It has been more than one hundred days since stepping into the position of president and CEO of the New Hanover Community Endowment (NHCE) in March 2022. Several things have made me happy about moving to the region. I am a historian by training. I have deeply enjoyed and moved by learning of the dynamic, proud, and painful history of the region from some of the best minds locally. I look forward to learning more. I have also enjoyed getting to know the local food scene. I think the thing I have enjoyed most is getting back to fishing. It has been a passion since childhood. Fishing the ocean, rivers, and ponds is a treat of which I will not get tired.
However, my time thus far has not been all about getting to know the local social and recreational scene. I have gotten work done, too. Each day has brought something new to learn, a problem to solve, and a new relationship. My work thus far has fallen into two main categories: working on the creation of the organization and having conversations and learning from leaders from across this region. Some of the things I have accomplished are:
• Learning from our 13-member board of directors their ideas on organizational infrastructure, potential goals and strategies for impact, investment strategies, and providing me better understanding of my new home and neighbors.
• Meeting with and listening to countless leaders of New Hanover County. The leaders have been from the public and private sectors, nonprofits, and grassroots organizations. These leaders have also helped me continue my understanding of the root issues our community faces. Everyone has had their version of what issue should take priority in our community. But all these conversations are necessary. They are all important. They are helping me paint a picture of our community that is representative of all segments.
• Named our initial Community Advisory Council (CAC). The CAC will serve as an additional touch point and learning partner for the organization. Recently, myself and the Board met the members. The excitement of the opportunity for our community and commitment of each member to our community was unmistakable. They were also clear that only through collaboration will we make a significant difference for our community.
• Launched the searches for our initial crucial staff. The roles of Executive Vice President for Programs & Operations, Chief Financial Officer, and Special Assistant to the CEO, along with our current team member, Alison Cheng, will be critical in starting to build our institution.
By far, the lion’s share of my time has been meeting with leaders. I have heard about many issues, including affordable housing, the impact of mold in our public housing, food insecurity, language barriers, lack of transportation, the opioid crisis, the need to integrate equitable strategies, the need to work together to build up our youth, the need to uplift trade education and more. A consistent theme is the genuine excitement about the impact the Endowment can make. This gives me hope that there will be no shortage of people willing to engage in tackling the generational issues about which I have learned. However, underneath the excitement is unease. There is fear of that the community is not ready to take advantage of the change that the Endowment represents. There is also fear that the Endowment will listen to what a small number of people want, and not what many people need. I hope to show those with whom we partner that NHCE lives by its values: integrity, transparency, inclusivity, courage, collaboration, and accountability. Our goal is to collaborate with community leaders to create a community where everyone thrives, regardless of their zip code, skin color, age, gender, or any other difference.
However, before we help transform the region through our strategic grantmaking and engagement process, it is important that we do crucial foundational work as an Endowment. Our board is beginning a months’ long strategic planning process. At the end of the process, we will have identified our goals, potential outcomes, and initial strategies. My hope is we will complete this process by the end of the year.
To institutionalize our commitment to listening, we will be introducing monthly “Breakfast with Buster” sessions later this fall. The purpose will be to have open dialogue with five leaders to talk about what is important to them. Learning from those who live, work, and serve in New Hanover County is always going to be a priority. Our hope is to begin this program in October 2022.
A final observation: we are in our infancy. Just like a newborn or a toddler, we will stumble as we find our footing. We may need help along the way as well. I stress, transformational change is not something we can do alone. It cannot be a spectator sport. It is full contact, and everyone will have a role. A successful and impactful Endowment will have to be much more than a checkbook. It must become a strategic resource for innovation and bold action. I invite you to come on this journey with us.