A Bouquet of Memories: In Honor of Sharon King

The Heron family has lost former President Sharon King. In this post, former colleagues share their thoughts and memories of a beloved friend.

Sharon B. King

Former President, The F.B. Heron Foundation October 21st, 2014

According to her obituary in the New York Times:

King, Sharon B., a highly respected leader in philanthropy, died peacefully at home on October 21st, following a long battle with cancer. She was 68 years old. Prior to her work in philanthropy, Sharon held positions in the nonprofit, private, and government sectors, where she devoted her energy and talent to economic and social justice. She began her career as a grantmaker and evaluator for the City of New York, working in underserved communities.

Below, colleagues discuss what it was like to work alongside Sharon.

Ira Hirschfield

'An Extraordinary Human Being'

In 1992, I was fortunate to hire Sharon King, giving her a terrifically challenging mission – to build the Heron Foundation from the ground up. Over many years, Sharon built and led a very strong and talented team. Heron was a place where you could express yourself, grow, and truly be a part of building a philanthropic institution. Sharon led Heron with a clear vision, focus, passion, determination and calm. She loved listening deeply to and learning from Heron’s community leaders and grantees. She believed that they, more than anyone else, knew the path to sustainable community and economic development. As a leader, Sharon was unassuming, smart and wise, no nonsense, a great team builder, and an inspiring communicator. She also lived every day of her life with a contagious, wonderful and devilish sense of humor. If you knew Sharon, then you laughed with Sharon, as she made every day a better one, for all of us. Sharon was an extraordinary human being. She lives on, actively, lovingly and purposefully in the lives of her family, her friends, her colleagues and all of those who were blessed to be enriched by her values and the way she lived her life every single day. Ira Hirschfield is president and trustee of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund and former president and chairman of the Heron Foundation.

Darren Walker

'A Low-Key Mighty Force for Change'

n a bright and sunny Harlem day, I first encountered a woman I’d heard so much about: Sharon King. We had agreed to meet on the corner of 138th Street and Lenox Avenue, and there she was, walking up from the number 2 train on 135th. That unforgettable, fateful day helped to change the course of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, where I worked. And from the moment I met her, Sharon changed the course of my life, too. It was the mid 1990s and, as Sharon and I walked amidst numerous burned-out buildings, we talked about the block, and about the women and men who still took great pride in living on it—the children who still played on it. Soon, we were talking about their vision for their neighborhood, finishing one another’s sentences. Sharon was a masterful listener, as well, and in listening to each of us she embraced and empowered all of us. Instead of imposing a vision, she shared in one. Sharon had long been a quiet, low-key, but mighty force for change—with more questions than answers. But she understood what it felt like to be from that neighborhood. She identified—deeply and personally—with residents’ feelings of frustration with the litany of disconnected foundation and government initiatives. She had a sharp intellect, but it was the depth of her humanity and generosity that made her unique—that made her Sharon. And because of her, I came to believe that each of us in philanthropy should aspire to this same humble righteousness. Sharon would travel from the exquisite art-filled Rockefeller Family Office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza to the corner of 138th and Lennox—as she often did—with complete authenticity and integrity, every step of the way. She exuded a deep commitment to social justice. Even as we tried to solve the most obstinate problems, I will never forget her wicked sense of humor or her infectious, contagious laugh. Sharon never laughed alone. The last time I saw Sharon was as her journey was coming to an end. She would be passing within days, and she and I both knew it. Sitting in Sharon’s cozy living room with her indefatigable dear friend Mary Jo Mullan and beloved daughter Martha, we held hands. We talked. We laughed. We toasted love and friendship. During the twenty years since our first meeting, so much had changed in both of our lives—and so much in mine had changed because of her. But one thing hadn’t: Her spirit was still there. It’s still here. And even though our collective loss leaves me bereft, I try to keep her spirit alive in all that I do. I know that I am not alone. Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation.

John Weiler

'Humanity and Integrity'

I had the pleasure of working for Sharon for about ten years. Sharon had too many transcendent qualities to list here–she was a clear thinker, a lucid writer, a decisive leader, and a joy to know. No one who spent any time around her will ever forget her wonderful sense of humor or her irrepressible laugh. As a grant maker, humanity and integrity were Sharon's hallmarks. Sharon could always be counted on to ground lofty conversations in the concerns of regular people; I hear her oft-repeated question, "What difference will this make for the people we care about?" Every practice–from inquiry response time to reporting requirements to type of support–had to be examined through the lens of how it would affect grantees and whether it would help or hinder their effectiveness in helping people help themselves. Sharon was the rare foundation president who carried her own grantmaking portfolio and I had many opportunities to see her interact with grantees. It's gratifying and relatively simple to deliver good news, but philanthropy is sadly as much about saying no as saying yes. I often marveled at how Sharon's deep respect for grantees' work enabled her to deliver honest criticism and unwelcome news in a way that left them genuinely appreciative and uplifted. I think it was because everyone recognized that Sharon cared about them as people and especially about the people they had dedicated themselves to help. I sorely miss Sharon, but I'll try to remain inspired every day by her exemplary life. John Weiler in chief operating officer for the Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners and a former Heron team member.

