Shanaysha Sauls, CEO of the Baltimore Community Foundation (handout photo)
Shanaysha Sauls, CEO of the Baltimore Community Foundation (handout photo)

Baltimore has its strengths, but they can seem outstripped by the city’s challenges – from education to crime to vacant housing. If Baltimoreans have learned anything in recent years, it’s that local and state governments can’t solely be relied upon to develop or fund solutions.

Often, private philanthropy helps make up the difference. There has been lots of money made in the city, from individuals and businesses, and many of them want to do good. The Baltimore region benefits mightily from the investment of philanthropic dollars.

The Baltimore Community Foundation is among the largest and most far-reaching donors in the region. Founded in 1972, and now has more than $250 million in assets under direction, and distributed roughly $31 million in grants and investments last year. The CEO, Shanaysha Sauls, has been in her position since 2018, and has steered the organization through the pandemic and through philosophical and strategic shifts.

Sauls, 44, is the first person of color and first woman to lead the foundation. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland College Park, and holds a PhD in political science from Duke University. She was a founding board member of the Patterson Park Public Charter School, and was CEO of Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women foundation. She recently spoke to Baltimore Fishbowl about her work. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Baltimore Fishbowl: Let me start by asking where the Baltimore Community Foundation gets its assets from? Is it mainly large donors? Is it small donors? Is it legacy donors?

Shanaysha Sauls: It’s actually all of the above. A considerable amount of our assets are created by bequests that people leave to us. Mostly because they’ve given all that they want to give to their family, and they love it here, have lived here and want to give back to Baltimore. They want a part of their legacy to be alive in perpetuity, and they entrust it with us. The most famous example of that for us is probably [former Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Gov.] William Donald Schaefer. He left $1.5 million to the Baltimore Community Foundation to support neighborhood projects. We do have a number of people who have made considerable wealth here in Baltimore, and they use BCF as a partner in their philanthropy, either through a donor-advised fund or a blank check….And then we also just have what I would say are the ‘philanthropists next door,’ people who give $10,000 or $20,000 or $50,000 on a regular basis, and they don’t want the hassle of like 20 checks.

And that’s actually something I’m really proud of, that there is no one profile of a funder or donor at BCF. We really do serve every profile – all shapes and sizes.

BFB: Often when pro athletes make a lot of money, they seem to set up their own foundation, because they all want to either have a name behind it, and they want to do their own thing. And maybe there’s some tax advantage to that. And sometimes people with considerable wealth want to have their own family foundation, or their own name behind something. So what’s the pitch of the Baltimore Community Foundation? What’s your competitive advantage?

SS: First let me just say that the family foundation, the private foundation, is alive and well in Baltimore. And frankly, we don’t see it necessarily as a competitor, we see it as a part of what makes philanthropy in Baltimore formidable that we have kind of different pockets of money.

In terms of how people make that decision, I would say it’s some combination of their values. Some families have a very specific value structure, and it’s very important to them, that that value structure lives on forever and a certain way. And so that’s kind of how we start that first conversation about what the values are, that will help them navigate their decision. I think second is capacity to execute. And that’s where the conversation goes. Who’s going to be responsible for your giving? Is it your family members? Sometimes family members aren’t as interested in your causes as you would like them to be, or they don’t have the time or the inclination. Maybe they don’t live in Baltimore anymore, or they are more focused on their children’s school, or they just have other priorities. So we do want to think about capacity to execute on the vision, both currently and in perpetuity. And then the third would be: What do you want your legacy to be? If the legacy is a kind of permanence, and your legacy is that you want to try to perhaps aggregate your funds with other people who are kind of thinking about the same issues, then you want to come to a community foundation.

BFB: You are working under a new strategic plan, and looking at that, it looks like you’ve made some philosophical and structural changes recently. What’s the most important idea in there, or the biggest change in direction for BCF in this version of the strategic plan?

SS: This plan is a three-year plan. It goes from 2023 to 2025. It really is our opportunity to reconnect with our donors and make sure they’re aware of the issues facing the region. We are facing a different world, a different city and different region than we faced prior to COVID. So we need to reconnect them with those issues and how they think about their philanthropy. We grew a lot under the previous plan. When I started in 2018, one of my first tasks was to come up with a new strategic plan. There was a plan to grow. And we did that and then some – we grew exponentially. And part of what this three-year plan does is make sure that we are building the infrastructure and the systems to execute effectively… We expanded our donor base significantly; we diversified our donor base significantly. We mobilized funds and marshalled funds in ways we’ve never done before. And now we’re kind of taking stock and reloading.

