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5 Questions for...Sterling Speirn, President, W.K. Kellogg Foundation

January 03, 2014

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.

Headshot_sterling_speirnPhilanthropy 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.

PND: Would you say the initiative is designed, at least in part, to coax people who might not necessarily recognize their own leadership potential into stepping up?

SS: Well, we just put the application online, and it'll be interesting to see whether people get nominated or nominate themselves. Leadership at the grassroots level often involves an invitation of some sort -- I'm thinking of the kind of leadership that happens in a school community where one mother gets involved and then invites her friends to get involved, and before you know it you have a community of engaged parents. The idea of being solicited into a leadership position, as opposed to an individual deciding that he or she is going to be the leader, is classically American, I think. I also think a lot of leaders are inspired by their connection to a community they love, and that that connection inspires them to step up, take risks, and make the extra effort.

PND: During your eight years as president of the foundation, Kellogg developed a new framework that includes, as you noted, a focus on vulnerable children and their families. Why is it important for Kellogg to focus on vulnerable children?

SS: Two reasons. First, the mandate from our founder, W.K. Kellogg, when he established the foundation in 1930, is that we could do whatever we pleased so long as it promotes the health, happiness, and well being of children. And the second is that the trends facing vulnerable kids, poor kids, kids of color, are not at all positive. Whether it's educational achievement, health outcomes, economic security, rates of poverty -- all of these trends are moving in the wrong direction. So I think it's critical for us as a foundation focused on children to really step up and say we’re going to do everything in our power to reverse these trends so that future generations actually do experience a brighter and more prosperous future.

PND: You announced in the fall of 2012 that you would be stepping down as president of the Kellogg Foundation at the end of this year. What were the factors in your decision, and what are your plans after you leave Kellogg?

SS: Well, it felt like the right time. I turned sixty-five this year, and if sixty-five is the new forty, I thought I might have a few more projects in me. On top of that, the foundation was in a really good spot. It took us eight years to really build out our strategic framework and take seriously the idea of working in an integrated, cross-disciplinary manner. And I couldn't be more thrilled that the board of trustees selected La June Montgomery Tabron as my successor. La June is a veteran of the foundation and, with the executive team and board, was instrumental in creating our strategic framework. I think foundations owe it to their constituents to stay the course, and the fact that our board has re-committed to our four key places and to working in our areas of core competence -- education, health, food -- while lifting up racial equity as a critical issue is just very exciting. I know that under La June's leadership, the foundation will continue to get better and better at executing and innovating.

As for me, I've got several projects I'm considering, and I've also been getting calls from research firms wondering what I want to do next. So, we'll see if there's life after sixty-five in the twenty-first century. But I’m pretty encouraged, and I am grateful for the chance to have worked for and been a part of the Kellogg Foundation.

-- Mitch Nauffts

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