On the Phone With… Mary Mountcastle

Listen to the audio version of this interview here.

Ginny Esposito:  Welcome to our very special December edition of “On the Phone With…”  Mary Mountcastle is the immediate past Board chair of the National Center for Family Philanthropy. She is a trustee of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in North Carolina, and is a former board member of the Triangle Community Foundation in Raleigh. She is a Senior Fellow at Self-Help, a nonprofit community development lender that has made more than $5 billion in loans to over 55,000 low-wealth families across the United States. Mary was previously the President of the Center for Responsible Lending, and she has worked at various levels of government. Mary, you’ve longtime and very passionate leader within the field of philanthropy. Your past board service has included being chair of the Council on Foundations, on the board and heading the annual conference for the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and participation in several other national and regional organizations. Why did you feel it was particularly important to accept an invitation to join, serve on the board, and ultimately chair the board of the National Center for Family Philanthropy?

Mary Mountcastle.jpgMary Mountcastle:   Well, you know, Ginny, I’ve been a longstanding admirer of your and of the National Center’s ability to embrace the power and potential of family philanthropy while improving the practice of philanthropy by family foundations and family philanthropists.

I have been involved over a couple of decades – it’s hard to realize that! – with my own family foundations and several national affinity groups, and I’ve found that trustees are often less present at the national philanthropic conferences. So while these other networks can be great learning opportunities, I really appreciate the National Center’s attention to the kind of information and connections that are particularly helpful to those of us that serve as trustees. Both of the foundations that I work with are staffed, and I know the crucial role that staff does play, but I still think that there are so many family philanthropies that have really, really great board engagement and it’s especially important for boards to understand how to improve our grantmaking practices.

I was particularly lucky to have had some important mentors in my life, such as Paul Ylvisaker and people like you, Ginny, who helped me and our family foundation board think through a lot of important questions around governance, around ethics, and around the role of family and non-family trustees. It’s been gratifying for me to have had the chance to work with an organization that helps connect trustees with one another so that we can share our stories, and we can learn together.

Sometimes I think our foundations are so unique in our problems or our challenges or our opportunities, and then I go and I talk to other family foundation trustees and there are so many similarities that I think . And the National Center’s publications and its Knowledge Center really help make this possible. It’s been a real privilege for me over the last six years to work with all of the great people on the board of the National Center.


Ginny: Oh, thank you very much, and I really appreciate your comments about the importance of including trustees and family members in these conversations. It’s such an important part of the community, and we need to do whatever we can to improve performance and help people to do terrific work. As you think about that, whether it’s from the family perspective or the trustee perspective, what do you see as the role and priorities of the National Center going forward? What do you think is down the road for our board and our field?

Mary Mountcastle: As the National Center continues its good work, we really need to think about how to interactively engage and expand the number of family foundation staff and trustees that are working together. There are really wonderful opportunities for the National Center to inform through the publications you produce, which are really top notch. But it should not be just one-way communication where the National Center pushes information out into the field. We need to continue to look for ways to make it more interactive and help to connect people so that they are learning together. I really appreciate the stories that you publish and the national seminar that was held two years ago featured such lively conversation and discussion about some of the really, really important issues facing our field. I think the National Center has so much expertise in that area to help spur these conversations.

The second area that I think is probably a perennial one in the discussion of family philanthropy, has to do with making sure that we are connecting in an authentic way with the next generation of family philanthropists. I know that this is something that you have thought a lot about. When I was in my 20s and joining the family foundation board there was a lot of discussion about passing the torch to the next generation and that was literally the metaphor that was used. The National Center’s research has shown that today it’s not just about passing the torch from one generation to the next, with the older generation stepping out of the way and going to sit on the rocking chair on the front porch.

Today’s boards are really multi-generational. Generations are learning from and working with each other. The elders bring the history and perspective and experience of the foundation. The next generation brings great ideas, a comfort with technology, new ways of doing things and new issues. It’s all of those generations coming together to work on this. I think there is still this important void to fill for both new and veteran trustees around education and training that the National Center can think about how to provide both in person and through technology. As new trustees come into the field they need opportunities to learn about the practice of good grantmaking. And as we’ve been in the field for a long time trustees have an opportunity to think about how we are doing, are there ways we could be doing a better job. And I think the National Center can help fill this role.

