Mark & Etta Rosen 

An Edited Transcript of a Conversation with

Boston Foundation Donors Mark and Etta Rosen for the

 2017 Boston Foundation Annual Report: 

The Problem Solvers

How a Group of Unusually Creative Philanthropists

Are Helping to Solve Some of Boston’s Big Problems 


TBF: Can you share how you first became involved with the Boston Foundation?

MR: I have a colleague on the board of TBF, and I learned more about the Foundation through him first, and specifically about the donor advised fund program. I knew that for-profit organizations like Fidelity and Vanguard had donor advised funds but I wasn’t really aware of that being available at the Boston Foundation until he made me aware of it, and it seemed like a really interesting vehicle. So that’s how we first engaged.

Since then we’ve been in conversations with staff who oversee the donor advised fund activity—about what our philanthropic priorities might be and how to engage with those priorities, the ways in which we could work with TBF, either around a convening they’re hosting or finding other opportunities we might not know about in the nonprofit sector. Over the last five years we’ve had many conversations with TBF about that.

ER: Yes, more recently they’ve increased their outreach.

MR: I think the outreach to donors has increased and become more effective. I also think we’re just more attuned to paying attention to convenings that they’re undertaking in various areas, whether it’s environmental or early childhood, and have engaged in conversations with them about that.


ER: That’s right. We also have more time.

TBF: You’ve scaled back your professional activities?

MR: Yes, five years ago we were both going pretty full-bore at our day jobs and that’s not the case now. So we have more time. Although I sometimes wonder how it is I ever had time to work.

TBF: When you started your donor advised fund, did you have ideas of the areas you wanted to give to? It seems that environmental things are important to you, and you mentioned early childhood… were those your starting points?

ER: To be completely honest, no. We had always made nonprofit donations and this fund was a good way to consolidate our giving…. It’s so much easier than going through our records to see when we donated and how much for any particular nonprofit. So there was a convenience factor for us. I think, back then, our giving had more to do with whatever organizations had already “hooked” us, and the schools we attended. Early childhood wasn’t part of it at the beginning, nor was the Institute for Nonprofit Practice. Our giving shifted over time.

MR: We’ve gotten a little more clarity. Having the donor advised fund actually forced a conversation about it. You tend to give to things that people ask you to give to, people you know, and that’s worthwhile but…

ER: There’s no focus.

MR: It can be a little random. This forced us to think in a little more focused way about what was important to us and how to have the greatest impact in those areas of interest. The things that came into focus for us were around early childhood, the environment and the effectiveness, capacity and sustainability of the nonprofit sector generally.

ER: I think when we first started the fund we had a conversation with Kate Guedj, and we named education and the environment, and that idea just  sat there and we didn’t do anything with it. It was in the back of our minds but we needed time. We weren’t sure what the education focus would be. We knew we would give to our own schools, but that was not what our major goal was.

TBF: Well, we do aim to be a way for donors to simplify and clarify their giving intentions. It seems to have worked for you! I know you’ve become supporters of the GreenLight Fund. How did that come to pass?

The GreenLight Fund calls its five-part approach to finding effective nonprofits and spreading their work from one city to another the GreenLight Method. 1. DISCOVER urgent local issues not being directly addressed. 2. SCOUT the country for the most effective solutions. 3. SELECT nonprofits that are the best fit for the community. 4. INVEST funds, time and passion to help the selected nonprofit ramp up in a new city. 5. MEASURE growth and effectives and share the info.

MR: My personal connection to John Simon, who is the founder of GreenLight, first of all. We became pretty intrigued with the model because it is unusual and has shown remarkably good effectiveness in addressing community needs. It’s a venture philanthropy approach. There are a number of different venture philanthropy approaches out there, but I think GreenLight is distinct.  I spent a lot of time talking to John about what he had in mind. At the time they were just in Boston, but beginning to think about national expansion.

ER:  Weren’t you involved in the first fund? Advising the very first one he did?