And then we talk about impacts. A lot has happened, and a lot has changed over the last few years. And I think even now, more than ever, particularly as we look at the next generation of donors, the younger boomers, particularly like the Gen Xers, and the older millennials, they are much more suspicious of institutions, and they want to know and understand the impact. They want to know who’s being affected; they want to know where the money’s going. Pride and valor are not good enough for why you write a check. They want something that’s a little bit more tangible. And so we’re going to take that time to tell that story to make sure that we’re effectively talking about how our resources and those of our partners are being mobilized to make an impact and move the needle in Baltimore.

BFB: I did see the term ‘impact investing.’ Is that a new term? Do you have to measure a lot more than you used to? Has that changed during your tenure here?

SS: It’s probably fair to say that impact investing is a newish term. It’s something that is much more common now but was less commonly spoken of seven to 10 years ago. So essentially, when most people think about giving back and you think about money, right, as the tool to give back, you make the money. And there’s a bright line that separates making the money and giving the money away. Impact investing blurs that line. So the idea is that you can make money by investing in local communities that need capital. And you’re typically making a return, although the return may not be as high as historical market returns. And you’re putting money to work in communities and people that need it the most. It creates kind of this virtuous cycle.

Impact investing is a circle. Where you’re investing money, you’re investing in the community, the money is returned, you reinvest into the community. And so in new opportunities, whether it’s in the environment, or small businesses or for community development, I think the field is vast. And the great thing about impact investing is that while there have been a couple of foundations that have been doing community impact investing for 10 or more years, it’s really just now kind of caught fire. People are more and more interested in ways that they can think about their grant dollars in different ways and impact investing allows you to do that.

BFB: Is there is there a gold standard or best showcase of this in Baltimore?

SS: The one example that I’ll give you – it’s kind of like for me the star – is what we were able to do with ReBuild Metro [the non-profit which has renovated more than 200 abandoned homes in East Baltimore]. It is this fantastic collaborative of economic development folks, community development folks, philanthropists, residents, nonprofits, the faith-based community, and they are working on aggregating capital to completely overturn a community in a way that involves the current residents. What we did was make a modest impact investment of $100,000 and that $100,000 sparks another million dollars from people who had donor-advised funds at BCF. People said, ‘Because BCF put in $100,000 as sort of I’ll call it ‘risk capital,’ we are going to co-invest with BCF through our donor advised funds.’

BFB: I see also in the strategic plan that you have at least two policy areas you want to address: the digital divide and kindergarten readiness. How were those selected versus all the other needs in Baltimore?

SS: For kindergarten readiness, what we found is that the pandemic pretty much decimated early learning….I think your brain develops more between the ages of zero and five than in any other time in your development. And the isolation, the fear, the lack of connection, the lack of learning, lack of numeracy, the lack of social development, the gross and other motor skills, and all of those things came into question during the pandemic.

And the effects of that … affects preparedness for kindergarten. And what we saw coming out of the pandemic were huge dips in and readiness for kindergarten. BCF has been a funder in this space, among many, for years. So for us, it was only appropriate to use our grant-making dollars to support efforts to ensure that children from zero to five were engaging in activities with their families to prepare them for kindergarten.

The digital divide … I was slapped in the face with that during the pandemic. I had heard the term but didn’t really know what it meant. I’ll be really frank: I had no idea what the digital divide was until 2020. And what we realized in 2020, when we all had to kind of scurry to our homes and children had to work on their schoolwork online and adults had to work online — if they were fortunate enough to — we were getting our information online or our entertainment online. And we were actually even getting our medical care online. I have a home with five people, and we were able to do all those things almost without disruption. But we had 40% of families across Baltimore who could not and it was very clear to us that closing the digital divide was no longer a luxury. It’s not an accessory…. This is a quality of life and economic development tool. And Baltimore City is small enough, and the resources are there to do it.

You’ve got leadership at every level of government, you’ve got the large commercial internet service providers falling in line and you’ve got community partners at every level, saying ‘This is a way that we get and we stay connected.’ So our world is changing as a result of the digital reality and Baltimore needs to come into the 21st century.

The other issue, which is also in the strategic plan, is around gun violence. We started our conversations before the pandemic. And that was in response to what we were hearing from our communities. We work with grassroots, neighborhood organizations that are doing tree plantings and street cleaning, and we kept hearing over and over and over again that the rate of homicide and the rate of non-fatal shootings was just becoming untenable. And given our perch, in our experience, we couldn’t be quiet. And we refuse to be quiet about it. And so we decided that we would put a stake in the ground, and we would say something about it and support efforts to reduce homicide and gun violence.

