Sandy Vargas became president & CEO of The Minneapolis Foundation in April 2007. The foundation focuses on streamlining the giving process, connecting donors with the causes they care about, partnering with local organizations, and advocating for positive changes in our communities. With $600 million in assets, more than 1,000 charitable funds created by individuals, families, and businesses, and more than $30 million in grants distributed each year, the foundation is one of the cornerstones of charitable giving in Minnesota. In addition, Sandy Vargas is a pivotal leader and an exceptional advocate. She was profiled in the book Heroes Among Us in 2008, received WomenVenture's Pioneer Award in 2009, and was awarded the Medal of Honor from St. Catherine's University in 2010. In this interview, Sandy shares her insight into how philanthropy is evolving in our society, as well as the formative experiences and relationships in her life, and what it’s like being the CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation.
What did you learn about leadership from your parents or family?
The strongest messages that I got were from my grandmother: “Take care of yourself. Take care of your family. Take care of your community.” That has been the guiding advice for most of my life. I will never forget my grandmother. She was the head of the family, the counselor that we went to, and she had a concern for the community. She was born in Mexico, and even though she only had a 3rd grade education, she had a huge vision for our family and that was really the guiding force for us.
At what point in your life did you think, “Hey, I’ve got the talent to be a CEO”? What were the most formative moments in your development as a leader?
I was always a parental child. I was the oldest of eight children, so I was like the co-CEO in our family. As the oldest, I was always being looked to lead the group, and this is one of the most formative experiences I have had. I also had very high expectations from my family, and I shared their aspirations.
What do you do for fun, outside of work?
I have two Maltese dogs called Frida and Diego, and we walk a lot. I love to travel. I love Latin America, and I love collecting Mexican folk art. I also love dancing and music.
We love the word “Stretch.” How do you stretch to keep exploring new possibilities?
One of the things that I love to do is read. I just read WIRED magazine, and it opened my eyes on how fast things are changing. We recently went to the National Council of Foundations and the use of social media came up a lot. I believe it will change how we think about philanthropy in the future when there may or may not be a need for an intermediary. Social media provides a direct connection between a donor and an issue they are passionate about. We really have to think about what our role is in that equation. We have deep community roots, community knowledge, and community relationships and we have to think about how we can facilitate a donor getting involved in the community very quickly, and very deeply.
What do you most enjoy about being the CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation? What is the magic?
The magic occurs when working with people who want to create a better and more equitable world. I am so enthusiastic about the people, the issues, and our partners. The commitment, the time, the talent, the knowledge of the people at the Foundation, our donors, our grantees– that just makes it all very worthwhile and exciting.
As you think about all the challenges in the Twin Cities, and all the challenges you grapple with every day—what big challenges do you face as a leader?
A challenge would be keeping the momentum going on the issues we care about. For example, we work strategically on the whole issue of transforming education. It is a long-term commitment that our partners and all of us at the Foundation have to make. It is not a 1, 2 or 3-year commitment—we have to make a 10-year commitment to it. We have to be committed to an outcome whereby every child in Minnesota has the opportunity, and access to excellent education.
Are there things that keep you awake every now and then?
What keeps me awake is: Are we changing fast enough? Do we see the future clear enough, so that we can avoid disruptions to the system we are part of? We have to anticipate how changes in technology and relationships are going to evolve philanthropy. We have wonderful donors and families, but the children of those families experience philanthropy in a very different way. They don’t want to just write a check. They want to be the doer, the analyzer, in addition to giving their time and treasure, so to speak.
Do you see any big trends for the next 10 years in philanthropy?
There are already some big changes happening in philanthropy. We now work across all sectors of the community. We have partners in business, government, and the venture capital communities. We link our best thinking together to derive a solution. We are not going to see philanthropy go off on its own, and that is something I think is great. The problems that we experience as a community are so large that we have to collaborate in order to get good solutions. It’s not only grants going into a non-profit, it’s working on the right framework for public policy, it’s working at best practices for whatever discipline – for example, the quality of teachers. I think our world is becoming very strategic, and philanthropy is going to play a big part in that.
Let us say you have another 5, 10, 15-year run as CEO. Whatever the number is, what would you like to be your legacy?
I would like every child in Minnesota to have a high quality, early education, go through K-12, graduate, and be ready for college and a career. Our Minneapolis graduation rate is less than 50%, and our students of color are graduating at even lower rates – that limits their life choices and economic opportunities in an unacceptable way. We want 100% graduation, for all kids. That is one legacy we are working on.
What philosophies would you like to convey to the next generation of aspiring CEOs and aspiring leaders?
One of the pieces of advice I give to young people is to create a vision of what you want to do and accomplish in life. The clearer the vision, the more it will come to you. Write it down! That has always worked for me. I went to a fellowship many years ago, and they had us write down what our goals for the next 5 years. I wrote something down about being at the Met Council doing policy work, and I ended up in Hennepin County as the county administrator. I would start clarifying your aspirations, visions, and goals early on.
I also think that there is a lot to learn about getting out of your lane and working across different sectors of the community to solve a problem. Really integrating different disciplines, and not just saying, ‘I want to be a social worker.’ I think that can be good, but it can also lead you to believe that you have a different relationship with the people you are serving than you actually do. How do we create those partnerships? How do we take the good in everyone, and really use that as a jumping off point in making positive change?
I think the thing I am most interested in is: How do we look at systems that are totally unjust – like the criminal justice system? How do we re-work that system so it does what it needs to do, but it doesn’t deny a certain group of people freedom and the ability to work and have a decent life after they come out? That whole-systems evaluation and systems-change is an important issue. We need to have younger people step back and say, “is this the world that we want?” What would be a more just way of trying to figure out a scenario like that? It’s fascinating to me, and I think that philanthropy can play a leading role on issues like that. We have the ability to link arms with government and business to get the job done.
Anything else you would like to share?
I just want to say that I have had wonderful opportunities in my life to live in a community like the Twin Cities—Minneapolis—in particular. I have been able to grow my career and be here with family members and friends. I have really enjoyed it, and I think this is one of the greatest communities in the world.
Jeff Prouty is chairman and founder of the Prouty Project: Jeff founded the Prouty Project in 1987 after 7 years with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Minneapolis and New York City. He specialized in working with senior management teams and boards of directors on strategic planning and team issues.
Briana Cain is a recent graduate of Carleton College, and is the newest member of the Prouty Project team. As the office assistant, she provides administrative support and manages the firm’s social media and print marketing.