Lisa Mensah Brings Philanthropy Home

Jason E. Kaplan

Oregon Community Foundation’s new executive director talks about what’s next for the organization

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In June the Oregon Community Foundation announced it had hired Lisa Mensah as its new executive director.

Mensah was born in Oregon and spent most of her childhood here, though she also spent two years in Ghana, where her father is from. When Mensah left to attend college on the East Coast — she holds a B.A. from Harvard and a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies — she says, “I almost felt like the whole city went to Portland airport with me and pushed me on the plane and said, ‘Go do well.’”

She planned to pursue a career in international development but instead has worked primarily in domestic economic development, most recently as CEO of Opportunity Finance Network, a network of community development loan funds, banks, venture capital funds and credit unions that provides financial services to populations that haven’t been served by traditional finance. Prior to that, she served as undersecretary for rural development in the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Obama administration, and also worked on rural poverty for the Ford Foundation.

Mensah didn’t start her job until September, but she spoke to Oregon Business in August to talk about the current state of philanthropy and her vision for OCF.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

1122 tactics2Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

You have a background in rural development. What do you see as some of the biggest problems or the biggest needs in rural Oregon?

I think I’m going to be careful to speak about the biggest needs until I actually get to spend some time with rural Oregonians. I’ve been everywhere else in the country and only a little bit in reconnecting with rural Oregon. I have been in a lot of rural Oregon: My mother worked her summers in Molalla, and I’m an old strawberry picker, of that generation when you had to go make your summer money in the fields. But I’m going to really be listening.

I think I’m going to learn about areas where the economy is booming, where it is successful, but also areas where it’s hurting, and who is affected. I’ve always known that rural areas have a lot of diversity to them, in both economic gains, winners and losers — but also that they’re more complicated than we see.

Oregon has so much beauty in its rural areas. That is what people around the world know of. But I think I’ll be listening hard for what’s working and what isn’t.

What is that outreach going to look like?

I think my outreach will be to a lot of folks who have already been working with the Oregon Community Foundation: donors, scholarship recipients, people who have received funds from things like Project Turnkey. A lot of the outreach will be connecting with the people and the work that has been happening.

I’m arriving kind of late in the fall, but I’m hoping the weather is on my side, to see many parts of the state firsthand. One thing I love about rural areas is that you have to spend some time driving to get there. There’s time to talk and time to hear some stories.

Do you have thoughts on what the state of philanthropy looks like right now?

This will be my first time inside of a community foundation. There are very few that are statewide, like the Oregon Community Foundation, where the donors and the recipients are coming from such a broad, diverse set of spaces. That, to me, is very exciting. I love being at a foundation that is both active in both urban and rural places, and has a diverse set of donors. That is different for me. With the Ford Foundation, Henry and Edsel — the original donors who made it all possible — have been gone for a long time. Here, this is a an active set of donors.

I like the way that philanthropy can stick with communities and stick with efforts that need a long haul; that’s quite powerful. I think I’m just very much intrigued by the statewide nature of this, that there are donors and recipients in every corner of Oregon who have dreams, who have aspirations. And there’s a foundation with nearly 50 years of experience, and [we’re] trying to match those together.

This is all sort of forecasting. But do you have any thoughts on the direction of OCF in the coming years?

Well, I don’t have real directional thoughts. But I do have a sense that I’ve been asked to come with an open heart, open mind, and to take all of my experience and bring it here. I think I wouldn’t have been asked to lead if they weren’t interested in someone who’s been on this theme of economic opportunity her whole life, and who has lived experience of what it means to get a shot to go from Oregon to leading a big division of the Department of Agriculture.

I feel like the foundation has wanted to lean in to this theme of how to open opportunity for all Oregonians, and has chosen somebody who loves that very, very much and who is a living, breathing monument to what it looks like when somebody gives you a chance, and then you get to take it and run with it.

I do think this chapter of tragic times for the country and for the state — people who were lost in a deadly pandemic and fires, the great amount of homelessness, challenges of housing, and the fact that on questions of housing and on fires, this foundation was able to lean in and help — is one of the reasons that it points toward more to do in the future. It’s [attractive] to someone like me who’s been working on those questions at a national level.

What do you do when you’re not at work?

I am a bit of a foodie — I enjoy cooking and have a sneaking suspicion that the best food never gets exported all the way east. I’m going to really enjoy those morels and chanterelles and the things that are hard to find. I also love music and am looking forward to returning to live music. The arts and food are the things I most enjoy when I’m not working.

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