With a mission to connect networks, advance work readiness, and create career opportunities, the CLA Foundation‘s sixth annual conference will challenge foundation leaders to reimagine a more equitable and resilient workforce, in support of communities that work for everyone. Pollenite Ben Aase shares more about their mission and 2020 conference in Phoenix.
You’ve been part of the Pollen community since day one and embody our values of empathy, equity, and our shared humanity. How do you live those values in your work with CLA and through active leadership in your community?
Well, I’d first say I try to live them, but probably with mixed success.
I try to come into things from a place of listening, learning, and understanding someone’s intentions and the language they used to describe what they want. I only know my own story. But if I can acknowledge that and be willing to get uncomfortable, hopefully that opens up a door for the start to a relationship and understanding. That vulnerability took me years to even start finding but has served me well whether its inside CLA or out in the community.
In working with clients, we’re pretty clear about our purpose, which is to create opportunities: for our clients, for the communities we live and work in, and for our own people. A long time ago, a mentor told me: know the mission, serve the client. I’ve found that if you do those two things well, applying core values and lived experiences, that’s like the rudder that’ll hold a line forward.
Relative to building our firm, we’ve tried with pretty good success to build a healthy culture that places values-based decisions above rules or policies. We try to bring decisions back to three core values: leadership, ownership, and entrepreneurship.
The CLA Foundation’s mission is to promote and support diverse individuals and organizations by connecting networks, advancing work readiness, and creating career opportunities. What does that look like in practice?
The CLA Foundation started in 2015 as an extension of our intent to create opportunities in our communities. I was fortunate enough to work with the founding board to get the foundation started, and it’s been a ton of fun to watch it grow. We raised over $1 million last year, which we were really happy about.
We’ve got more than 50 office champions that last year helped solicit more than 320 grantee nominations from 77 offices. Our grants are mostly unrestricted for general operations, which we think is important. We trust that our grantees and their leadership know best how to solve the issues they’re wrestling with, and how those dollars best get put to work.
While the CLA Foundation has been a really important step in advancing how we show up in the communities we live and work in, we have a long way to go. We’re in the midst of redefining what community engagement looks like for our firm, so stay tuned for some interesting things.
The CLA National Foundation hosts an annual conference for foundation leaders to share, learn, and leverage new ideas to better impact the communities they serve. What was the impetus for the conference and what impact have you seen in the philanthropic sector as a result of these convenings?
The impetus was our clients telling us they were looking for new and different venues for exchange and dialogue. It was only about five or six years ago that our firm and foundation client base grew to a scale that could warrant connecting our CLA colleagues, clients, and friends on a national basis. I think they like the closely-held feel of the experience.
I think we do a good job of creating space for open, honest exchange and relationship-building, and have tried to be thoughtful about design and steered further astray from traditional conference-like experiences. But this is a patient strategy for us. We know it takes time and consistency to really build something impactful.
The conference keynote speaker, Dr. S. Atyia Martin, CEM, is the CEO and founder of All Aces, Inc., a social enterprise that helps people, communities, and organizations to address difficult situations and topics that advance racial equity and build resilience. How are you integrating those themes into the rest of the conference?
I think the main way we’re doing that is by giving honest feedback and guidance to anyone who wants to produce content for the event that it can’t just be the same old-same old. We aren’t doing this to just reinforce conventional ways of thinking.
That said, we can’t expect people to change their lived experience. So everyone is going to come into those few days carrying their own experiences relative to difficult situations and topics, whether racial equity or others. I would suggest that leaders need to be comfortable having uncomfortable conversations, and that we all have to emotionally own those in our relationships with others and with ourselves. If we can help create a space that provides that for people in a meaningful way, then I think that’s a reasonable success.
Who is the conference for and what can attendees expect to learn?
The conference is primarily geared toward foundation CEOs/Executive Directors, COOs, CFOs, those working along those career paths, and board members. And we get a mix of family, community, corporate, and support foundations of all types, sizes and mission orientations. People who come are going to get a dose of what’s going on in the legislative and political world relative to foundation matters; the chance to work and talk through a mix of governance, leadership, and operationally-related matters; and get exposed to new frames of thinking that hopefully help them stretch personally and professionally.