The path to a career in philanthropy isn’t always clear-cut. Such was the case for Storme Gray, who as an undergraduate was studying to become a graphic designer. Thankfully for the sector, the combination of a little soul-searching and engaged mentors set her on a trajectory that has landed her at the top of the Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP). Named interim executive director in 2019, and hired full time to this position in 2020, Storme brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in the philanthropic space, cultivated through years spent at family foundations and her roles as leader of EPIP’s DC chapter and then as a member of the organization’s board of advisors.
In a recent interview with PEAK President and CEO Satonya Fair, Storme reflected on her own career journey, how she approaches her new role, and the personal qualities that are sorely needed in our leaders in order to realize greater diversity within funder organizations at all levels and more inclusive practices to effect positive change within larger communities.
Satonya Fair: Did you start out thinking that you would have a career in philanthropy?
Storme Gray: I didn’t, but I did start out thinking that I would have a career in nonprofit work. I had a crisis moment during my senior year in college when I realized what I was studying did not enable me to make a large social impact, so I wanted to do something different. I thought about growing up in Camden, New Jersey and some of the after-school enrichment programs that I was a part of, and started volunteering with a DC nonprofit.
As it turned out, my first job after college was at a small family foundation. I was an admin assistant and the grants manager took me under her wing. When she left to go to another foundation, I went right on with her. That’s where I really got to be a lot more involved in the grantmaking aspect of the work. And that’s where it clicked for me, because I was suddenly in a room where funding decisions are being made in support of organizations that serve children. I realized that philanthropy was a vehicle through which I could make a difference by helping some of the same community-based organizations that meant so much to me as a young person.
Fair: What have been your greatest accomplishments in your career thus far?
Gray: One of them is being an executive director and being the first woman of color to lead EPIP—and to do so without the advanced college degree or professional pedigree, and to do it in a way that has felt so authentically me.
And two, some of the proudest work that I have done to date was with the Washington Area Women’s Foundation and their work on the Young Women’s Initiative. That was heart-and-soul work. I was working in partnership with community-based organizations in DC to co-create the city-wide initiative, all in service of young women and gender-expansive youth of color. And the program is still going today. I consider myself to be fortunate to have been a part of it in its earlier stages and to have witnessed some of the magic that came out of that.
Fair: EPIP recently did a study that found that, currently, only about 27 percent of emerging leaders in philanthropy see a future for themselves in their organizations. What were the challenges you saw in front of you when you entered the field?
Gray: Thinking back to my first job, I was the youngest person on a very small staff by about 15 or 20 years. So there were no peers that I had to look to within the organization—and not having a network of peers is a barrier. Networking is often considered a critical aspect of professional development for mid- and senior-level leaders. Yet, it’s also important to actively connect those who may be earlier in their careers to their peers and colleagues as well.
The mindset of funders and the approach to implementing their missions also threw me off because it felt very top-down and paternalistic in nature at times—as if organizations and communities were unaware of what they needed for themselves. It still feels that way, as noted by the responses of participants in our Dissonance and Disconnects report. People are proud to work for their institutions, but noted a significant misalignment between the stated values within the mission versus how it was enacted internally and externally.
Fair: What kept you from running for the hills?
Gray: I recognized that the work is less about me and more about the people who came before me who made incremental advances so that I could be here and be bolder. I stay in this work because I see so many folks who are comrades in arms who are also trying to make change in philanthropy. I’m inspired by them and it’s an honor to work alongside them. And I stay because I’m not done yet. I feel like I’m just getting started. Because I recognize that philanthropy has such a huge responsibility to right historical wrongs, particularly around how labor and resources continuously have been extracted from communities to prop up the sector that we are now privileged to be a part of. I stay in this work because I want to hold philanthropy accountable to its own promise.
Fair: What are some of the personal qualities that you see in exemplary leaders?
Gray: Self-awareness because I think it enables one to connect to others in an authentic way. So much of philanthropy and our work is relational. And I would also say a certain measure of vulnerability, which is funny for me to say because I am self-aware enough to know that vulnerability is a growth area for me. As a Black and queer woman in this sector, people like me are not often afforded the opportunity to be vulnerable, particularly in philanthropy. I also find that, in being vulnerable, I am affirming my humanity which was removed from me by others. It is a reclamation of the fullness of who I am in service to the work that I do, to advance EPIP’s mission, to strengthen the philanthropic sector, to elevate diverse leadership, to elevate those who want to see this sector show up differently in the world.
Fair: What’s been your approach in helping organizations change their cultures to embrace DEI. What have the biggest challenges been?
