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"Leading with a Spirit of Inquiry": Jennifer Price-Letscher’s Vision for a More Creative and Empathetic Sector

Thursday, December 10, 2020
SCG is excited to announce that Jennifer Price-Letscher (Vice President, Grantmaking & Initiatives, The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation), Raúl Bustillos (Senior Vice President of Community Relations, Bank of America), and Shawn Kravich (Executive Director, Snap Foundation) will join SCG's Board of Directors in January 2021. We spoke to our new Board members about their professional values, the role of equity and trust in their grantmaking, and what's giving them hope for the future. 

Jennifer Price-Letscher grew up in a household of strong, determined women. Raised by her mother, grandmother, and older sisters, Jennifer developed a sense of purpose and creativity from a young age. Her mother was a first-generation college graduate who worked tirelessly to serve others as an educator, social worker, and criminal justice legal advocate. Her grandmother was a concert pianist who gave Jennifer a keen ear and nurtured her musicianship and awareness about the power of artistic expression. Jennifer’s home life fostered a sense of creativity and justice, and she credits her mother with teaching the importance of seeing the humanity in everyone. It is no surprise that Jennifer dedicated her life to arts, education, and social change. 

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Jennifer began a career in the social impact sector following a visit to her sister’s home in Los Angeles in the early ‘90s. Her trip coincided with the city’s civil unrest, as countless Angelenos organized to demand racial justice. Seeing Los Angeles and its potential to be a place for all things possible, challenging, and just, Jennifer decided to stay. Soon after, Jennifer started working in the arts and became involved with prominent artists and art organizations, including 18th Street Arts Center and Highways Performance Space. Jennifer found herself immersed in a community of people exploring their identities and artistic voices at the height of the culture wars of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Jennifer advocated alongside these artists who demanded that marginalized voices in mainstream theater have equitable access and a seat at the table. “One of art’s greatest qualities lies in its capacity to elicit greater understanding and empathy — why wouldn’t we want to hear more voices?” Jennifer reflected. This experience building empathy and power shoulder-to-shoulder with underrepresented artists would later guide her work in the nonprofit sector. 

Jennifer started her philanthropic career at the Whitecap Foundation, where she led capacity building programs. She then joined the Sterling-Dorman Foundation and spent a decade focused on college access and success. “Education can be a profound lever for transforming lives and lifting people out of poverty,” Jennifer noted. Today, Jennifer is Vice President for Grantmaking and Initiatives at The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, where she manages its responsive grantmaking and efforts focused on collaboration, organizational effectiveness, and systems change. Her grantmaking philosophy aspires to weave together all the strands necessary to create a strong community fabric. To realize her vision, Jennifer taps into a long-standing “spirit of inquiry” that allows her to listen to her nonprofit partners deeply and with humility and curiosity. She credits SCG and early philanthropic mentors with helping her see the importance of building strong relationships founded on trust. “Our nonprofit partners and their constituents know what's best for their communities and what’s needed to accomplish transformational change.” While she recognizes that not all foundations can immediately enact a comprehensive trust-based strategy, she is hopeful that the sector will gradually embrace more of its principles. “I hope some of our funder colleagues will let go of the ‘power over’ framework reliant on directives and bureaucracy and shift toward a ‘power with’ model founded on a collaborative spirit and willingness to make change together.  Community transformation requires all hands on deck.” 

Given the devastation wrought by the crises of this year, Jennifer is proud of the bold actions The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation has taken to support their nonprofit partners. At the beginning of the pandemic, they signed onto the Council of Foundation’s pledge advocating for more flexible and equitable grantmaking, canceled all their grant reporting, and distributed nearly half a million dollars of emergency funding outside of their typical board cycle. In June, the Board of Directors decided to increase the Foundation’s payout by 10%, bringing their total payout to $20.5 million for 2020. With the additional funds, The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation doubled down on its support of the Nonprofit Sustainability Initiatives (NSI), a pooled fund designed to support nonprofits’ strategic restructuring. The Foundation also made one of the largest grants in its 40-year history: $2 million toward a pooled fund supporting relief and recovery for Los Angeles arts organizations. Seeded with an initial $10 million investment from the Getty Foundation and housed at the California Community Foundation, the fund will launch publicly in early 2021. Given that one in seven jobs in Los Angeles is in the creative economy, Jennifer is confident that profound economic recovery can happen through supporting the arts and culture in this dire moment. Personally, Jennifer also knows that the arts will be necessary for our spiritual recovery. “We need to support creativity — it is one of our community’s greatest assets, and it is essential for our collective wellbeing,” she asserted. “There are opportunities for healing that only the arts can provide.” 

When asked what is giving her hope at the moment, Jennifer elevated philanthropy’s recent recommitment to equity and racial justice. However, she’s also cautious, “I don’t want racial equity to be philanthropy’s bright and shiny object of the moment. I want the sector to stay true and committed in its demand for racial justice.” Jennifer hopes that funders maintain a bias toward action, moving beyond statements and taking concrete steps to keep equity at the forefront of their efforts. She encourages foundations to codify racial equity in their policies and practices while including those who have been most impacted by structural racism in decision-making processes. Looking ahead, Jennifer is hopeful that philanthropy can keep itself accountable to the values and aspirations it set for itself this year. Given the deep polarization fracturing our country, she believes the sector can play a role in promoting civic dialogue and exchange while protecting everyone’s integrity. 

Today, Jennifer couldn’t be more excited to join SCG’s Board of Directors and further the vision, mission, and values that align deeply with her own. Jennifer looks forward to helping the SCG network continue to grow and embrace the importance of the arts, racial equity, and trust-based philanthropy. She feels fostering meaningful dialogue on critical issues while working across differences and diverse perspectives can and should be at the heart of our collective work. “I believe SCG stands for the best of what we can be as a social impact sector,” Jennifer declared. “Our network holds so many brilliant people who are deeply committed to transformational change and equity in our community. By continuing to put the community first, each member of the SCG network can stand for something larger than themselves.  We are better together.” 
 

 

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