Story by Mary Martin. Photos by Janell Bethea.
For a little over two years, Chris McSwain has poured her passion for community, diversity, and intelligent engagement into her role at Communities Foundation of Texas. After playing a key role in three North Texas Giving events, Chris has walked alongside nonprofits and donors as they have raised over $100 million. That kind of impact is not only life-changing for the people served by nonprofits, but for our city as a whole.
Dallas is known as a philanthropic city, but in 2020, philanthropy and giving has looked a lot more like collaborations between foundations or local businesses joining forces with nonprofit organizations for industry-wide support. And even in the midst of economic slow-down, North Texans have continued to be generous to local causes, shown specifically during the North Texas Giving Tuesday Now fundraising campaign in May, which raised $20.7 million.
Chris grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, just outside New York City, surrounded by Caribbean culture. “I didn’t grow up with the term of philanthropy, giving was only about people with big wealth—the rich white men,” explains Chris. “But I learned about giving in church. Every week my grandmother would buy treats and snacks to give to kids on Sundays. She gave because it was the right thing to do.” The idea of taking care of people around you, along with the principal of planting and reaping, still frames how Chris views both individual and systemic generosity.
It was in college that Chris began learning about philanthropy and how giving, combined with volunteering, can be a way of advocacy. “I was raised in a split-family dynamic and received a scholarship to college, and through that experience I was introduced to different communities and was able to leave the nest,” says Chris. “Now as I look back, I can see how I’ve been positioned as an advocate for people who don’t have those opportunities, and I’m learning to be more vocal and visible about the issues I care deeply about.”
Landing in Dallas, initially with dreams of being a full-time writer after a decade in public relations, Chris found herself longing for something a little different and took on a “soup to nuts” kind of role at a small family foundation. She quickly learned about how the details of funding and grants played out, shadowing more experienced colleagues and attending events across the state. Once she realized that the giving industry was the right home for her time and talents, Chris applied for a role at Communities Foundation of Texas. “I wasn’t hired for that first position, but the woman who I spoke with remembered me when they were creating the new community support position for North Texas Giving Day, and I was allowed another opportunity.” Today Chris is the Director of Community Engagement, a role she has originated and crafted to meet the very real needs of those who are participating in North Texas Giving Day each year.
With more than 3,300 nonprofit organizations registered for this year’s September event, Chris has a full plate, but she is still looking for more growth. “We are intentionally diversifying and engaging with new audiences,” says Chris. “Our givers have looked similar for a long time, but Texas is burgeoning—growing by leaps and bounds—it is rich in culture and heritage and young people are making this their home. We are ready to align more closely with communities of color, as well as younger people.” Her job is taking shape as Chris gives herself to the deep listening work of advocacy, and searching for people to invite into the philanthropic movement that is central to North Texas Giving Day.
And in a year unlike any other, with many nonprofits grasping at virtual straws, there is still a need for engaging conversation around what giving really means for the community. “No year is the same—even though it is the same event—each one has presented a different challenge and opportunity,” Chris says. “This region needs to, and will, come together. North Texans are proud of where they’re from, and they want to be here for each other.”
The moment of 2020 has also unearthed more racial divide and social unrest, leaving nonprofits to address layered and nuanced issues at the ground level. Chris is standing knee-deep with other leaders asking the big question, “What is our role in all of this?” Right now, Chris is determined to simply start by being responsive and responsible wherever possible. “On September 1 we are hosting a digital event called Cause Minded Conversation: Leading While Black, where Black executive directors will be sharing their experiences,” she says. “Part of navigating leadership, whether you are a founder, or you’ve inherited a role with a board that doesn’t necessarily look like you, includes meaningful things to learn and share.” Chris is also looking to empower black leaders and nonprofit staff with a platform to tell their own stories. “I am able to bring all of me to this role,” says Chris. “I am a black woman who is doing this work—helping to lead the largest regional giving day in the country. And that work is full of purpose and alignment in my life.”
This year the North Texas Giving Day team will continue to plan virtual and socially distanced events. A day-long virtual concert sponsored by the Arlington Tomorrow Foundation will take place on the September 17 giving day, and other events like drive-through parades with art stations and food trucks will help keep the celebration going. “This is new territory for us, but we will continue to honor the generosity that takes place every year,” says Chris. “The spirit of North Texas Giving Day comes alive when people come together.”
If you would like to begin supporting your favorite nonprofits, even before September 17th, you can search for a nonprofit’s giving page, set up your own personal fundraiser, and set a goal for your friends and family! And early giving begins on September 1, so you can get your donation registered in advance.