Jim Metzinger

'A Justice-Directed Moral Compass'

My relationship with Sharon began in 1991 when she brought me on as a consultant to Heron. Little did I know that our work together would continue over the next 17 years that she was with the foundation, and beyond. Sharon inspired and made real Heron's founding values and spirit, guided by her justice-directed moral compass and shaped by her people-focused leadership. For her, the added value that the Foundation was creating stemmed from the work of the people on the front lines challenging poverty. She was my mentor who taught me to make judgements that assessed the positive changes that were happening for people and communities with the Foundation's support, and that recognized and supported those who were making these changes happen. She challenged us to think creatively and to try to new things. She created an environment of continuous learning. And, she brought joy to our efforts by ensuring that we celebrated our work together. After all this time, I found that my valued colleague had become my trusted friend. Jim Merzinger is a philanthropic consultant and former Heron team member.

Barbara Gomez

'The Queen of the May'

The first thing that hit you was the big guffaw about something said that was funny. Sometimes it might have been to put a person at ease. This woman had the capacity to listen from deep within—to the grantees, her staff and her friends. From the beginning in 1992, when the F.B. Heron Foundation was formed, there was a sense of excitement about what we were all about to embark upon and being a part of an organization helping those in need. Sharon encouraged hard work, and the teamwork and closeness of the Heron group was palpable. The first very exciting grants were like your mother baking your most favorite cake. It was how Sharon made some of us feel, especially when meeting grantees from around the country who did the work. She was caring and encouraging, and when it was time for her little birds to fly off on their own once they acquired the help their organizations needed, they were on their way with new-found strength. Sharon, I believe, spent her life in that manner. As an employer and as a friend, there was never anyone like her, before nor since. She never asked for more than she herself gave. I called her the Queen of the May because she was. Barbara Gomez is a consultant and a former member of the Heron team.

Bill Dietel

'Humor, Grace and Devotion'

Sharon King was the ideal person to lead the Heron Foundation at its beginning. She was a shrewd judge of people and patiently put together a remarkable team of associates. While keeping the goals of the organization ever before her associates, she purposefully developed a grants program that won the admiration of both foundation associates and grantees. Her warm and lively personality informed her dealings with everyone in the community development field. Sharon was especially perceptive and purposeful in addressing both the increasing challenges confronting a growing Heron and the importance of refreshing the intellectual capital so necessary to the institution’s success. She made friends for our foundation wherever she went. She could be a hard taskmaster when necessary and insisted on the highest standards of professional performance. When the history of the foundation is written, she will be remembered for her humor, grace and devotion to the serious purpose of this imaginative and creative member of the American philanthropic sector. Bill Dietel is head of Dietel Partners and a former Heron board member.

Mary Jo Mullan

'Leadership and Humility'

In our programs, Sharon always urged us to "lead with our core values": advancing positive impact on the lives of low-income people; helping people to take control over their lives and make decisions for themselves and their families; and treating our partners with respect. She emphasized the importance of listening to and learning from community leaders, and building those lessons into our practice at Heron; hence our emphases on general support grants and mission-related investing. Sharon managed to balance her strong leadership with strong humility. As she reminded us often: "As grantmakers, we are only as good as the people we fund. They are the true doers and innovators." As a manager, she always brought out the best in us. Mary Jo Mullan is a consultant and former Heron team member.

Luther M Ragin Jr.

'A Source of Inspiration'

I had the incomparable pleasure of working for and with Sharon King for ten years. In addition to her legendary humor, Sharon was forever mindful of the needs and interests of the ultimate beneficiaries of our work, and always sought to bring out the best in those on her team. Long after leaving the foundation, Sharon continued to be a source of advice, perspective and inspiration. Luther Ragin is outgoing president and CEO if the Global Impact Investing Network and a former Heron team member.

Lorna Bourg

'A Marvelous Gift for Boldness'

Whenever we heard raucous laughter emanating from Sister Anne's office, we knew she was on the phone with Sharon King. Sharon had a marvelous gift for boldness. SMHA treasured her visits to Louisiana. She understood what she was seeing and hearing. She got it! Sharon knew how to highlight the work done on the front lines of our common mission. Her boldness in breaking new ground for foundation investments set a course nationally for those who have had courage to follow Sharon's leadership. We are rich in our memories of Sharon King. Lorna Bourg is President and CEO of Southern Mutual Help Association, a former Heron grantee.