The final thing I will say is that in these times it is a struggle for so many nonprofits, and I hope that any of you that are reading or listening to this interview recognize that we as family foundations and family philanthropists need to reach out and support the National Center. I wouldn’t be a good past board chair if I didn’t say that we as a field have to step up and become a member of the National Center’s Friends of the Family program and to find other ways to support your good work.

Ginny Esposito: You talked about learning together, and let me just take a second to extend that to our grantee partners in this work. You’ve served on the boards of both the Z. Smith Reynolds and the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, but you’ve also served in key leadership roles in a number of nonprofits working with low-wealth families across the U.S., including Self-Help and the Center for Responsible Lending. How have you used what you’ve learned on the boards of your family’s foundations in your nonprofit work? How about vice versa – what have you learned in your nonprofit work that has informed your role as a foundation board member?

Mary Mountcastle: My nonprofit roles have been so valuable to me on the foundation side. And obviously in both experiences I’m kind of able to put myself in the shoes of the other side. So, I can say “well, actually from a grantmaker’s perspective, this might not be as compelling an opportunity as this.”

When I have my foundation hat on I can reflect on the fact that I’ve been with a growing nonprofit for over 17 years and I bring that perspective of the management challenges of nonprofits. I know the question of taking nonprofits to scale is very much in vogue these days, and I think that Self Help has arguably done that – as you say, we’ve served over 55,000 families across the country. And I think that all helps me when looking at grantee applications. I can determine whether the ambition they are laying out is reasonable, and whether they have the capacity to be able to deliver on what it is that they are talking about. So I think that has been really helpful.

And the second thing is that Self Help really benefitted greatly in its early years from general operating support from the Ford Foundation. This allowed us to experiment and to learn what was working, and then to build on what was working and to expand that. So I am a huge, huge advocate of providing general operating support, and only doing project support when there is a particular reason to do that. I think unfortunately funders too often cripple the nonprofits that they are trying to help by providing really restrictive project support or not including administrative expenses and things like that.

Finally, I’d say I kind of understand the power dynamic. Probably all of us who have been on nonprofit boards and tried to raise money understand when this dynamic is flipped on you. When I have my nonprofit hat on and I’m working with a potential funder for our organization, I may not be as candid as I always am if they are saying something that I don’t particularly agree with, or going in a direction that I may not think is as effective as it could be. I may hold back a little bit, recognizing that power dynamic.

Ginny: Let me conclude by bringing the conversation back to the family. Because I’d love to ask you what you’ve learned over the years about the value of family and family participation in philanthropy. I remember a great story that you told me about how when you got into this you didn’t really want to think about the family. You’ve been on a journey many people I imagine listening to or reading this have travelled as well. You’ve just come from spending the last six years focused on the whole field of family philanthropy. So where has your journey taken you about how you think about the value of family participation?

Mary Mountcastle: The family philanthropy part of the philanthropic spectrum often suffers from a stereotype that we are an insular group of privileged white people who fund pet projects or try to advance our own interests. When I was first introduced to the field, I was influenced somewhat by that stereotype. What has changed me over the years is just meeting so many informed, engaged, passionate family members who bring so much excitement and due diligence to the craft of philanthropy. These individuals may be working towards a mission that was handed down by several generations before them, and they are really excited and engaged in carrying that out – rather than just bringing their own pet issues to the table.

Part of the awkwardness of being a family foundation and family member is that my only qualification for being on the board is that I happened to be born in this family. And I recognize the huge learning opportunity it has been to me over a career. And I’ve tried to take that responsibility very, very seriously. But I think that part of the value to me has been making the accomplishments of the foundation – and making the family’s association with the foundation – be one of pride of what you are accomplishing through your grantees and in the communities that you care about. And creating a legacy that is not about the family name, but it is a legacy about impact towards accomplishing the mission of the foundation.

Ginny: Well I’m not sure that I would agree with you on what it is you may have brought and qualified you for the board – I certainly understand your point – but my guess is if it wasn’t at the very, very beginning that anyone who’s listened to this understands exactly what it is that you do bring to the table at these foundations. And I want to thank you very much Mary – both for this interview, but much more importantly for six years of incredible service to this organization, on behalf of all of the families that do charitable giving in this country and around the world. Very often people don’t get to see the time that volunteer leadership puts into an organization like the National Center. You took over the National Center’s board chair at a critical moment in our country’s economic history and saw a small nonprofit through that. And you did it with real enthusiasm, and energy, and ideas and grace and you never once said to me, “Oh my God, why me?” So on behalf of all of us for whom you’ve been such a supporter and such an inspiration, I just can’t thank you enough.