Q&A with Adrienne Livingston, Executive Director, Black United Fund of Oregon
|Black United Fund of Oregon staff, from left: Karen Powell,
Programs and Scholarship Consultant; Maria Ramirez,
Office Manage; Adrienne Livingston,
Executive Director; and Christina Jenkins,
The Black United Fund of Oregon is a philanthropic and community development institution committed to the social and economic empowerment of Oregon's low-income communities.
The Fund awards charitable grantsto nonprofit agencies that address critical issues with original and creative strategies designed to foster long-term solutions and support the health and welfare of children and families, promote cultural awareness, protect human rights, and stimulate economic development. Through workplace giving campaigns and other donations, the Black United Fund has raised more than $4 million from the community.
Colors of Influence had the opportunity to learn more about the Black United Fund in an interview with Adrienne Livingston, executive director.
What is your primary charge for the Black United Fund?
My primary charge is moving the mission forward and keeping true to the mission. Ensuring that anything we decide to do is keeping true to the mission, because anything we decide to do will ultimately affects how we will impact the community. If we’re not true to the mission, it’s easy to drift into programs and initiatives that don’t align with our goals as an organization.
The Black United Fund of Oregon has been around since 1983, and we raise funds through workplace giving campaigns. Those funds that we raise are given out as grants to other nonprofit organizations. We take those organizations through a very detailed process of analysis.
What is your vision for the Black United Fund?
While we continue our fund-raising in the workplace, we also want to encourage individuals to create funds to benefit the community. Ultimately, we want to be a quasi-foundation for people of color. We’re looking for partners who may want to serve communities of color, using our infrastructure. We want to continue to be a thriving and sustainable pillar in this community.
What was the organization like when you took on the reins as executive director?
I’ve been with the organization for seven years before I took on the leadership role. I started in December 1997 as a Development Associate. I was brought on board with the help of a grant from the Oregon Community Foundation to develop African-American philanthropy. I was hired on to motivate and develop African-American philanthropy in our community – from the perspective of both giving and receiving funds.
We’ve always had a small staff, and all of us have worn many different hats in the organization. From the very beginning, I was involved in the two main focuses of the Black United Fund’s work: raising money and making decisions on how to distribute funds to nonprofits that deliver services to our community. Even though I came on to work on developing philanthropy and fund-raising, I also played a part in analyzing grant applications and conducting site visits. Through my work, I was able to see the needs of the community, and was an integral part of the decision-making process for disbursing funds.
I took a two-year hiatus to work and study in the Dominican Republic (see sidebar). When I came back, the Black United Fund had a position open to manage the workplace giving campaign, then I transitioned into the executive role.
From being the development associate to managing the workplace giving campaign, I’ve had the opportunity to wear different hats for the organization, and see the Black United Fund operations from different angles.
What issues are most important to the organization?
Serving communities and individuals who don’t have a voice. Where there are disparities, we want to make sure that we are contributing to offset those disparities. We want to be a conduit for corporations or individuals who wish to help the community, and organizations that can provide those services. We help guide those funds to community services that will have the most impact on our community.
There are six different areas of funding: arts and culture; education; health; human services; social justice; and economic development. The impact we make in these areas boils down to building the individual and building the community.
We focus on the African-American community, but we fund organizations from various ethnic backgrounds. We make sure that any organization we fund serves everyone – we don’t tolerate discrimination. We raise funds statewide, and we deliver funds statewide. There’s a large community of color in Portland, but in other parts of Oregon, that is not the case. In other communities, we want to make sure that underserved groups receive funding. For example, the agencies we fund in Woodburn serve the Latino community, because that’s where the need is greatest.
We try to focus on grassroots organizations with budgets no more than $600,000. Organizations have to demonstrate a community need, and how they propose to address that need. Between the application, financial statements and the site visit, we get a lot of good information. We take a deep look at almost every aspect of the organization.
It’s important to us that organizations we fund offer a welcoming environment to everyone. An organization may state on paper that they serve everyone, but you go to their facility and be able to tell right away that the environment is not all that welcoming.
What were some of your early challenges?
The biggest challenge was looking at how the Black United Fund can continue to effectively raise money through workplace giving. The nature of workplace giving is changing, and we’re in the midst of a life cycle change. We need to change with the times.
We also now have different types of donors. Younger donors like being able to participate, and giving in the workplace makes them feel “removed” from the process. Some people prefer to be anonymous, so workplace giving is the best choice.
We’re working toward building stronger relationships with our donors. We really want them to feel that they are part of the organization.
Of course, staffing is a major challenge in our work. Having so much to do, and not having enough staff resources to do all the work.
Who are some of your most important allies?
The first line of allies is our board of directors and our staff. Internally, it’s important that we work together on creating a strategy to move forward. Our board serves as our advocates – they sell our passion to the community.
Our relationships with foundation staff are important. We raise funds through workplace giving, but to get funds for some programs, we need foundation and corporate support. Our community leaders – from Sen. Avel Gordly to Charles Jordan, from Ron Hearndon to Dr. Simon McWilliams, and so many more. There are so many people who have been helped us along the way – individuals who really believed in our mission, and wanted to help us succeed.
Having our building on Alberta means a lot to us, and the community we serve, especially with gentrification happening in Portland. I grew up on 15 th and Killingsworth. My father, uncles, and aunts grew up on 17 th off Alberta. What would this street be without the Black United Fund? We have many allies who want to see us continue to thrive as a pillar of our community.
What is your leadership philosophy?
Spiritually, my ultimate hero is Jesus. He was a person of integrity and extreme compassion. For me, following the examples of Jesus is a core leadership philosophy. It’s important to be a person of honesty, integrity, and compassion for people. Working for the community, having compassion drives you a little bit more, to do more and be willing to make more sacrifices.
First and foremost, even before I became the executive director of the Black United Fund of Oregon, I am the daughter of Christ. There are those who may not really appreciate that, but that’s who I am.
What do you enjoy most about he work you do everyday?
I love people. I also enjoy challenges, and don’t mind change. I thrive on different ideas, to be able to hear the pulse of the community, to find out where the needs are.
How did you get into work that advocates for the African American community and other communities of color?
One of the people I looked up to was Renee Anderson, the director of Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement Program. It was great to see a strong, tall beautiful African-American woman get so excited about math. In high school and in college, I was always involved in student groups that celebrated cultures of communities of color.
Our work at the Black United Fund really feeds my passion for building community. A lot of people think we only fund the Black community. We started out serving the Black community and now we fund many different programs in other communities that need services.
Spring 2008 Colors of Influence :: Photo by Mailen Hamto