Q & A with Bruce Thao

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Bruce Thao is a Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellow and program associate with the F. R. Bigelow Foundation where he directs leadership initiatives for communities of color in St. Paul's east metro area, spearheads funding initiatives to support innovation in leadership development and supports grantmaking to address a variety of human service and capacity needs. Bruce was a 2013 Bush Leadership Fellow, a 2014 White House Champion of Change, and he was selected as 2016 “Young Professional of the Year” by the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. Bruce is also a board member of the St. Paul Children’s Collaborative. 

By Levi Weinhagen


LW: Can you talk about what you're doing with Bigelow and more broadly with Minnesota's philanthropic community?

BT: My role is pretty broad. About 60 percent of my work is leading a new initiative at F.R. Bigelow Foundation called Linking Leaders that is focused on looking at diversity and equity in leadership roles across sectors. We’re focused on the percentages of people from each ethnic group in staff and board leadership roles, but we’re also looking at the culture of the work environment and if it is truly welcoming and conducive to a really diverse workforce. That’s really exciting work that I'm leading directly with the board. And about 40 percent of my work is as a program officer across three foundations under Minnesota Philanthropy Partners: The Saint Paul Foundation, F.R. Bigelow Foundation and Mardag Foundation.


LW: Has your background set you up in certain ways where you’re able to come in and get a good handle on institutional culture and understand what can and should be tweaked and what can be nuanced to better serve the goals?

BT: My background is pretty diverse. I have a background in academia, social work and psychology, and I’ve done policy work and worked in government in Washington, D.C. So, coming into philanthropy, that’s one shift in culture. And there’s the specific Minnesota culture and, something that Trista says, “If you know one foundation, you know one foundation,” which is also true.

We have four different foundations, but there is definitely a culture at Minnesota Philanthropy Partners. I think the first shift into the culture of philanthropy was that it is completely different from any other sector. A big part of that is at a large private or community foundation, we’re not reliant on dollars from anywhere else, we have our own. It sets us up to have our own pace, our own agenda, our own freedom, creativity and flexibility. Those are all things that really resonate with me and help me to thrive in a work culture.

In philanthropy, you have a 30,000 foot view of what's happening in the community. And, for me, coming from the nonprofit sector where you’re working on the ground in direct services and policy work where you’re like 20,000 feet above, philanthropy is even higher up so that you can see all the moving pieces. I like being able to understand what's moving, what's coming down in terms of policy and community need and figuring out how we prepare to push resources out to mobilize for social change or whatever else is needed.


LW: It seems like part of what the Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellowship is about is helping foundations make sure that with the 30,000 foot view they don't lose sight of the ground. Can you talk about the tension between becoming part of the larger organizational culture and helping them connect to the work you've been doing as a part of various communities?

BT: For me, the most incredible aspect of the fellowship has been my cohort of fellows from past years and the current year. We’ve all been in community, we've been in leadership in different sectors, and we bring that experience knowing that something needs to shift in philanthropy.

When we’re placed, in some ways the foundations know what they're getting into, but in many ways they don't. In a way we’re meant to be disruptors. Some foundations deal with disruption well and others don't. But either way, through agitation, something shifts. It's really an amazing opportunity for us to learn from each other. For the fellows to learn about our role in philanthropy and for foundations and the sector to think about what it means to insert these diverse ideas and opinions and the people who are bringing all these different perspectives.

Foundations then ask, “What do we do because we no longer want to pretend that we’re in an ivory tower and we know everything?” We have people on the ground who are saying you don't know everything. In many ways, I'm here to help play the role of a liaison.

I've always played that role in community because I have multiple identities that I hold very closely. I've always been a bridge builder across diverse communities because that's who I am. So I think it comes very naturally to me, and I always enjoy seeing both sides of something and figuring out ways to bring people together on common values or ideals and then building for those places of commonality.


LW: Most people don't get into philanthropy simply for financial gain or some sort of overt career ambition. Can you share a bit about what personal motivations moved you toward the philanthropic sector, the specific place you’re in now and how much of yourself you can or should bring into the work?

BT: I’m fortunate that I'm at Minnesota Philanthropy Partners. Part of the reason I chose to take this fellowship is because so many of my core values and who I am is really aligned well with the foundation. It’s reflected from all levels of staff and the board. We have a diverse staff, and we have a very diverse board—at both The Saint Paul Foundation and the F.R. Bigelow Foundation. So, the core framework of racial equity work that I'm committed to is really reflected here and it’s a framework we use to do our grantmaking. In other aspects, especially thinking about the LGBTQ community, I think there are always ways we can improve our understanding of the diversity of the LGBTQ community and of gender identity, and I think I can be a liaison to help bring some information in for folks who are genuinely committed to marginalized communities.


LW: Is there something you're working on or involved in that you’re really excited about right now?

BT: It’s definitely Linking Leaders. It’s such a genuine way of trying to create a solution to a problem. Saying that we don't have the answer, but we want to build with community, and we’re going to invest in community and let them lead the work and have us partner to say that this is what we bring. We can convene people, we can bring in consultants, and we can bring in dollars.

We’re really trusting that the community are the experts on the community. And there are folks who have been doing this work for a long time that may not have called it leadership. The leaders of color that we see today, the American Indian leaders, are a product of those communities and those organizations who did that work for so long.

Linking Leaders is about ensuring that you have genuine relationships in communities that are most impacted and marginalized. And that you are allowing them to lead, knowing that the foundation sees a need for diversity across sectors in leadership. We don't have the answer, so we’re working with community groups from diverse ethnic communities across the east metro to lead the work and really partner with us to develop a leadership equity agenda. It’s really a true partnership and we’ve spent the last year listening to the different needs, to the different ways they've already been doing this work, and then trusting that they are the ones to help us find different strategies and solutions.

What we’re trying to do now is say to the whole community, to all sectors: We need to invest in these community groups from these cultural, ethnic organizations with the equal value and clout that we would give to any mainstream institution, which has not always been the case.


As Giving Forum went to print, Bruce has accepted a job as director of health equity at the Minnesota Department of Health.

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