Published May 21, 2021 at 8:45am.
Interview by Mary Martin. Photos by Kirsten Chilstrom.
The Dallas Foundation has a legacy of good, but awarding grants to nonprofit initiatives is only a small piece of the work. Without strategic impact planning, the shell of granting can’t create generational shifts and thriving communities. Drexell Owusu is taking on the role of Chief Impact Officer at Dallas Foundation, bringing a deep well of experience in both business and education sectors. But Drexell has his sight fixed on the future, looking at what is possible when a community foundation lives up to its name, driven by collaboration and equity.
You are stepping into a role at The Dallas Foundation that helps set the vision for the organization. As you look back over your past experiences in Dallas, what are you bringing with you to this new position?
I’m honored to join the Dallas Foundation in this new role of Chief Impact Officer. I’ve spent the last decade of my career trying to further our city and better our communities – from catalyzing investments in and with communities of color to leading on education and workforce efforts across the Dallas region – and I look forward to bringing these experiences to my new role. My goal is to work with our current and future donors, grantees, and community partners to make Dallas the most thriving city for all people.
The Dallas Foundation’s impact has grown over almost a century from community foundation to philanthropic leader. As one of just a handful of organizations with this legacy, how is your team setting the tone for how Dallas gives?
The Dallas Foundation is the first community foundation in Texas and was established in 1929. Since our founding, we have brought together people, ideas, and investments in Greater Dallas so individuals and families can reach their full potential. We work with a wide range of partners and organizations to accomplish this goal, and we place an emphasis on partnerships that meet today’s pressing needs while positioning Greater Dallas for a brighter, more equitable tomorrow. We also work closely with our donor partners, sharing our expertise, leadership, and the opportunity to co-invest in solutions that match their interests and make a meaningful difference. In 2020, we partnered with more than 400 fundholders to invest over $60 million into the community. The generosity of our donors is what truly allows us to meet the needs of this moment and to be ‘here for good.’
Early childhood education has been an ongoing focus area for The Dallas Foundation. Which partners have proven critical for success in the area of student development?
The Foundation has made a number of catalytic investments—both in terms of financial resources and that of our team’s talent and expertise—in organizations and initiatives that focus on those critical early years and move the needle on student success. Over a decade ago, in 2006, The Dallas Foundation co-founded the ‘Zero to 5 Funder’s Collaborative,’ which focused on providing early learning opportunities for children in the Bachman Lake community, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood with one of the highest populations of low-income children ages 0-5. The collaborative evolved to what is now known as Bachman Lake Together and, over the years, has developed and implemented a dual generation, early learning/parent engagement model in Bachman with the goal of improving kindergarten readiness.
The Dallas Foundation was also instrumental in establishing and supporting Early Matters Dallas, a broad-based coalition working together to raise awareness about the importance of high-quality early learning for a strong economy tomorrow and to make a case for increased investment in this critical, high return-on-investment area. Early Matters has seen significant wins in terms of increasing Pre-K enrollment in Dallas County and the Texas Legislature’s funding of full-day, high-quality Pre-K.
Most recently, the Foundation made it’s largest Board-directed grant to date: A $750,000 investment in the Child Poverty Action Lab (CPAL), to enable them to launch a dedicated “Birth to 3 Care Team” and fund their continued work to reduce childhood poverty in North Texas by 50% within a generation. One in three children grow up in poverty in Dallas and their success in school or in life should not be determined by their zip code or socioeconomic status. By supporting these children during their birth-to-three years, when brain development happens at a pace unmatched by any other point in life, there is a special window of opportunity to set our youngest neighbors on a path to overcome the structural barriers faced by low-income families and positively improve their lifetime outcomes.
Which specific needs in the metroplex has The Dallas Foundation identified for impact investing? How will a structured investment related to the needs grow a generational return?
While The Dallas Foundation has partners and funds that support a range of causes and strives to be responsive to the community needs of the moment, our organization is targeting investments focused on reducing intergenerational poverty and meeting today’s pressing needs while positioning Greater Dallas for a brighter, more equitable tomorrow. Specifically, we have three strategic priorities. We want to ensure a strong and healthy start for children in Dallas, ages birth to three years, with a particular emphasis on childcare, maternal health, home visitation, early learning and brain development. We’re also focused on advancing equity and inclusion. This is critical to helping Dallas reach its full potential. We help accomplish this by investing in capacity-building for organizations led by people of color and investments in communities of color. Lastly, we are committed to the civic priorities of Greater Dallas, including both the County and the City, and are uniquely positioned to respond during moments of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and Winter Storm Uri.
We also connect our donors to the causes they care about and opportunities to co-invest in solutions that match their interests and make a meaningful difference. Many of our donors have entrusted the Foundation to manage their charitable legacy long after their lifetime, which allows us to support this community in perpetuity.
Can you describe how foundation giving has shifted toward collaboration in recent years and what that means for The Dallas Foundation’s overall mission?
The issues we face in our community, particularly around intergenerational poverty, cannot or will not be solved by a single person or entity, and collaboration and partnership have always been an integral part of the Foundation’s DNA. We not only encourage collaboration among our grantees and community partners, but we really try to model what collaborative behavior and co-investment can look like. For example, right at the onset of the COVID-19, pandemic, The Dallas Foundation co-founded an innovative partnership of more than 40 area funders,“North Texas Cares,” that continues to support the nonprofit sector by streamlining the grant application process for nonprofits seeking aid. Together, we’ve mobilized more than $100M in COVID-19 response funds through this and other partnerships.
We partnered LH Capital, Inc., Meadows Foundation, United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, and Hoblitzelle Foundation to launch the Better Together Fund, a pilot program to drive large-scale social change by supporting nonprofits that come together in a formal collaboration, for a common purpose, as a way to maximize impact. Since its launch in June 2017, the fund has awarded 83 grants worth over $4.9M to 54 unique collaborations, representing 200+ partner organizations.
The Dallas Foundation has also been a long-time convener of companion animal funders and served as a leader in the South Dallas Spay Neuter Surge, called “Let’s Fix This,” which is now in its fifth year of addressing the stray and loose dog population that has plagued the southern part of our city for years.
How can Dallas residents support both the overall mission of The Dallas Foundation, and also get directly involved with the causes it supports? What does it look like for someone to be fully engaged in the work of community growth?
The Dallas Foundation encourages all North Texans to research the wide range of causes and organizations in our city, and to support the causes that most interest them, both financially and through volunteerism. If individuals are searching for a way to more broadly support the work of the Foundation, they can consider donating to our Community Impact Fund, which enables The Dallas Foundation to respond to changing community needs and emergencies, to support innovative solutions to community problems and to enhance the overall quality of life in our community.
I think community growth happens when everyone in our community educates themselves about the broad issues that truly impact all of us, and then looks for ways to make a difference. For instance, even if you or a loved one isn’t living in poverty, the fact that so many of our neighbors do affects all of us. That impact is manifested in everything from education to employment to healthcare. Bringing together people and their investments to address this issue will position individuals and families to reach their full potential. And only then will Dallas reach its full potential.
Readers can learn more about the Dallas Foundation and all of our initiatives and efforts at dallasfoundation.org.