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Lee Pelton has a bold vision for The Boston Foundation, but you’ll need to wait for the details

The Boston Foundation may consolidate areas of interests, which could affect how it gives out grants, Lee Pelton said.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Don’t expect Lee Pelton to reveal his vision for The Boston Foundation in one fell swoop. He will tell you it is a work in progress. He is, after all, only six weeks into the job as its new chief executive.

But spend some time with Pelton, who most recently served as president of Emerson College, and you are left with the distinct impression he is clear-eyed about where he wants to take one of the nation’s oldest and largest community foundations.

In a recent hour-long interview at the Boston Public Library, Pelton dropped some tantalizing hints of how the foundation under his leadership would be different from that of his predecessor, Paul Grogan.


“One thing I know we will be focused on is equity in all of its dimensions,” Pelton told me.

The foundation is currently broadly committed across five focus areas: health, housing, education, arts, and jobs. While that approach has helped communities that have been left behind, Pelton believes the foundation needs to instead make resolving inequities its central focus if it wants to make meaningful progress.

“The question that we are seeking to answer is whether or not our focus should be on big ideas and recognizing that maybe we can’t do all of what we have done in the past,” said Pelton.

This could mean, Pelton acknowledges, that the foundation consolidates areas of interests, which could affect how it gives out grants.

The foundation has been undergoing a strategic planning process, one that Pelton hopes will wrap up by the fall. One challenge he’s keenly interested in tackling is the wealth gap, which he describes as a “longstanding, systemic, and structural issue that will require systemic and structural solutions over a long period of time.”

Creating jobs, for example, is not a transformative idea to close the wealth gap. Rather Pelton views wealth as accumulated assets that can be transferred to the next generation.


“Jobs are important,” he said. “But they are weakly correlated with wealth.”

While foundations are typically known for their grant-making, The Boston Foundation’s influence rests more with its role as a civic leader. Last year the foundation distributed about $215 million in grants, but only about $16 million of that came directly from its endowment. Most of the rest comes from donor funds the foundation manages.

Grogan, over his two decades as CEO, figured out the nonprofit could drive change by combining the power of research on critical topics such as affordable housing and education reform with its ability to convene stakeholders and devise solutions. Pelton seems eager to use the platform he is inheriting.

“We were not looking for a savior,” explained Paul Lee, a retired partner at Goodwin Procter who sits on the board of The Boston Foundation. “We were looking for someone to unlock even more of the potential of an already great foundation.”

Pelton is taking the reins at a pivotal moment as the city emerges from a public heath crisis, a racial reckoning, and economic upheaval. He also arrives as the world of philanthropy reexamines its own record of racial inequities in grant-making. Pelton is the foundation’s second Black leader; Anna Faith Jones, who preceded Grogan, was the first Black woman to lead a major community foundation in the country.

Pelton — who earned his doctorate in English literature from Harvard — comes from academia but is uniquely prepared to lead a community foundation. Under his leadership, Emerson played a vital role in the redevelopment of downtown Boston. Pelton also has been a fixture in civic circles, serving on boards of numerous organizations including the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, GBH, the Barr Foundation, and the Boston Arts Academy Foundation.


“He was not your classic college president who very much focused on just the affairs of the institution,” said Mary Jo Meisner, a former Boston Foundation executive who is a close friend of Pelton’s. “He was a true city builder and had a vision that was broader than the college itself.”

Most people his age — Pelton is 70 — are retired, but he relishes the opportunity to continue to shape Boston. “I’ve been civically engaged all my adult life,” he said. “As I jokingly say, now I get to do full time what I’ve been doing part time my entire life.”

While Pelton seems loath to give out more details of how he might remake the foundation, those who know him say he is not one to simply impose his vision without input and study. He is methodical in his approach and will take the time to absorb information, calibrate ideas, and bring everyone along.

“He is a superb listener,” said Jim Canales, president of the Barr Foundation, where Pelton in 2017 became one of the first non-family trustees. “He wants to validate, he wants to test, he is a great questioner.”


Canales, like others who know Pelton, say they expect him to leave an indelible mark.

“Lee Pelton would not have taken this job if he did not believe he could have a significant impact to make Boston a better place,” said Canales.

Boston’s growing inequality is perhaps the city’s greatest liability. How to create a more equitable city seems to be on everyone’s minds, from mayoral candidates to business leaders. It’s ever more clear the solution will require an unprecedented marshaling of forces — private, public, and nonprofit.

That’s something Pelton has seized on too.

“No one of those entities, in Boston or anywhere else, can tackle big issues on their own,” said Pelton. “It will require some collaboration. We have that power to convene. That has been part of our history and that will be part of our future.”

Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at