner news: What attracted you to a leadership position at the Oregon Community Foundation (OCF)?

Lisa Mensah: First, Oregon. The first call is in the O. I always say I’ll talk to anyone from Oregon. So when I started my conversations, it was about my home country, which I love. But I think when I learned that this was a foundation committed to advancing opportunity across the state, to advancing opportunity in rural and urban areas, it appealed to me because this has truly been my life’s work – real solutions to advancing opportunities. And when I learned what the OCF had been doing at a difficult time in our state, working through the pandemic, working on housing issues, working after fires, being a resource to the state in powerful ways, I really liked it.

Working in all Oregon counties is very rare. What struck me about OCF was having staff that reside statewide, not just trying to do everything from Portland.

What struck me about OCF was its pandemic agility, that when people weren’t even in the office, (OCF) was still a strong partner to the state government. And what struck me was its magnitude. Work on housing issues, but also finance musical instruments for children. These are some of the first impressions I had – the scale of the work and the exciting story of the partnership.

DST: You are the daughter of an immigrant. How has this influenced your professional trajectory?

ML: My father was from Ghana and he came to Oregon in the 1950s, before Ghana was even independent. I think the first influence was that my dad was very visionary, and he knew that very few people have the chance to make big changes, and I think he instilled in all of us, brothers and sisters, that urgency to use what we are given to really improve ourselves. the world. And he said that’s actually why he went to engineering. He was an Oregon State Beaver and an engineer. He said engineers help make the world a better place.

And so I got a strong dose of “taking nothing for granted” and “making the world a better place”.

But I also lived in Ghana as a child, and I think I had a lifelong interest in development issues. Who is poor and why? Because it’s been around me. Not everyone gets the same hand, and that’s true globally and it’s true in our country. It gave me a real desire to work on deep solutions to inequality and poverty.

DST: How did you go from banking to being under secretary for rural development under Obama?

ML: My background in banking and everything I did at the Ford Foundation – which was really investing in rural communities by supporting lending organizations – was actually the perfect setting for this side of the agriculture department, which really works more like a development bank. I was surprised that there was a $215 billion portfolio of rural, housing, infrastructure, and business investments, so that was actually a really good link to my experience.

During my time at USDA, I had the good fortune to work in all 50 states and territories, and that was a very old portfolio. The Department of Agriculture has been around since Lincoln, the portfolio is about 80 years old. So I actually saw the loans and investments at the time reaching wide. I think one of the things I enjoyed was seeing how funding was often prioritized to extremely small rural communities, and sometimes that correlated with extremely poor communities. But what I liked was making connections between Department of Agriculture funding and groups and communities that wanted to work in areas of high poverty, which often have a racial lens.

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These are programs with complicated histories and rules, and I’ve had the chance to really draw on my experience, which connects rural areas of deep poverty to greater resources.

DST: What do you think your experience with the USDA will bring to your new position at the OCF?

ML: I’ve had the good fortune to see first-hand rural communities in 37 states and work across the country. And I really learned not to have preconceived stereotypes, to go in and listen to real people’s lives, and what those people change. When you’re in the Department of Agriculture, you bring resources to communities, many of which have struggled, but many of which have so much to build on. I found that I often shattered the notions of people in rural communities by really having to be an advocate for rural America, and to really say, there’s so much beauty, so much potential, and absolutely no resources to give away in regions that have experienced a lot of underinvestment. So it really sticks with me: you have to go in, see what’s going on, see what to build on. Listen first, then if you’re blessed with resources, it’s really exciting to attach resources to people on the ground who have smart ideas about what’s needed. And I think I will bring that same attitude of listening first, having high hopes, and then helping the resources that you have the good fortune to guide into safe hands.

DST: How do you see the pandemic shaping the type of work you will do at OCF?

ML: There’s no question that a global pandemic, which has also caused a recession, which is also hitting at a time when we’re already grappling with things like climate change – it’s both shaping the level of the challenge, it reveals the level of the challenge, but it also reveals the magnitude of the solutions needed. And in times of crisis, you see people and solutions that rise to the top as well.

It’s good to have to work urgently, because you can see the resources you really have.

For me, I think I’ve become even more of a warrior to fight inequality in a country where we have a lot of tools to fight inequality. I think when you’re sitting in really rich philanthropy, it’s exciting to link your arms and give people hope that there’s more to be done to address the issues that we’ve all seen.

DST: How do you think we can better assess the success and impact of community-focused initiatives, like the Oregon Black Student Success Community Network?

ML: I love when people look for the gems of success and hope. A lot of our media focuses on what’s not working, on crises and challenges, so I think we’re not very trained to research what’s working. And I think we often judge things very early on, and often we don’t stick to our best work over a long period of time.

I love when you take the time to properly assess success. When you’re faced with big systemic problems and challenges, solutions often don’t come quickly. So I take hope with people, I watch what works at the individual level, but I also take the time to really admit that when the problems are difficult, the solutions and the investments must be quite significant and sustainable over time.

For me, it’s great to see investments in things like housing and then also seeing what wealth is built over time – for example, we’re talking about getting people to become homeowners or becoming stable so that their life gets more financial stability.

I’d be eager to judge success, both from the first thing: Did we create a home or a homeownership opportunity? But it’s also good to look at (the impact) over time.

DST: What excites you most about taking on this position?

ML: First, it returns to that beautiful state. I never really left. I have my family and friends here and I come back every year, but being back in Oregon is – both its beauty, its people and its potential, it’s who I am, it’s in me and it’s very very exciting.

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It is a fascinating institution. I spent 13 years in a great philanthropic institution, the Ford Foundation, and I loved those years. But it’s very different. OCF is still growing. Ford’s donations date back almost a hundred years. OCF continues to engage and develop donors. It has enormous potential. This means that you are not just waiting for a body of investment to grow, but always calling on people to come and build and pool your resources to help transform a state in need. And I think that’s a very unique combination. It is not only the interest of a family and that of a council. It’s a very unique model to say that there are hundreds and hundreds of living donors who can be called upon to help in a common endeavor. This is a very rare type of campaign.

I like the combination of a growing set of donors that is yet to be done. I like the combination of a learning institution, that there is a research and evaluation side of this work that tells donors but also practitioners, that gives feedback. What are we learning?

And I think in this time when local solutions are going to be so important to the country, to see things work and to have the chance to be part of an institution that can really have a transformative impact on a beautiful but relatively small en- Population State is an exciting combination of a state I love, a fascinating institution, and a time in our country when helping a local philanthropic institution flourish will be very exciting.