The idea of a force like Sharon Gary-Smith ever slowing down seems almost comical. But, at 68-years-old, this mogul has recently stepped down from her role as the executive director of the McKenzie River Gathering (MRG) Foundation, a 40-year-old philanthropic organization that mobilizes resources for Oregon communities.
With unprecedented vigor and integrity, Gary-Smith joined MRG in 2011 and helped steer the charitable nonprofit into the spotlight.
As the daughter of a fierce activist who once sat on MRG’s grant-making committee, Gary-Smith was raised with her mother’s social justice spirit, which she took to the streets and communities of Portland.
“You did the work, no matter what your station in life, whether you were African America or female,” recalled Gary-Smith in an interview with The Skanner.
From her earliest years, Gary-Smith remembers wanting to stand out for her talents and passions, especially among Oregon’s overwhelming White population. And so it was MRG’s support of groups such as the Black United Fund, the Coalition for Black Men, and various labor and immigrant organizations that aligned with her own interests. “That work was very challenging and different in Oregon, to stand up politically and say, ‘We’re investing our money in this change,’” she said.
Gary-Smith’s life-long drive to make change led to careers in Atlanta, Georgia, where she worked with a national black women's health project, and as the president of the Urban League in Austin, Texas.
But her unwavering aspiration was to challenge the changemaker persona of philanthropy. Coinciding with that urge, she developed a knack discussing diversity, equity and inclusion with closed-door corporations.
“I’m an angry, gentle woman,” laughed Gary-Smith. “So I’ve tried to use that, to have conversations in places that so seldom we’re allowed, or anyone who is ‘other-ized,’ particularly in philanthropy, with all that money, power and historically embedded racism.”
When she found out that the MRG Foundation was looking for a new executive director, she wondered if the organization would be ready for someone like her – an engaged and public figure and a woman of color.
But it was the foundation’s unique take on philanthropy that ultimately won her over. Rather than leave the decision making to an often disconnected wealthy few, MRG embraces a “by the community, for the community” approach. In truth, it relies on a committee of boots-on-the-ground activists that recommend groups for funding. And that culminates in hands-on, intentional relationships with potential grantees.
“That’s powerful, change-making philanthropy,” she said of MRG’s tactic.
In 2011, she would become the first African American woman to run a philanthropic foundation in Oregon.
For five and a half years, Gary-Smith helped take MRG from being a highly effective “little engine that could” to an outspoken foundation with an equal place at the table of big players.
From that advantage point, the foundation was able to discuss its strategies and community engagement, while inviting other funders to try its practice of long-term equity work.
“We had something that they didn’t have, in how we built credibility in communities of color,” she said.
Gary-Smith helped ensure that MRG’s funding was representative and reflective of the places with the greatest struggles for equity and opportunity; African American, Latino and Native American communities, among them.
Having the selective power to grant millions is a difficult position to give up, admits Gary-Smith. “But it’s important to me that we make space and be willing to open doors to places that have been barred to us, intentionally and deliberately, to let more bright, capable and engaged people in.”
In order to do that, said Gary-Smith, you need to be able to walk away.
“I think we have to inform (foundations) with more people – men, women, people of different color, faith, race, perspectives – in order to make the best decisions about moving money to make change.”
Refraining from the term “retired”, Gary-Smith said she’s now taking time off for “a little mindfulness.” But she’s also been reflecting on her own mentors – the people who embraced her passion and made way for her work.
“How do I pass that on? How do I mentor? How do I lead by following? That’s what I want to do. And I want to learn how to sit down,” she said with a big smile.
Roberta Phillip-Robbins takes the reins as MRG’s new executive director, an appointment that Gary-Smith couldn’t be happier about. “Passing this on is tradition, and it’s exciting,” she said, calling Phillip-Robbins an energetic, passionate and intelligent pick.
Within the next six months, this “angry gentle woman” will likely be back on her feet, making change and spreading hope. “I want people to really see philanthropy,” she said, “which is the power of doing good with money, for the transformation we all deserve.”
In November, the MRG Foundation was recognized by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Oregon chapter, as the 2016 Outstanding Philanthropic Foundation. Sharon considered it a wonderful goodbye present.