Member Highlight: Mari Kuraishi
This week's Member Highlight will also run in the upcoming issue of our Inspiration magazine, arriving at member offices and on SECF.org later this month!
Just over two years ago, Mari Kuraishi moved from leading philanthropy on a global scale to taking the reins at one of the region’s most prominent place-based funders, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund in Jacksonville, Florida. As Mari prepares to take the stage during SECF’s 52nd Annual Meeting, we checked in with her to discuss how she’s brought her own vision to the Fund during an incredibly eventful, unpredictable time.
You joined the Jessie Ball duPont Fund as president in early 2019. After more than two years with the Fund, what are you most proud of?
Shortly after joining the Fund, the City of Jacksonville asked me to get engaged in the work they were doing to design and build a park commemorating native sons James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson and their “Negro National Anthem” Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, specifically to ensure that the process would engage key community stakeholders. Fast forward to today: We have designed the park, shared the design with the public to great positive response, and plan to complete it by the Jacksonville Bicentennial in 2022. The thing I am most proud of is a letter I got last month from one of the key advocates for the park. I had written him a letter after a ceremonial groundbreaking we hosted at the site, thanking him for his tireless efforts. He wrote back to say, “I worked on the Johnson Brothers project for 12 years and so many people told me I was wasting my time and efforts. When I met you, you told me it would be done.” I can’t tell you how gratifying that was.
How did the events of the past 18 months – a pandemic, urgent calls for racial justice and an insurrection – shape the Fund’s work? What impact do you think they will have going forward?
In 2019, after I joined the Fund, I started working with the trustees and the staff to refine and articulate our strategy. We landed on placemaking and equity – building communities where every member feels they belong – because we know that sense of belonging builds the confidence to contribute, to find creative solutions to our collective challenges. It’s only possible when we tear down the barriers that prevent us from seeing each other fully, which in turn prevents us from participating fully in all the challenges that face us as a community. The pandemic and the calls for racial justice and the insurrection of 2020-21 basically made us double down and accelerate that strategy.
It’s also made us invest in our grantees, by providing more general operating support, and customized training programs around digital fundraising, feedback loops, first-gen student support, data equity issues, and placemaking in places of worship.
But it’s clear there’s a lot more work to do.
Prior to joining the Fund, much of your career focused on global philanthropy and international aid. How do you apply that experience at a place-based organization focused on northeast Florida?
I focused on international aid at the World Bank, and on global philanthropy at GlobalGiving, but especially at GlobalGiving I was focused on ensuring that as many community leaders and locally-led organizations as possible had access to resources. That translated into making sure that organizations had a way to listen to and co-create solutions with the people they seek to serve, and a focus on community. That orientation has definitely continued in my work at the duPont Fund. And in working with grassroots organizations, I was obsessed with finding ways for them to increase their capacity – and that’s stayed with me as well. What has been a nice change is to be in the community and so much closer to the changes we want to see – I’m in a position to see the needle move.
SECF members will have the chance to hear from you during a plenary panel discussion at this year’s Annual Meeting. What do you hope our attendees learn from you and the other panelists?
I would hope that as a member of the panel I can contribute a perspective that broadens people's perceptions about philanthropy in the Southeast. I am also keenly aware of being the steward of a philanthropy established in the 20th century that needs to meet the needs of the 21st century, and our need to acknowledge, reconcile, and repair our legacy. And as an Asian-American, I’m also hoping to bring a point of view that arguably is a lot more represented in the west of our nation, but is still a significant part of our community here in the Southeast.