Soundbites: Clara Miller Looks Back Five Years

Toni Johnson of Mission OutLoud sits down with Heron’s Clara Miller to discuss her 2017 letter to the field reflecting on a five-year journey.


Toni Johnson: This is Toni Johnson with Soundbites. I’m here today with Heron’s Clara Miller to discuss her 2017 assessment of where Heron’s been for the last five years. Hi, Clara.

Clara Miller: Hi, Toni.

In 2011, Heron committed to 100 percent for mission, that’s the endowment. Congratulations on making it to 100 percent in 2016. However, I heard that you guys are like, “Meh.” You’re feeling accomplished, but you’re rolling up your sleeves and you’re ready for the next challenge. Can you explain, what does that mean?

Now, I think everybody imagined, and we were among them at the very outset of this, that the hard part would be getting to 100 percent. Now we’ve arrived. It’s a little bit like a false summit. We can see in the distance something even more challenging, and that thing, I think, is making sure that we stay at 100 percent. In the same way as when you have a financial portfolio, you optimize all the time. You say, “This thing’s not so good. This is better.” We have to figure out ways and means to optimize for social performance, broadly construed. That means good metrics. That means all sorts of things that need to be done in the field and that we’re hoping to be part of.

I was at a conference recently, and people are looking at philanthropy, they’re wondering, particularly in this trying time, how we can all get better, and there was a lot of criticism. Why is Heron pushing so hard to be different?

I think it really goes back to the soul-searching we did back in 2012, and that included people from Heron who had been there for years at the time, as well as newbies. And we all kind of gathered round and said, “Gosh, we’re looking at access … ” Heron’s mission, for those who don’t know, is helping people in communities help themselves out of poverty. We’re looking at access strategies. We’re looking at connecting people with, let’s say, financing so they can own a home and go up the ladder, or job training so they can get a job and go up the ladder. We had to admit to ourselves that that reliable income, those reliable jobs, were just not there anymore, and they’d been going away for a long time. And that if we kept carrying on as if they were there, we were doing a disservice to the people we’re supposed to help. So our response has been to say, “Okay, Heron for a long time had been a pioneer in basically investing its endowment for mission,” and we were, when I arrived then, it was about at 40 percent fully invested for mission.

We all said to ourselves, “Why are we stopping at 40? Why not 100 percent? Why not think of every single shred of ability we have, and why should we stop at our grantmaking and investing inside our walls? Why aren’t we saying, ‘How can we be influential in the bigger economy?'” Because if we’re taking on reliable jobs, if we’re taking on making the economy work for everybody, we need big, muscular friends. We can’t just be us, and we can’t even just be the foundation world, and that’s what’s behind it, it’s effectiveness.

One of the things I thought was interesting at the end of the year, when you were talking with board members, is you brought up J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. And I just wondered why this particular book, which is really looking at the white working class, looking at rural areas in particular, looking at Rust Belt areas, why did this resonate for you, and sort of how does this work in terms of where Heron is going?

I read it, and it was yet another “duh” moment, it was yet another, saying to myself, “Of course I would feel the same way as J.D. Vance,” and I think that the idea that we somehow have failed to connect Main Street to Wall Street, that we somehow have failed to push banks to be of value to the whole economy, and in those communities. We need to reset. We need to look at a different approach to communities and to actually reaching out and being friendly to each other, being respectful. I mean, I think that’s part of what’s coming out of J.D. Vance’s writing, is this feeling of being disrespected and left out.

Heron released a series of short films in late 2016, early 2017, that really sort of tries to touch on some of these issues, the narrative around poverty, what Wall Street and the market have to do with it if you’re an employer, philanthropy, how you should be thinking about prosperity. Can you talk a little bit about, as you’re thinking about pushing on philanthropy and thinking about what investment and the endowment and just all of the asset holders, what are your takeaways here?

First of all, if you haven’t seen this, we don’t have them all out yet, it’s an example of your genius, my dear. It’s a really wonderful, wonderful series of short films, and there are testimonies from a whole diversity of people, people like Linda Tirado, on the one hand. There’s a wonderful one on the Murphy family, which is a deeply poor family, and kind of really gives you a picture of what that is. And we talk about poverty as if it’s not personal, and that gives us a really good, upfront view of it being personal. I think that’s at the heart of changing the narrative about economic justice in the country, that we have to really start to understand what it is.

We have to connect the scholars, I mean, there’s Zeynep Ton from MIT, for heaven’s sakes, on this thing, with the people who are actually experiencing it day to day. And have a conversation among all of these diverse groups, people coming from different points of view. This seems silly and obvious, but poverty is very complex. It’s not this one thing that if you give money, it’s going to go away. It’s, in a sense, a moral shaming by society of people who have had bad luck, and it dates back to the earliest days of our country and the earliest days of some religions, and I think that is starting to change. People are realizing that moral retribution, some form of societal bullying, is not actually going to get us all to the place we want to be, and we are a big society, and we can be generous, and that is what is great about America, to me.

