Breakfast cereal pioneer Will Keith Kellogg established the foundation that bears his name in 1930. Known as the W.K. Kellogg Child Welfare Foundation in its original incarnation, the foundation spent its first decade working mainly in and around its hometown of Battle Creek, Michigan, with a focus on improving the health of children in the region. Over the decades, the foundation's interests grew in line with its assets; by its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2005, those assets totaled some $6 billion, putting the foundation among the largest private philanthropic organizations in the world, even as a focus on children remained a mainstay of its grantmaking portfolio.
Widely viewed as one of the more effective private philanthropies in the U.S., the foundation benefited over the years from steady leadership provided by a handful of thoughtful, dedicated chief executives. After stints as a middle school English teacher, a lawyer, and president/CEO of the Peninsula Community Foundation (1992-2005), Sterling Speirn became the eighth person to lead the foundation in January 2006.
PND chatted with Speirn in December as he was celebrating the launch of a new community leadership initiative and getting ready to step down as president/CEO after nearly eight years. His successor, La June Montgomery Tabron, is a twenty-five year veteran of the foundation and the first woman and African American to serve in that position.
Philanthropy News Digest: The announcement of your community leadership initiative describes it as Kellogg's return to leadership development. When did Kellogg exit that space? And how does the new initiative differ from the foundation's previous efforts in the leadership development area?
Sterling Speirn: Well, we never really exited leadership development. We've had a variety of programs over the years -- the one we're probably best known for was the Kellogg National Leadership Program, which ran for fifteen, sixteen years, from the 1980s to the 1990s. But since then we've funded leadership programs in the health professions and in food policy work, and we've done leadership work in terms of endowed professorships and sustainable agriculture. We're always just sort of coming back into the space in different ways.
How this is different from previous Kellogg leadership development initiatives is that it's place- as well as category-focused. The overarching framework for the initiative is vulnerable children, but we have four geographic areas of focus -- New Mexico, Mississippi, Michigan and New Orleans, with one national cohort of racial equity fellows. So, it's both place-based and, programmatically speaking, focused on kids and our existing racial equity work.
PND: The initiative seems to be built around a bottom-up as opposed to top-down approach. Is that an accurate characterization?
SS: I don't know if I'd say top-down or bottom-up. It's sort of inside-out, in that it involves a healthy cross-section of leaders, young and emerging as well as older. It's probably more accurate to say it's a diverse approach to identifying and developing leaders. And, again, because it's place-focused, we expect to end up with cohorts comprised of fellows from very different domains -- education, health, family economic security, and so on. It's different, too, because we plan to emphasize not just individual leadership work, but the connective work that unites each cohort of fellows, with the goal of developing not just individual leaders but networks of leaders.