Q&A with Christina Howard, Executive Director, Todd Foundation

May 24, 2018

Christina is the Executive Director of the Todd Foundation, a philanthropic family foundation which resources communities to create sustainable, long-term social change for children, young people and families. She holds a PhD in social psychology, and spent 20 years working in community, academic and government roles before joining the Foundation in 2010.

1. What was your first ever experience in the not-for-profit / funding sector?
There’s really no ‘career path’ for philanthropy, so people come to it through a variety of routes. For me, my first community sector experience happened at 19. I wasn’t enjoying university, so I dropped out. I was feeling a bit directionless, so I decided to go along to the Dunedin Volunteer Centre and see where I could help. The manager there was a wonderful woman named Mary Maykind, who was great at seeing and supporting the potential in people. She asked me to be the co-ordinator of a new initiative that the Volunteer Centre was setting up with the local MSD office, called the Buddy Programme. This was in 1989, so I think it was one of the first formal youth mentoring programmes in NZ. It’s still running today.

2. What have been some major highlights of your career?
Having the opportunity to lead the Todd Foundation has definitely been the highlight! Even before I got the Executive Director role, I used to tell people I had the best job in the world. I work with an all-star team, have a supportive board, and every day I get to meet and support amazing people who care deeply about making the world a better place. I feel very lucky!

3. What do you believe is one of biggest challenges facing funders and philanthropy currently?
The world is changing at a rapid pace. If we really want to make a difference, then as funders we have to change with it, or risk becoming irrelevant – or worse. If our strategies, systems and processes are not responding to the needs and realities of our communities today, then we can potentially be holding back, rather than enabling, social change. We need to really think about how to embrace diversity, including understanding the wide range of aspirations and solutions that different parts of our community might have. We also need to ask whether our processes support people and organisations to put their time and energy into serving their communities, rather than servicing funders.

4. Can you share details on any recent major projects or achievements at the Todd Foundation?
Last year we undertook a major review of our whole organisation. Out of that we developed a new five-year strategy and funding approach that fundamentally changes the way we operate. We decided our funding processes needed to change if we wanted to effectively support sustainable, long-term social change. As a result we’ve refined our focus, and also stopped running competitive grant rounds. A key feature of our new approach is that we want to support communities and organisations to work collaboratively to achieve systemic change (at a local or even national level).  There’s more detail on our website about our new approach and how and why developed it.

5. In June, you’ll be presenting at Great Grantmaking! the Philanthropy New Zealand professional development programme – can you tell us a little about what you’ll be sharing with attendees?
I’ll be talking about what the Todd Foundation has learned about community engagement over the last 10 years. Community engagement is a bit of an abstract concept, isn’t it? – so what I’ll really be talking about is relationships with people. At the Todd Foundation, respectful relationships is one of our guiding principles, so it’s great to have the opportunity to share what that means to us.

6. Finish the sentence
For me, good philanthropy is never complacent. Philanthropy needs to constantly ask itself challenging questions, because probably no one else will!

  7. What is one of the most interesting papers/ books or pieces of research relating to the sector that you’ve read recently? Why?

Reading Vu Le’s blog, Non-Profit AF should be compulsory for every funder, especially if you’ve never worked in a non-profit or community organisation, which I think should also be compulsory for every funder! His generally hilarious posts give great insight into what it’s like to be working at the forefront of community-led change, and how the behaviour of funders can help (but often hinders) this work.

The Revolution Will Not Be Funded is also a great read about the somewhat fraught relationship between philanthropy and social movements. And I love reading anything that Pia Infante writes – The Whitman Institute in San Francisco are an inspiration, and their trust-based philanthropy model is well worth exploring.