The Song Foundation, founded in Ann Arbor, hired non-profit sector veteran Khalilah Burt Gaston as its first executive director. Gaston’s addition will spearhead the next phase of advancing the foundation’s long-term development.
Photo by Moon Reflections Photography
Non-profit sector veteran Khalilah Burt Gaston is already rolling up her sleeves and getting to problem-solving after several months at the non-profit organization Song Foundation working as its first executive director.
The Song Foundation, a $40-milllion foundation founded by Dug and Linh Song, hired Gaston to further their equitable work and goals of strengthening the foundation’s long-term development.
Gaston told the Michigan Chronicle that after starting in early February, she has used her time to have one-on-ones with community members, meet with the Songs, and do a deep dive into the world of non-profit work.
Doing the Work
“We’ve been getting to know one another more deeply and talking about what the next 12 months look like from the Foundation,” she said adding that from a strategic and operational standpoint she is also making a lot of connections in the field.
The Ann Arbor-based Foundation began operating at a time when critical assistance was needed the most — in 2020, and since the nascent organization came into existence, they have awarded 10 grants (totaling nearly $2 million). The awards represent the foundation’s goals of investing in innovative people and organizations that are improving quality of life, while helping to build a more just and equitable world.
Grants previously awarded by the Song Foundation include:
- Washtenaw Small Business Resiliency Fund ($1 million in March 2020)
- Knight-Wallace Midwest News Fellowship (two-year grant totaling $200,000 in August 2020)
- Project Clean Slate – City of Detroit ($25,000 in December 2021)
“Taking on the leadership of this foundation is a rare opportunity to bring together everything I’ve learned along my professional journey, and to apply those lessons learned to establish a framework and best practices that are rooted in our shared passion to serve communities in need,” said Gaston in a press release. “What convinced me to commit to this incredible responsibility was meeting Linh and Dug, and to hear their heart and their core convictions, to hear about the culture they want to create as they embark on taking a very young family foundation to the next level. It’s very empowering when, as an executive director, I don’t have to retrofit strategies and practices to accommodate an existing institution, I really have the opportunity to work hand-in-hand and shoulder-to-shoulder with the founders to create something new together.”
The Foundation’s current grant portfolio has largely been directed toward pandemic-related economic relief efforts for health care, small business, and community service organizations that are closely aligned with the Songs’ interests and passions.
A December 2019 search process, involving a search company, narrowed down executive director finalists to Gaston when she was selected after a several-round interview.
The Songs selected Gaston to lead the process of creating an internal structure that best aligns with their mission, adding her 20 years of leadership and industry experience to navigate the foundation’s multi-dimensional, expansive operations.
Gaston’s career in philanthropy and non-profit administration includes her tenure as a program manager at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, leading their early childhood education efforts in Detroit and managing a statewide grant portfolio and investments of $80 million. Gaston has also served as executive director of Vanguard Community Development Corporation, and a development specialist at the State of Michigan Land Bank Authority. Most recently, Gaston led her own strategic consulting practice, Glidepath Strategies, supporting clients in Detroit and nationally.
While overseeing the organization’s day-to-day management, Gaston will lead the strategic planning process over the next year to develop a long-term strategy to refine its grant-making priorities. In partnership with the Songs, Gaston will also establish best practices that advance principles of trust-based philanthropy through collaboration, systemic equity, and transparency in engagement with the communities and organizations it serves.
“As we begin to define the framework for the foundation’s future, we have the ability to start with proven practices that recognize that philanthropy is not a one-way process, that it’s an exercise in learning together with the community, as well as actively fostering direct engagement that builds trust and respect between donor and grantee, which is also a big part of why we’re so excited to have Khalilah to lead this work,“ said Linh Song, who is currently serving her first term as Ann Arbor Council Member for Ward 2.
Through their focused engagement and grantmaking strategies, the Song Foundation is committed to reducing and eliminating barriers for potential grantees to successfully seek and secure philanthropic funding. In practice, the foundation will implement protocols that simplify the application and reporting process, and establish strong, equitable relationships with grantees built on shared goals, responsive communication, and transparency.
Gaston told the Michigan Chronicle that the Song family has an “enduring commitment” to equity and justice and that will continue to be a major part of the foundational work.
“As they set up this organizational philanthropy they’ve always given to those causes– always supported grassroots organizations in their personal giving,” Gaston said adding that they are transitioning from personal giving to organizational giving. “Black leaders can look to really focus on creating equitable opportunities with our giving.”
While the foundation will continue to award grants throughout 2022, the leadership team is already engaged in shaping its long-term growth strategy and expects to announce plans for the foundation’s next phase by the end of the year. The Song Foundation has also engaged public accounting firm, Plante Moran, to serve as their back office for financial management.
Down the line, the Foundation plans to increase staffing later this year or next year with no more than five people. Gaston added that the Foundation is also looking forward to hearing from community members and more.
“People have reached out to inquire about our priorities and scheduling some of those meetings,” she said adding that a listening session is in the works for the summer and fall.
“We are a start-up foundation, and we approach our internal growth knowing that we’re joining an already vibrant ecosystem of philanthropic organizations in the region. We don’t intend to behave like a start-up tech firm that exists to disrupt the market,” said Dug Song, currently the chief strategy officer of Cisco Security. “We do hope that the lessons we’ve learned from our careers, our backgrounds, and our successes will drive us to develop an organization that does the most good in the most direct way.”
The Song Foundation is currently governed by a three-member board that includes the Songs and attorney Peter Katz, vice president and general counsel for cybersecurity firm Expel, and lecturer at the University of Michigan Law School. Katz previously served as general counsel for Duo Security and is based in Ann Arbor.
Another element of their long-term strategy, the current board intends to expand its membership in 2023 to reflect its commitment to empowering leaders, representing diverse communities and industry sectors, as partners in the foundation’s direction and development.