Raul Raymundo

'A True Pioneer'

Sharon was a true pioneer in understanding what it takes to build healthier communities. She championed great causes, mission-driven organizations and strong leaders. The Resurrection Project (TRP) would not be where it is today if it were not for her belief in me and of TRP. Though she is no longer with us, her legacy and wisdom will live forever. She will be dearly missed, but her spirit will keep moving those she championed to do more to serve others. Raul Raymundo is Chief Executive Officer of The Resurrection Project, a former Heron grantee.

Steven Dawson

'A Guardian within the Walls of Philanthropy'

I always thought of Sharon as a guardian within the walls of philanthropy, watching over those of us out in the nonprofit fields. She had a ‘true north’ sense of justice that several times over the past 20 years gave protection to me and my organization. I am deeply honored to have known Sharon, and will always feel graced by her guidance. Steven Dawson is a former president of Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, a Heron grantee.

Kate Starr

'Lifting Up Voices'

I have many fun and fond memories of Sharon but the one that stands out was when she and I traveled to Petit Jean Mountain in Arkansas for a meeting convened by a community development organization called Mid-South Delta LISC. The meeting pulled together community-based nonprofit organizations, government entities, and funders. I can’t remember the theme – but it wouldn’t have mattered to Sharon. She traveled many miles and hours over the years to parts of the country and in communities that many foundation presidents haven’t heard about – Quitman County, Mississippi; New Iberia, Louisiana; Pine Ridge, South Dakota – much less visited. But there we were at the Winthrop Rockefeller Conference Center in Morrilton, Arkansas, 1300 miles and a world away from New York City. After a day of discussing public and private sector solutions to the persistent poverty that remains in the Delta states of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana, we retired to the recreation room to relax with some old and new friends over a friendly game of poker. The evening wore on with mountains of penny chips won and lost when we were unexpectedly joined by our host, Lt. Governor Winthrop Rockefeller. Now, Sharon’s rules involved low stakes, many wildcards, and lots of fun. He got the hang of it and after a while a game developed where all of us had folded except for Sharon and the Lt. Governor. After many bets and raises, she finally called and he laid down the pretty excellent hand of a straight flush. He started to draw the enormous pile of chips his way when Sharon said, “Not so fast,” and displayed the only-possible-with-wildcards hand of five of a kind. The Lt. Governor was surprised and I’m not sure if it was because he was used to winning or used to people letting him win. Sharon liked winning too but the game she was focused on, the game she spent her whole career trying to change, was the one that keeps many low-income people and communities from having a seat a table. No matter where she went, Sharon lifted up the voices of people who speak clearly and strongly as they build better lives for themselves and their communities. Kate Starr heads up Heron's capital deployment team.

Arthur "Buzz" Schmidt

'The Ultimate Friend and Humanitarian'

Sharon, the ultimate professional and leader, was even more, if that's possible, the ultimate friend and humanitarian. She instilled the values and devised the basic methods of the Heron Foundation that continue to govern it groundbreaking work. She never imposed herself, never sought the limelight but was nonetheless an inspiration to change-seeking colleagues throughout the country. Heron was very fortunate to have its long association with Sharon King. Buzz Schmidt is chairman of Heron's board.

Clara Miller

A Tough Act to Follow

I have the distinct honor of being Sharon’s successor. And before coming to Heron, I also had the experience of having been, at Nonprofit Finance Fund, a grantee and the beneficiary of the foundation’s funding under Sharon’s leadership. From both points of view, she was an extraordinary leader and human being. It may seem odd to praise a donor for generosity, but that was one of Sharon’s stand out qualities, even in this sector where we might imagine it would be commonplace. Sharon’s particular brand was rare. She had true and profound personal generosity of spirit and of heart, emanating from a fundamental belief that she was the respectful steward of the means to support the “doers” on the front lines, and to esteem their work by giving generously and with as little fuss and complexity as possible. As Heron’s president, her leadership embodied principled pragmatism, high ideals, discipline and taking the long view. From my vantage point now, I deeply appreciate her quiet, pioneering work—making real a vision and building Heron into the field leader it was throughout her tenure. And then there was the fact that every time we got together, within a few minutes I would get the liberated feeling I last had when giggling riotously in fifth grade…unfettered, all-out, mischievous glee. What work, what fun, and how we miss her.

Clara Miller is current president of the Heron Foundation.

More words on Sharon King and her message that lives on:


Philanthropy New York

The Atlantic Philanthropies

The Council on Foundations

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