Chris Iglesias: Act Boldly
Where We Go From Here | Episode 10
Chris Iglesias, CEO, The Unity Council
Chris Iglesias, CEO, The Unity Council, offers insight on the financial triumphs and challenges of leading a nonprofit organization. To create real change, philanthropic donors and investors have to trust and believe in the organizations that are serving communities across the United States, Iglesias says. “They need not to be afraid to act boldly ... because that's kind of what a lot of these organizations need.” Iglesias leaves us with this final call to action: It is time to address the economic disparities that are rampant in our social sector; now is the time to act.
In this video:
- How The Unity Council leverages investments to secure more funding and control over their financial destiny. (0:22)
- How economic disparities across the country cause huge financial challenges in the social sector. (2:40)
- A hope for the future of Oakland: bar removal from homes, fostering community and public safety. (4:40)
- Why this is a time to boldly support community-centered organizations and ideas. (7:20)
ANTONY: Chris, we're getting a bunch of background noise. Do you know where that's coming from?
CHRIS: My teenager.
ANTONY: I'm really intrigued about this idea that for an organization like yours that is so centered in the community, financial strength is power, and it is the power to serve. And it is the power to serve in a way that allows you and your community to respond to your needs and aspirations rather than ceding that control to the funder's own imperative. Most organizations – when we work across the country with thousands of organizations – when they have a business model that you have, when they are a human services organization centered in a historically marginalized community, reliant largely on government contracts, that is not a formula that allows most people to gain control of their own financial destiny. What have you guys done to be able to do that?
CHRIS: You know, I needed to make sure that we could, one, pass our audits. Just basic, right? Just to keep the funding coming in, to give people confidence in us that we kind of know what we're doing. So, we need to have strong audits. We need, to just get the very, very basics. And we did that. Right? Before anybody was able to make an investment with us, to support us. They wanted to make sure that we had the basics down. I think you guys helped us do that. You helped us put processes – to help us tell our story of how we got there and how we're going to get out. I think once people understood that they felt comfortable making some initial investments, the first of which was the anonymous investment back in 2015 from the San Francisco Foundation. Again, San Francisco Foundation, now they're telling me that they weren't really comfortable making that investment. But they made that initial 3 million. Now, what we were able to do is leverage the hell out of that, pay off some debt, leverage it, close a real estate deal which brought in $65 million to the community, which we just built last year, and then leveraged that on another project to bring in another $40 million to rehab an existing secret housing. So, next thing you know, that three million turned into – what is that – about $100 million, or something like that, just by leveraging and everything. So, I think that then, people started saying okay, you know, these investments are going to go, they're going to make things happen. We're able to take these kinds of modest investments and turn them into a lot, be able to leverage it to get more public funding. And I think that really started to build people's confidence in us.
ANTONY: That's wonderful. What has been uncomfortable about leading a nonprofit specifically, and one that has both the scale, the responsibilities, and the financial challenges of the Unity Council?
CHRIS: Well, I think it kind of goes into this economic disparity stuff. So, San Francisco is the most unique place and the wealthiest place in America by far, right? Seven by seven: forty-nine square miles. Tiny, right? But it is the wealthiest city in the country, I think by far. The resources there are just enormous on how you could pull together funding for a project. I mean I could walk around the halls if I needed money for a project, when I was working for Mayor Newsom at the time, like we need this, we need that. You know, they'd be like, “Oh Chris, all right. I'll give you a million, but just don't call me for six months.” And you know, it was just ridiculous right how quickly you could put together funding for stuff like that. To leave that and go over the Bay Bridge and come into Oakland, not downtown Oakland, but go to East Oakland and the farther east you go, where we're at, the resources just drop and the needs in the community go through the roof. It is just brutal how quickly it happens and how much it's been ignored. I'm not blaming the government. It's just been generations of disinvestment and stuff like that. It's brutal to see that and to realize that you're right in the middle of it. And sometimes I was like; how does this organization even survive? Because, in San Francisco there are probably five or six organizations that do what the Unity Council does. And I know them all. I can name them all. Oakland can't have five or six organizations. They can barely have us. They can barely have La Clinica. So, these huge economic disparities within these cities and to me it's just not fair. So, I think I make people uncomfortable, because I call it out all the time.
ANTONY: You have two teenage sons. If you imagined a future in which they, first of all, wanted to live in Oakland when they were your age, and were able to live in a different Oakland that had addressed a lot of the issues that you currently see as your concerns – when you think about the last few months and the potential that you've seen in your staff, the relationships you have, and the ability to get things done, what would you hope would be different for the Oakland that your sons could live in when they're your age?
CHRIS: Well, funny, one son wants to definitely live in Oakland and the other is not so sure. The older one, he's 16. He’ll be 17 in October. Councilmember Gallo is a Councilmember for the area. So, I've known him since I was a kid. So, he's like, “Hey when your son comes to the office, let him come around with me and I'll take him out for a day.” And he's cruising around and drops him off at 5. So, I was like, “Well, how did you like it?” He's like, “Oh, it was good, but I'm not sure we should live down here right now.” And I'm like, “Why?” He's like, “Well, he gave me all the crime reports and he took me to a meeting. And he said, you know if I need something, just make sure you know where the stuff is on these reports.” And he said, Dad they're pretty rough, right?” And I'm like, “Yeah ... but whatever.”
But I think when people ask me about that, I always say, “What's your big idea for Oakland, East Oakland?” And it's a bar removal project. They're like, “Well, that's already kind of happened. There's not a lot of bars, blah...blah...blah.” I'm not talking about bar, like bars where you go in and drink, and all that stuff. I'm talking about bars on the windows. I'm talking about bars. People have barred themselves in their houses, right? You know, when you drive around in Fruitvale, it's bars on the windows and then these beautiful big gates to get into their houses. And these are beautiful homes that were built back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, craftsman homes all over East Oakland. And when I grew up there in the ‘60s, you didn't see that. Either the houses were approachable – and my grandmother's house, our house, there weren't these bars on the windows and gates in the front. But, over the years people have kind of barricaded themselves in their houses. They don't feel safe. They're not going to get a response. You know, after 50 years, it's really changed. So maybe it's going to take the next 50 years for people to feel safe and those go away. Bars come down, and they’re open – there's just more of this community. There's a community, but there's still this sense of fear in public safety. That's just a huge issue.
ANTONY: What would you need the viewers of this interview to do differently to help realize that vision? It's a long leap from sitting watching this interview, being in a foundation, being someone who works in a government agency, maybe someone works at a nonprofit, maybe they're an individual who is compelled to give more of their wealth, because of what's been happening in this country. What would all those people need to do differently so that very simple, but powerful vision of the future of Oakland where people can walk up to each other's front doors and maybe you can even go further and say, after moving the bars, they cannot be locking the front doors. It's not a crazy way to live. A lot of people live that way. What could the people who are watching this interview do differently to help make that reality in your neighborhood?
CHRIS: They need not to be afraid to act boldly. I mean, it's okay to be bold and take chances because that's kind of what a lot of these organizations need. You know, I may be stretching it and stretching them as an organization, but I have be bold and really be willing to take that chance and not be afraid of that. And I think you'll be surprised at what happens on how people could use their support to really move this. And they have to understand that their investment may not be the one that really kind of gets it over the edge, but it just keeps moving it and it keeps moving it. And I think right now because of this momentum that we have, that they're not going to be alone. They're not going to be alone in this to support organizations, to support ideas. But I think that's kind of the environment that we're in right now.