MR: There is a selection advisory committee at GreenLight, which is a group of people from a variety of different backgrounds who look at the the organizations GreenLight is thinking about importing to Boston—at that time the program was just in Boston—and hear presentations from various organizations and share comments with GreenLight staff about where the priority ought to be. I was and still am on that selection advisory council. But now they’re doing that in many cities—they’ve expanded to Philadelphia, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Detroit and Charlotte.

ER:  Maybe Atlanta now.

MR: The geographic scaling of GreenLight was really an inflection point for the organization so John and I spent a lot of time talking about how that national expansion would work. That’s how we became engaged in the work, and continue to be engaged.

TBF: Was your background in capital management, or investments…?

MR: Yes, in investments. I spent most of my career in the private equity business. Started life as a lawyer and did that for about 12 years, in a big law firm here in town, and then made the transition to private equity and spent the next 25 years or so doing that.

TBF: Do you have a favorite GreenLight Fund project that was put in place in Boston?

MR: Well, the one that resonates with me the most—and you might have a different top pick, Etta—is Family Independence Initiative. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it?

TBF: No. Please, tell more.

MR: It originated in San Francisco, started by Mauricio Lim Miller, a real visionary in the field. It’s helping families in poverty by providing them the tools to establish their own objectives and not actually deliver services to them other than support for organizing their thinking in conjunction with other families, to collectively set goals, problem solve and achieve their financial objectives. FII has been really effective in Boston and elsewhere and has grown significantly.  Theirs is a differentiated and very successful approach. Etta, were there others?

ER:  That’s the one that comes to mind for me too. But the most recent one also intrigues me. It’s using technology to connect with the homeless population, particularly around heath issues.

MR: It’s called Care Message. It’s also from the Bay Area, so it makes sense it’s a  technology-enabled approach to the problem.

TBF:  Interesting! Can you tell us a bit about the Institute for Nonprofit Practice? 

INP’s mission is to transform communities by equipping the most promising nonprofit leaders with the skills, confidence and resources they need to make their organizations effective, innovative and sustainable.

MR: It was started by Barry Dym. Barry actually was a neighbor of ours for many years when we lived in Newton. We knew him and his wife but we didn’t really know much about what he did. He started INP about the time we moved out of Newton. 

We encountered Barry at a social event, and we asked what he was doing. When he explained, I thought it sounded really interesting. We met a few times and the more I learned the more intrigued I became. I got involved with the organization on its advisory board. It actually wasn’t a 501(c)3 at the time and didn’t yet have a fiduciary board. As an organization, in terms of its infrastructure, it was pretty rudimentary. That was perhaps five years ago. 

The organization is, simply put, a one-year certificate-granting program for nonprofit leaders to equip them with the management and leadership skills that they need to make their organizations effective and sustainable. The program has two tracks. There’s a track for senior nonprofit leaders working to hone their skill set, and there’s a track for emerging nonprofit leaders. And the curriculum for the more senior leaders has two main components. One is a “management seminar,” with classes that meet once a week over the course of the academic year, covering the blocking and tackling skills of management: finance, project management, governance, fundraising development, marketing, etc.—all the subject matter areas you need to know as a nonprofit leader. And then there are “practice seminars,” which are small groups of studentsI think there are eight students per practice seminarwith an experienced nonprofit leader as the facilitator. They actually are problem-solving collectivelythey’re bringing real issues from their own nonprofit organizations. Students who are in the program are continuing to work full time at their organizations; in fact, that’s a requirement of the program. In addition, each student is paired with a mentor, who is also a very experienced nonprofit leader. The faculty includes some of the most experienced and respected nonprofit leaders in this community. 

The program just had its 10th anniversary. Over the course of my involvement a lot has changed. We successfully transitioned from Barry as founder and CEO to a new CEO, Yolanda Coentro. That was a very seamless transition. This can be a pretty fraught event for lots of organizations, especially when you have a visionary founder leaving. The hand-off is not always a smooth process, but for us it’s gone extremely well, in large part due to the trust, respect and transparency between Barry and Yolanda. We created a separate 501(c)3 for the organization, built a fiduciary board, which I now chair, and have expanded our  advisory board. And INP has expanded geographically as well. It started in Boston, but has now expanded into the Merrimack Valley, Cape Cod and the Islands and Rhode Island. Finally, we have significantly expanded the management team and built out the organizational infrastructure. 