One of the things that’s sort of alive for me is that people in this space have separated out, or divided, poverty into certain areas, right? You have rural, you have urban, you have minority, you have … And it’s uncomfortable, then, for people who are working, for the people with other issues, and they’re trying to figure out, “Well, where do I fit?” And I heard this particularly from someone who fights for rural economic justice, and she stood up and she said, “I don’t know that I fit here.” And that really resonated, for me, because this is an everyone issue. You’ve been doing this a long time. You’ve been working in economic development a long time. Can you speak a little bit about the struggles of this identity crisis, if you will, that poverty warriors are facing?

I think it goes back to poverty being complex, and I also think, I think we maybe have made a miscalculation in that we’ve not paid attention to the unintended bad consequences of massive changes in our economy, which have been cheered on by the elites, whatever their political stripe. And we’ve kind of let it go that we are sort of responsible for helping people through the transition, whether they’re us, or whether they’re our kids, or whether they’re our neighbors, or whether they’re our neighbors’ kids, or whether they’re people who live in rural areas or urban areas, who are generally left out, and we want to make sure that as the economy changes, because technology’s not going to change, globalization’s not going to change, notwithstanding the current political situation. I just don’t think it’s going to stand against the tide. There may be some really bad consequences, but anyway.

We have to figure out how to make sure that we get everybody up the hill, that this is not just a, “Everybody, look, somebody’s gone up the Matterhorn. Aren’t they great? Now, you go up the Matterhorn.” Which has been proven to be an ineffective strategy to get everybody up the Matterhorn. So I think it’s time that we just change the way we do business, whether we’re elite easterners who all went to the right school, or we’re poor folks in a rural area who feel like they’re left behind. We’ve got to start listening to each other and really connecting.

You’ve had this five-year assessment, and in particular, after the FOGs, you noted that the world has changed massively since Heron went 100 percent for mission. There are all these people in the impact investing space going full throttle. What do you see on the horizon? What’s going to happen now, institutionally, just in general, like where are we going?

Yeah. Who would have thunk that BlackRock would be …


Larry Fink and Goldman, for heaven’s sakes. No, it’s exciting, and it’s worrying, of course, because one isn’t ready for success, right, in the nonprofit world. But what’s exciting about it, of course, is that the idea of this revolution of capital. This idea that it could be that asset owners themselves and all the people who have contributed to their pension funds, and now their pensions fund are the gorillas on the block, now these sovereign wealth funds are the gorillas on the block, and if all of us start basically saying, “We want the organizations we invest in, which are large-cap companies in many cases, they might be hedge funds, they might be sovereign wealth … Whatever they are, we want them paying attention to the values and the kinds of things that we can come together around,” that might make a real difference.

Now, on the worrying side, this could easily become a kind of a, “Okay, we’ll just wrap it in environmental, social, and governance happiness, and we’ll put it out there and nobody will be the wiser. They just think they’re doing something good, but actually whatever.” And I think that would be a real shame, so what’s our responsibility there? It’s one of our rallying cries at Heron. Accounting is destiny. It’s making sure that we’ve got the data and that the data has integrity, and that there is certification and audit so that, people are held to account, as we’re going into this exciting future.

Well, is there anything else that’s sort of alive for you in this interview? I talked about what was alive for me. Is there anything top of mind that we haven’t covered?

I can tell you I am embarking with a group, something that has been of interest to me for years and years and years for at least 35 years, which is to make sure that the nonprofit sector, and I know people think, “Oh, Heron has abandoned nonprofits,” because that was one of the frequently overheard grumblings, of course, but in no way have I abandoned, or has Heron abandoned, nonprofits. We’re trying to figure out ways to make sure that they get both the kind of financial investment from foundations, and also the financial rules that will mean that they will be great and incredibly strong and capable organizations that can actually deliver for all of us. My worry has been that they’ve been, being hollowed out, and overused, and bullied, I think, in a way. These are people, the people who run nonprofits and who are in them are heroes.

They are people who care so much about children that they would rather take a pay cut than send a kid home. And so they deserve our most tender and strong support, and a better set of financial rules and habits, because the one we have is hurting them. So that’s the thing I want to make sure gets done in the next couple years, and I think it can. People are fed up.

I think there’s a real sense that we all, collectively, have to get better.

Yeah. Totally.

Thank you so much, Clara.

Oh, Toni, it’s always so wonderful to see you.

This is Soundbites here with Clara Miller, and if you want to look at the movies that we discussed, please check them out at

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