BFB: You’ve mentioned that a couple of times, and it sounds like the pandemic was incredibly impactful on you, as an organization and you as a leader.

SS: So let me start with the good. We had about five decades of creating strong relationships across other foundations, including private foundations, across the public sector, within communities across Baltimore City and Baltimore County. And we were able to bring these things to bear very, very quickly, to get money and get it out the door to the right places very, very quickly. And I’m very proud of being a part of a collaborative of about 12 foundations that met on a weekly basis during the early weeks of the pandemic to get money out to the community.

So what that taught is: number one, in Baltimore we can work together. For all the rumors about how siloed we are and how divided we are, when it comes to protecting Baltimoreans, particularly a time of acute need, we can and we will work together unselfishly. And we did that. The second thing I think we learned about the pandemic is that when you’re working online, people’s lives are showing up at work in ways that they never have before. And frankly, although we’ve returned to some form of hybrid work, what I realize as a leader is the spirit of that is not going to change. As a leader, I’ve got to figure out how to adjust to that…. Trying to figure out this whole idea of work-life balance is something that has taken on a whole new meaning not only for the workplace, but also as a leader, and how I tend to that for my team.

And then in other ways, it’s just the world is so uncertain. The pandemic has changed our patterns of commerce and patterns of communication, our patterns of working together, how we go to school, how we think and work together. And I will not lead an organization that is going to be a dinosaur. And so while we don’t have all the answers, we do realize that we have to be nimble enough to respond to the world.

BFB: So what’s the best use of your time as the head of this organization?

SS: You know, this is actually a hard question for me to answer for a few reasons. Number one, I don’t know if any day of mine is exactly the same … and that’s probably a good thing.

But I do think that the highest and best use of an organization that has built the relationships and the networks and the experience that it has is really to be working with other like-minded organizations with complementary and sometimes similar overlapping networks and experience to figure out what are our most stubborn challenges — and how can we work together to move on it? You know, we were the only major city on the East Coast that lost population. It’s embarrassing.

BFB:  So I would think that now, five years into your tenure, including the pandemic, you must be at the absolute sweet spot of having transcended the learning curve and now able to implement before burnout sets in. Do you feel that way?

SS: The short answer is yes. I think we all came out of the pandemic a little scathed. There are a number of leaders, some of whom have decided not to lead anymore. It’s been a very difficult period, but I actually feel very energized. And I’m also grateful that I had a couple of years to make some changes. I had a dress rehearsal for the big show. But BCF and Baltimore continue to amaze me. Every time I think I know something about Baltimore, I learn something new, which is good. It’s stimulating. I don’t know that I’m prepared to say ‘sweet spot,’ but I continue to be energized and I do understand more about this organization than I ever have.

BFB: Does your board set your investment policy? Or do they kind of sign off on it after it is prepared by you and staff?

SS: No, the board develops our investment policy. It’s actually developed by our investment committee. So it develops the investment policy and submits it for approval.

BFB: What do you like to do in Baltimore – you and your family? What’s your favorite thing about the city in your free time?

SS: So I’m now an empty nester. As of September of last year, I’m an empty nester. My husband, he has always had it figured out in terms of his athletics — he loves cycling. I haven’t figured it out yet. I spent so much time as a working mom. So I’ve got a couple of ideas that I’ll keep out of the public view. But in terms of what I enjoy, I like getting to know the city almost like I don’t live here. I enjoy going to the museums, I love going to a new and different places to eat with different kinds of cuisine. I grew up in a relatively rural area. So I love anything that gets me looking at the water, or near the water.

BFB: I know you have your PhD and you were in education in English, but you didn’t really have a philanthropy background before you started in this, is that accurate?

SS: It’s funny. I tell people, not only did I not really know that philanthropy was a thing, a field, but I don’t think I really knew what a community foundation was. Now in my volunteer life, I applied for money. I co-founded a charter school. Way back when I first moved to Baltimore, I had applied for money as the treasurer to foundations. So I was familiar with fundraising. But philanthropy as a field and industry work was just completely foreign to me. And I’ll be frank, I don’t know that I entirely have wrapped my head around it, but I don’t worry about it too much.

David Nitkin is the Executive Editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He is an award-winning journalist, having worked as State House Bureau Chief, White House Correspondent, Politics Editor and Metropolitan Editor...

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