Gray: My approach is based on harm reduction. Any one of us could share a story about a toxic work environment, about a microaggression that may have happened in a conference room where you feel silenced or any number of those things. It is imperative for leaders to model the organizational culture that we want the rest of the sector to adopt, that we want our members to know it is possible to exist within.
I think the biggest barrier—or opportunity for growth—is within the individual and their willingness to step into this work itself while also dealing with the things that arise within them internally as they do this work.
When I step into this work, I recognize that I am impacted by white-dominated culture. I have had to work through anti-Black racism. It’s easy to be resentful, but when I show up, I have to ask myself, What is something different I can do today to disrupt old patterns? How can I model for my team what may not have been modeled for me, but needs to be if we are going to shift culture?
Fair: Along the way, what’s been the most valuable advice you’ve received? I’m sure that if your experience is like mine, people are always trying to give me advice and there are things that people have offered to me along the way that I harken back on and I think, “I’m so glad they said that.”
Gray: I usually keep Post-its of things that people have said to me. One of the best pieces of advice given to me was, “impermanence is beautiful”. I often reflect on that as it came out of a conversation that I had with my predecessor and dear friend, Tamir Novotny. We would often have deeply philosophical conversations about the future of the sector and the future of the work. I’ve always believed that change is the only constant that I can rely on. I think of Octavia Butler in her writings about shaping change and the quote, “All that you touch / You Change / All that you Change / Changes you / The only lasting truth / Is Change / God is Change.”
Sometimes we become so afraid of the impermanence of something. We always expect that systems and institutions will continue to remain in the exact same way that they’ve always been, but that kills evolution, innovation, and any forward movement. At a certain point in time, that same way of being is no longer needed. There are things that we used to do when we didn’t know any better, that now with additional time and knowledge and wisdom, we do differently. We grow and evolve as people.
If philanthropy truly wants to change, the sector will need to let go of some of the harmful practices that it has relied on for so long and be willing to be transformed in service of becoming better, brighter, and more deeply engaged, so that it’s working in alignment with the community.
Fair: Thinking about your role in mentoring the next set of leaders, how do you avoid passing down the things that weren’t necessarily very helpful for you as you sit in this moment?
Gray: I approach mentorship from a space of wanting to help bring out the best within oneself. When I think about the conversations that I’ve had with the people I mentor, I focus first on listening and providing space for them to be heard, then asking a lot of questions to tease a little more out from them, and then reflecting back to them what they’ve shared. For those of us who have been fortunate to have a leadership coach, it’s no different from that.
My role as a mentor is not to tell you to walk the path in the way that I did. You have to walk your own path. What I can do is support you in walking through that path by sharing any cautionary tales or opening up my networks and connecting you to other people who could also support you in your growth. You need more than just one person’s perspective to do this work.
And I’m a big believer that you need a network of your colleagues because peer mentorship is tremendously helpful. Look at the folks who are currently in the trenches with you. You all can share stories, resources, pains, and successes right now. As you progress in your career, those people become a part of your support system.
I will always make time for mentorship because I recognize how important it is to have a sounding board. And having an exchange of information is incredibly important because I also recognize that the same folks who I mentor are mentors to me at times.
Fair: It’s an amazing feedback loop, right? When we’re in a relationship with folks, especially when they’re at earlier points in their careers, I think people do love hearing what went wrong or what would you change. And what is one of the biggest challenges that you’ve had to face so far as a leader in this space? And not just the challenge, but how did you navigate through that?
Gray: In any organization, folks will give you an assessment of who you are. It’s up to you to determine what aspects of that feedback are deeply resonant and what aspects may be a byproduct of some of the baggage that a person may be (knowingly or unknowingly) sitting with. I have worked really hard over the past couple years to sit with myself and see myself as I am and not as what others projected onto me. It’s an ongoing process. And it’s been both a challenge and an opportunity because when we talk about finding one’s voice and speaking truth to power, that only comes from having a knowledge of who you are, what you bring to the work, and a willingness to get feedback while also discerning what’s on point and what isn’t.
Also, as a new executive director, working through imposter syndrome is tough. There’s this expectation that when you become a CEO you are magically imbued with all the wisdom and knowledge and can execute flawlessly. That’s just not reality and I’ve had to learn how to let go of the idea of being an imposter and recognizing that who I am and who I have been were sufficient to get me to this point in my career. And in knowing myself, I have the self-awareness and emotional intelligence to know when to say when I need support.
There are no imposters. We’re all just people trying our best with what resources and information that we have available to us to advance our missions and keep our organizations running as efficiently and as effectively as possible, while also, oh, by the way, changing the world.