The next step is further geographic expansion. The program is highly scalable, and our market analysis in other major metropolitan areas indicates that there is really nothing like this out there. This kind of “dosage” is unique. Leadership development in the nonprofit sector is shaped like a barbell.  At one end there are webinars, workshops and one-off seminars, which are valuable, but it’s very low dosage. At the other end you can quit your job and spend 40 or 50 thousand dollars and in two years get a master’s at Harvard or Brandeis, but that’s just not accessible for most nonprofit leaders. We’ve structured our model to fill the gap in the middle and to be highly affordable. Tuition for the core program is on a sliding scale, but it’s in the three thousand dollar range for tuition per year. Some combination of the nonprofit leader and their organization can usually pay something in that range. We also get corporate and foundation support for scholarships.  And the community fellows program, which is for emerging leaders, the younger nonprofit leaders, is free. 

There basically are three major problems in the nonprofit sector when it comes to leadership. One is that there’s a retirement cliff coming, among Baby Boomers, who are expected to retire in droves in the next three to five years. The pipeline to replace that talent just hasn’t been built because the nonprofit sector and its funders by and large haven’t paid a lot of attention to the issue. That’s not a criticismit just isn’t where the dollars are going. The dollars go to programs; they don’t go to leadership development or capacity building. The second problem is a self-reported skills gap. Nonprofit leaders say they just don’t have vehicles for learning the skills they need to run their organizations effectively. And third is a lack of diversity. The leadership of nonprofits by and large does not reflect the communities they’re serving. And that’s a problem. So we’re addressing all three of those issues.

TBF:  That’s fantastic. Did you happen to come to the forum at the Boston Foundation that was about the coming retirement of Boomers?

MR:  Yes, and in fact our executive director, Yolanda Coentro, was on the panel.  Convening this forum says a great deal about the Boston Foundation and its leadership role. The Boston Foundation has been a very loyal supporter of INP for a number of years. And I think that’s indicative of the fact that the Boston Foundation is unusual among institutional funders in recognizing the importance of leadership to the sector, and in really being committed to building capacity in the sector. This is one very important way to build capacity. It has a huge leverage effect. If you can address the leadership issue, you can make organizations more effective, and then… 

TBF: Every dollar they get then goes farther. 

MR:  Exactly. There’s a reluctance among many institutional funders to fund anything that is not “program.” The Stanford Social Innovation Review published a report not long ago that showed that only one percent of institutional philanthropy goes to capacity building and leadership. And this comes at a time when more and more is asked of the nonprofit sector in addressing urgent community needs. If you compare that to what the for-profit sector spends on leadership development, it’s an enormous gap.

TBF: That’s a really good comparison to make. Etta, are you as active on this too? 

ER:  No. 

MR:  But Etta’s a great sounding board when there are issues! I chair the board of the organization, so I spend a lot of time on it. It’s a significant philanthropic priority for us and we’re really grateful for the Boston Foundation’s leadership in this area. Because they really are an outlier. There are just a handful of institutional funders who get it. 

TBF: Do you think that’s a trend that will change? 

MR:  I think so. I think the wind is shifting a little bit on this.  The need for leadership development is increasingly becoming part of the conversation. As we begin to think about the national expansion of INP, and look at other cities, there are national funders who are starting to recognize that this is an issue and a critical opportunity to improve effectiveness of the entire sector. 

ER:  A couple of friends of our daughters have gone through the program, so it’s been interesting to hear about it from that perspective. They thought it was great.

