Boston Foundation CEO Paul Grogan, who has spread millions of dollars around the city as his organization took on an increasingly activist role, announced Tuesday that he is stepping down, ending 19 years at the helm of New England’s largest community foundation.
During his tenure, the foundation expanded its purpose and loosened its purse strings, giving away more than $150 million last fiscal year in community grants and releasing in-depth reports on everything from the plummeting population of children in the city to the need for public transit investment in Greater Boston. The staff grew from 45 people to more than 110, and, perhaps most significantly, the foundation became a driver of public conversation and policy.
“The foundation is in tremendous shape, and I think very well set up to have an even more robust future," Grogan, 69, said in an interview at his Back Bay office on Monday.
He said he will remain as chief executive until the foundation finishes it search for a replacement, which could take up to a year.
“There’s not a lot of people that are conveners,” said Jack Connors, the chairman emeritus of Mass General Brigham, echoing a word that many people used to describe Grogan. “That’s what Paul is. Everything’s he’s touched over there has gotten bigger and better because of his leadership.”
For decades in the city, philanthropic funding was typically decided “with the same people in the room, largely white males, with a certain Boston stodgy perspective," said James Rooney, president and chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
The Boston Foundation was already ahead of its time — Grogan’s predecessor was Anna Faith Jones, the first Black woman to lead a major community foundation. Building on Jones’s work, Grogan continued to inject the foundation with new energy, observers said, and as the city became increasingly diverse, the foundation worked with minority communities to fund projects that might not have gotten support from traditional white-led philanthropic organizations.
“He really cared about what were folks in the neighborhood — on the ground — talking about, what mattered to them, what was important?” said Robert Lewis Jr., founder and director of The Base, a Roxbury program that combines youth baseball and academic tutoring, and has gotten funding from the Boston Foundation. Lewis, who was vice president for program at the foundation before founding The Base, pointed to the StreetSafe Boston program, a violence-prevention initiative, as a key example.
“The Boston Foundation went public with $5 million on this new thing,” Lewis said. The money, and the commitment of the foundations’ senior team, sent the signal that “this matters," Lewis said.
Grogan also transformed the foundation from one focused narrowly on raising money and distributing it to one that produced studies and policy prescriptions related to nearly every sector of city life.
The Rev. Ray Hammond, a former board chair of the Boston Foundation who helped to select Grogan, quoted the adage about teaching a man to fish. But the foundation went beyond that, Hammond said. It was “focused on policy,” he said, “really trying to make sure you’re doing something about the forces that are polluting the water you’re trying to fish in."
The foundation’s emphasis on what was wrong in Boston and how it might be fixed with philanthropic dollars occasionally irritated the political officials in charge, according to Grogan and others.
“The new Boston Foundation was developing some power in the city to shape opinion, to move ideas, and not everybody was thrilled about that,” he said.
Grogan had an up-and-down relationship with the late mayor Thomas M. Menino, who died in 2014, and who, Grogan said, “felt on a number of occasions that he hadn’t been closely consulted enough.”
Wide speculation that Grogan himself would one day run for mayor probably didn’t help. And Grogan appeared disinclined to tamp down the rumors. A Globe reporter asked him in 2001, just before he took over the foundation, if a mayoral bid was on his mind. “I never get tired of hearing that,” he told the reporter, who wrote that a smile crossed Grogan’s face as he spoke.
After all, he had worked in city government for mayors Kevin White and Raymond Flynn, and he was politically gifted. Menino sometimes turned to him as an unofficial adviser on delicate issues, including negotiating a police union contract and over city development, said Rooney, who was the mayor’s chief of staff from 1999 to 2001.
Grogan inherently understood “the politics of public policy,” Rooney said, “not only how this was going to impact the city and its residents, but also how it was going to affect Menino politically.”
Grogan now says he never seriously considered running for mayor, though he was flattered by the years of speculation.
“Part of the advantage I had is I get to work on all the issues that a mayor [works on], but I have more freedom to operate, fewer political constraints,” Grogan said. “So I convinced myself I could do almost as much good at the Boston Foundation as by being mayor.”
The current mayor, Martin J. Walsh, issued a statement thanking Grogan for “all he’s done for the people of Boston.”
“Grogan has been at the helm of this organization for many years, and has helped excel its prominence as an active partner in making Boston a better place for all,” Walsh said.
The question now is who will replace Grogan, taking over the clout and assets he built up over the last two decades. (And the salary: Grogan had a compensation package of approximately $745,000 in 2017, according to tax filings.) When Grogan was up for the job 20 years ago, the board was torn over whether to give it to him or to the second in command at the foundation, Deborah Jackson, who is Black. (She is now the president of Cambridge College.) At the time, Grogan was a Harvard vice president involved in community relations.
In Grogan’s final interview, a board member said, “Let’s talk about the elephant in the room,” referring to race, according to a 2001 Globe report. Demands for more diverse leadership are likely to be a major factor in the board’s deliberations as it decides who should lead the institution into the next decade.
“Philanthropy is white, it’s old, it’s Brahmin,” Lewis said. “They’re going to have a big decision to make. Boston is a totally different city. Who will that next person be and [what] will she or he look like?”
Grogan is not in charge of the search, but he said “there is a strong hope that the next president is a minority.”
“I’ve heard it put: It needs to be a woman, a minority, or both,” he said.