There are many positive words to describe EDCI alum Eddie Koen – servant leader, visionary professional, passionate philanthropist and community changemaker. A Chicago native with roots in Alabama, he is passionate about education, equity, and criminal justice reform. We were fortunate that he once called Denver home. But more importantly, to witness his work’s impact – as he laid critical bricks to strengthen communities of color and continues to do so today. His impact is not only seen and felt in communities served but in the lives of rising community leaders. He truly believes and exemplifies the idea of “lifting as you climb.” Last month, Eddie returned to Denver as the closing keynote, speaking to other EDCI alumni and the current cohort participating in the inaugural EDCI Leadership Summit. In addition, he shared his thoughts on philanthropy and the nonprofit sector and the role each serves in facing today’s challenges.
Q: Please share about your path into the philanthropy sector.
A: I started my giving through service in high school. We did coat drives, soup kitchens, and clean-ups in high school. The exposure laid the building blocks. As I got older, I wanted to go upstream to influence some of the root causes. My first career exposure to direct service was through clerking with legal services in Birmingham, Alabama. I was a law student at the time but understood the value of “time” as an essential part of philanthropy.
Q: How has your background and lived experience influenced your role as the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) president?
A: Credibility. Our experiences color how we process, execute, and do the work. I would argue that the proper connection to the work makes equity more instinctual than most. Because of my background, I have an orientation to fairness and justice. That shows up in how we work in over 400 communities across the country.
Q: There have been many inequities exposed during the pandemic. How have you seen the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors change or not change?
A: The George Floyd murder, in particular, propelled many philanthropic institutions and nonprofits to normalize talking about racial equity, or at the very least, DEI. We must remember through the most painful times in our history, the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors existed and were essentially complicit. While I argue that most work in our sectors is necessary, most is not transformative. In the last few years in the philanthropic sector, we’ve seen tremendous movement, with funders examining how they perpetuate inequity through their giving strategy. However, self-correction has limitations; we need larger accountability systems in funding if we want to sustain equity. I think the past two years, we learned how much we needed the social sector when our public systems collapsed and traditional safety nets were broken. Nonprofits knew they were resilient. But, the sector is collectively exhausted from examining its racial practices, managing burnout, and carrying the burden of our ongoing emergency response.
Q: What do you see as the role of nonprofit leaders of color in advancing equitable communities?
A: In many ways, our role is to do our work with excellence and radical authenticity. We sit in an interesting intersection. We have the privilege of leading altruistic efforts and also wear the burden, unfairly, of improving, pushing, and changing the sector for the next round of leaders of color. If we believe those most proximate to people can do better for communities, we need more leaders of color. But, leaders of color are not immune to perpetuating the same inequities the sector has perpetuated. We should also examine our own anti-blackness and white supremacy inherited -- it may show up in different forms. The journey and imprint are collective, but the execution is personal. As leaders, we must ask, do we want to be subversive and change a policy or practice? Do we want to lead, challenge, and push through the ceilings of nonprofit traditionalism (e.g., what board members look like, what are ‘outcomes for success,’ etc.)? Do we want to imagine something new outside the nonprofit structure? Our values, capacities, and pragmatism will lead us to the correct answer.
Q: What has been the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received?
A: The consistent process is more important than the result. I know this is true, and I continue to strive toward consistency daily. Some days I’m good, others days not so good…lol.
Q: Looking at the sector’s landscape, what do you dare to hope is different in 3-5 years?
A: The industry’s success involves a mix of quick results, long-term solutions, and what the philanthropic sector demands. We are largely confined to being imaginative in those three buckets. Even trust-based philanthropy has its limitations to who the power-brokers share agency. The advent of tools like Charity Navigator, and Candid (formerly Guidestar), are bursting with popularity. We need an accountability tool for funders that examines how they live their values - quantitatively and qualitatively. We need radical honesty and transparency in the philanthropic sector around giving. The whole notion of accountability seems counter-intuitive since philanthropy is primarily based on altruism and “giving;” however, I would argue that the nonprofit sector is based on a similar pretext of giving - yet, it doesn’t escape accountability.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to share that we didn’t ask?
A: I’m incredibly excited to see initiatives like BRIC. Although allyship is critical, it is insufficient by itself to liberate our community. I don’t mean that to be provocative. Still, if you look through history, the most radical transformation through any marginalized group has been led by members of that group. So, BRIC presents an opportunity to give back intentionality-- both as an ally and a member of the targeted communities.
More About Eddie Koen:
Eddie Koen serves as the president of the Institute of Educational Leadership, an organization that works with leaders to eliminate systemic barriers in education and workforce development. Before taking on this role this year, he served as the president and Chief Executive Officer for the Urban League of Greater Southwest Ohio (ULGSO), one of the largest Urban League affiliates in the country that serves Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and Dayton, Ohio. He was responsible for increasing the organization’s budget from 4.9 to 13 million and launched the first Center for Social Justice to serve as the regional catalyst for collaborative police reform efforts. ULGSO secured at least one job per day in the region and served 1600 black, brown, & women-owned businesses a year with total revenues of over seven billion and 60 thousand employees. After securing the most significant programmatic personal gift of $1M, the center expanded to education advocacy and health equity work.
While in Denver, he served as the Chief Impact Officer for Mile High United Way, where he directed $18 million in investment strategies and programming shifting the work toward neighborhood needs. Eddie served as the chief-of-staff for Denver Public Schools (DPS), the largest school district in Colorado with a one-billion-dollar budget. He oversaw the coordination of policy, lobbying, and strategy. Under Eddie’s efforts, DPS eliminated expulsions and drastically reduced suspensions for all students in the district from K-3. In addition, Eddie served as vice-chair of the Board of Trustees for the Denver Foundation (TDF), an $820M community foundation, chaired their work around racial equity, and served as a finance committee member. Eddie is the past co-chair of the Denver African-American Philanthropists and a member of the TDF’s EPIC Initiation -elevating philanthropy in communities of color.