MR:  That’s an interesting point because one thing I didn’t anticipate is the power of the ecosystem INP has created. As a result of their connection to INP, a thousand nonprofit leaders in eastern New England feel connected to one another. We’re really just beginning to take advantage of the alumni pool and connecting nonprofit leaders. Some of the practice seminars that I described, the eight students who were in these practice seminars, long after they graduate, continue to meet and support each other. Most nonprofit leaders operate in silos. When you’re running a small to medium sized nonprofit, there’s nobody to talk to and you’re competing for the same dollars with other organizations. INP is actually bringing organizations together. My hope is that one of the follow-on effects of this will be more collaboration and even affiliations among organizations. You’ve got a lot of organizations with very similar missions that could be working together or combining. There’s a lot of inefficiency and that is a drag on impact. 

TBF: Are these practice groups sorted by their area of work or are they randomly put together?

MR:  No, they’re from all different kinds of programs.

TBF: That’s probably great for getting new ideas.

MR:  Yes, I think there’s a lot of cross-fertilization. Many of the problems are common across organizations. The sizes of the organizations vary. There may be people from City Year, which is a very large national organization, and people from very small, local organizations with a $250,000 budget. They can learn something from each other.

TBF: Thanks for sharing all that. It’s very inspiring.

MR:  Thanks to the Boston Foundation.

TBF:  We’re glad to be in on it! Do you have other priorities that you’re thinking about as you consider philanthropy? 

ER:  I think that I’m tending to look more in the political direction, and we do support organizations like Planned Parenthood and the Color of Change. New Politics is an organization that ‘s really interesting to both of us. Are you familiar with it?

TBF: No.

MR:  The principle is that most elected leaders today, especially at the federal level but also at the state level, don’t have service backgrounds. And if you go back a generation or two, 75 to 80 percent of members of Congress had service backgrounds. Usually military service, but that was significant, because I think there’s a linkage between effectiveness in government and the willingness to put the good of the country above ideology or party politics. We’ve lost that. New Politics’ objective is to recruit citizen leaders with service backgrounds to run for office both at the state or federal level and equip them with the human and financial capital needed to get elected. One of their first candidates was Seth Moulton, U.S. Congressman for the Sixth District in Massachusetts. I hosted a breakfast at my office for Seth through New Politics when he was first beginning to think about running. That was a great success story. New Politics has about 20 congressional candidates lined up for the 2018 election cycle. It’s people not just with military service—Seth is from the military; he did four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan—but it’s not just military.

ER:  They draw from Teach for America, City Year, and the Peace Corps. Something in our government has to shift, and it seems like a great place to start. There’s that, and I also do volunteer work for the ACLU. 

TBF: Has your focus on that increased in the last year? 

ER:  Yes.

MR:  It feels more urgent. Yes, Etta, you’re more politically engaged than I am, but we both feel really strongly that something needs to change.

TBF: That is an interesting core, baseline approach—to consider service when considering who’s serving. 

ER:  That and access to the voting booth are really critical to the future of this country. The ACLU is starting [to gain] momentum…. And the League of Women Voters is also working on voting rights. I don’t know what other right-to-vote organizations are going to do, but it would be phenomenal if everybody were on the same page and not competing with each other, calling the same people and knocking on the same doors. We’ll see how that goes. October first was the launch of the ACLU programs. 

TBF: We’ll keep an eye out. Are there voting problems in Massachusetts? 

ER:  It’s far more of an issue in other places but, for example, it’s not just about registration and accessibility of polling places, but whether felons here have the right to vote once they’re out of prison; that’s one of the issues. It’s gerrymandering, it’s voter ID and same day registration… there are so many issues. The ACLU is organizing their effort state by state because each state has a different set of challenges.

MR:  As we were saying before, we don’t know how we had time to work, now that we’re retired. There are innumerable urgent needs.

TBF: Exactly. There’s no need to be bored.

MR:  No! Shame on you if you’re bored, and unengaged.


Mark Rosen co-founded the private equity firm Charlesbank in 1998, after having held leadership roles in other investment and strategic consulting firms, and serving as a senior partner in a Boston law firm. Etta Rosen was an education consultant and school psychologist, and she is now a frequently exhibited fiber artist. The couple lives in Boston and each is active on the boards of a number of nonprofit organizations.