The Boston Foundation announced Tuesday that Lee Pelton, currently president of Emerson College, will take the reins as its president and chief executive officer in June, becoming the leader of the philanthropic powerhouse at a time when a pandemic, recession, and movement for social justice have exposed tremendous need across the region.
The foundation’s search for a new chief executive began earlier this year, after outgoing president and CEO Paul Grogan said he would be stepping down after leading the organization for nearly 20 years.
A scholar and civic leader lauded in Boston and beyond, Pelton is energized by the work ahead: “It’s not a job. It’s a calling,” he said in an interview. “I am both grateful and humbled to lead a remarkable institution like The Boston Foundation. This is a remarkable culminating opportunity to bring together the elements of work I have done throughout my career.”
Pelton added that he has “been training for this for many, many years” — an idea his extensive resume supports.
A Wichita, Kan., native, Pelton launched his career in Cambridge. He earned his doctorate in English literature from Harvard University. After teaching there, he held leadership posts at Colgate University, Dartmouth College, and Willamette University in Salem, Ore., where he was president for 13 years.
His 2011 return to Massachusetts marked a period of growth as a person and civic leader, Pelton said, as he served on the boards of numerous local organizations — among them the Boston Arts Academy Foundation, the Boston Chamber of Commerce, GBH, and the Barr Foundation — and led Emerson College, a community he said holds a dear place in his heart.
“I say to students that Emerson is the place where you come to be the person you were meant to be, and it turns out that was true for me as well,” he said.
As president, while working to expand the college’s online offerings, campus real estate, and international partnerships, Pelton also advocated for gender diversity among university presidents. Under his leadership, the college launched several initiatives to bolster its commitment to the arts, including opening a campus in Los Angeles. Pelton also created the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research, through which the college and local communities can collaborate to research and address social issues.
In June, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, Pelton published a widely circulated letter to the Emerson community, titled “America Is on Fire,” in which he detailed his own encounters with racism and called on his colleagues and students to act. Mayor Martin J. Walsh subsequently tapped Pelton to chair the newly created Boston Racial Equity Fund.
Pelton will be The Boston Foundation’s second Black director. Anna Faith Jones, who preceded Grogan, was the first Black woman to lead a major community foundation.
In his new position, Pelton said, he sees an opportunity to delve deeper into the issues that have long driven his life and work.
“I have sought to use my civic leadership [in Boston] and elsewhere to help solve some of the nation’s most pressing problems,” he said. “It will be very important for me and TBF to reach deeply into communities, to be present in communities, to understand on a firsthand, visceral level what the issues are, and to listen carefully and actively so that we can move forward in a collaborative way.”
Over the past 10 months, The Boston Foundation has conducted a nationwide executive search in partnership with Spencer Stuart, an international firm. Following a series of community listening sessions on the role the foundation should play in Boston, the search committee reached out to a number of high-profile candidates, including Pelton. In November, he received the board of directors’ unanimous vote of confidence.
“We wanted a leader who is a deep listener — inclusive, empowering — but also a leader who is bold and audacious,” said Linda Mason, The Boston Foundation’s board chair. “Lee has that rare ability to combine both.”
Mason said the transition in leadership comes at a unique moment for both the foundation and the city it serves.
Under Grogan, the foundation’s net assets doubled to about $1.3 billion. In the fiscal year ending June 30, it dispersed a record $215 million in grants through a combination of discretionary giving and donor-advised funds. In recent years, the foundation has extended its work beyond traditional grant-making to include policy research and convening nonprofit leadership.
At the same time the foundation’s assets and impact are reaching new heights, so too is Greater Boston’s level of need. The coronavirus pandemic has intensified a host of economic, public health, and social ails and inequalities, and a nationwide struggle against systemic racism has brought local disparities into sharp relief.
The foundation mobilized quickly to address the pandemic, setting up a COVID-19 relief fund in March. To date, the fund has raised over $15 million, about $8 million of which it has dispersed so far to Boston area nonprofits, with an emphasis on supporting those led by or primarily serving people of color.
“The foundation has had this long legacy . . . of being a major force for good in this city,” Mason said. “But I think at every phase in a city’s life and an organization’s life, you always have to be looking for how much more good we can do.”
As the departing director, Grogan said he has no doubt Pelton is up to the task.
“I am thrilled with the appointment of Lee to this job. To get him, with his stature and accomplishments and his being an extraordinary leader — that’s a big part of taking the sting out of moving on,” Grogan said. “I will be wistful when I actually get out of here, but at the same time, it’s been 20 years, and it’s time for some fresh thinking.”
In the coming months, Pelton will work closely with Grogan and the board to prepare for his new role. He will also say a difficult goodbye to his Emerson students and colleagues, whom he plans to see through this school year’s commencement celebrations.
He anticipates that one of his greatest challenges as director of the foundation will be finding a balance between addressing systemic inequalities and attending to immediate needs made all the more urgent by COVID-19 — hunger, homelessness, unemployment, poor health.
“Both have to be lifted up as twin priorities,” he said.
In the meantime, Pelton is looking to the future, to the ideal of Boston he hopes to help make a reality through his work at the foundation.
“I would like to see a more equitable and just city on a hill,” he said. “I would like to see a Boston that is less divided economically, and I’d like to see a Boston where we have been able to lift up communities in a profound way — a Boston in which all people of conscience and good will have come together to engage in important work.”
He knows this vision will not be achieved overnight.
“Excellence is not about being something,” Pelton said. “It’s about becoming something. Excellence in Boston and at The Boston Foundation will be ongoing and aspirational, an effort for continuous improvement.”