10 Questions with Steve Seleznow

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Posted By on January 2, 2020
Steve Seleznow

President and CEO of the Arizona Community Foundation

1. You’re known as a visionary. What do you see ahead for our state?
Arizona has many assets that make it a remarkable state. Our future will depend on how well we leverage our assets to improve the quality of life for everyone. With changing demographics, a broader and more innovative technology-oriented economic base, continuous and rapid population growth, and demands for a highly educated workforce, we have amazing opportunities ahead. However, those opportunities will fade quickly if we don’t make the right investments now in education, science and innovation, equity and sustainability. We are a state not bound by legacy, but one driven by new ideas and bold plans. That enterprising and welcoming spirit is what got us here. That spirit will take us to an exciting future. 

2. You earned a master’s and a doctorate from Harvard and spent the first 28 years of your career in public education. What would you like people to know about the state of education and what it can do for Arizona?
Our future as a community is dependent on a highly trained and educated populace. Every child living in Arizona, irrespective of race, ethnicity, country of origin or gender, needs to graduate high school ready for post-secondary certification or a college degree. Nothing short of that is acceptable. Our economic prosperity depends on it. Education in Arizona has been shot full of holes with silver bullets — many good ideas but few that have been scaled and made sustainable. We haven’t made early learning to college completion our highest priority. That means our values, aspirations and expectations are not set high enough, and we have not been courageous in demanding more for our children at all levels of the education system. If we articulate the critical value of an education; if we aspire for all of our schools to be great; if we set the highest possible expectations for all of our students; and if we dare to demand greater investment for high-quality schools for all children, we will have an education system we can be proud of. We have proof points all over our state of what works. We now need to achieve this systemically.   

3. What would Frontdoors readers be surprised to learn about you?
During my college years and early in my teaching career, I worked during my summers as a semi-truck driver for a national moving company. You learn great insights about people when you move their personal belongings. While a different experience, I learned similar lessons about people by teaching their children. Now, I find the same to be true managing the charitable assets of many people. Across these diverse experiences, I found one thing to be true: To work well with people, you must listen intently and strive to determine what is most important to them — be it their children, their things or the philanthropic capital. When you do that, and you make it your highest priority in a relationship, great things happen. 

4. Congratulations on celebrating the 40th year of the Arizona Community Foundation. What is your biggest goal as you look forward to the next 10 years?
Our foundation has been fortunate to have Bert Getz, our founder, still engaged with us today. Forty years ago, Bert had the insight to create a mechanism to enable the community to invest in itself — the community foundation model. Bert, along with a group of prominent business leaders and banks, saw the importance of establishing a community foundation for Arizonans that would operate in perpetuity to serve the interests of communities across our state. Today, the Arizona Community Foundation, thanks to those visionaries and our donors, is one of the 25 largest community foundations in the country, with more than $1 billion in charitable assets and granting about $800 million across Arizona and around the globe. I expect the foundation to double in size and impact over the next five to 10 years, thanks to the next generation of donors now setting their charitable goals and aspirations. I see ACF continuing to develop innovative charitable programs, products and services to serve future generations of Arizonans determined to make their communities better. We are now implementing new technology and artificial intelligence systems to make charitable giving easier, more efficient, more customized for the donor, and more impactful. We are a proxy for the robustness of charitable giving in Arizona — and we see that uniquely Arizona spirit of giving shining bright for generations to come.

5. ACF passed the billion-dollar mark in assets at the end of November. What does that mean to the organization?
It’s important because it reflects that a culture of philanthropy is alive and well across the state. It also drives the scale of funds we can invest back into the community. We are the community’s foundation — and at our best, we are a direct reflection of the inherent charitable nature of Arizonans. They care about their communities, and they care deeply about those who struggle. They use us to help manage their giving and achieve their philanthropic objectives most effectively. We are humbled every day by donors who commit such significant amounts of their wealth to improve conditions for others. 

6. To what do you attribute the incredible 10-year growth of ACFs funds, from $450 million to $1 billion?
Our growth has been the direct result of a very talented staff focused on serving our donors and engaging with community partners through a “serve and amaze” philosophy. ACF’s board has provided clear leadership on what differentiates ACF from for-profit commercial enterprises that offer charitable funds. Our knowledge and expertise in the community in combination with the ability to serve nonprofit organizations, corporations and supporting organizations have been other essential elements of our success. But most importantly, we stick to our core values: exceptional service, stewardship, integrity, innovation, nimbleness, inclusion and collaboration.

7. What trends in philanthropic giving do you see as we enter a new decade?
Philanthropy has received national attention and criticism in recent months, particularly around the mega- or ultra-wealthy donor. This has not been the case in Arizona. I fear this criticism might lead to restrictive regulations that would curtail giving in the future. We are also learning from the next generation of philanthropists of their strong desire for deeper connections to the causes they support. Moreover, they are seeking creative models of social finance they can use to further their charitable goals. That’s why we created the New Arizona Innovation Prize, the Affordable Housing Pre-Development Loan Fund, the Community Impact Loan Fund and Philanthropy for All Giving Circles.

8. Is there a stat about giving in Arizona that would surprise our readers?
ACF has received the highest, 4-star rating for nine consecutive years from Charity Navigator, the preeminent rating agency for the charitable sector, placing us in the top 3 percent of all philanthropic organizations nationally for our financial efficiency and effectiveness. Annually our donors throughout the state gift between $75 million and $135 million to the wide variety of charitable funds they’ve set up at ACF. As a result, ACF is in the Philanthropy 400, the charitable sector’s version of the Fortune 500. Lastly, ACF is the largest, independent provider of scholarships in Arizona.

9. How would you rate the “health” of our community?
As prosperous as we are as a state, there continue to be growing needs in the areas covered by our philanthropic agenda: health innovations, quality education, community improvement and development, environment and sustainability, and arts and culture. We are most healthy in our ability to collaborate to solve big problems. Arizona, like nowhere else, knows how to work together within and across sectors, and you see more philanthropic/private/corporate/government partnerships here than elsewhere. That’s what you need to solve big problems and achieve greatness. Moreover, business, community and government leaders are incredibly accessible, making collaboration so much more effective. 

10. What do you see as the single most significant opportunity for philanthropic growth in the coming year?
Our biggest opportunity is the nonprofit sector. NPOs are the fifth-largest driver of economic development in our state. These vital organizations address the most difficult and complex community challenges we face, and they work with amazing intensity to assist the most fragile populations in our communities. They work where others do not. And they are among the leanest, most agile and innovative organizations anywhere. We need to get behind all of our nonprofit leaders and support their organizations with both time and resources. The impactful work and dedication of the nonprofit sector contribute to making Arizona a great place to live.

To learn more, go to azfoundation.org.

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