April 3, 2023

The Philosophy of Transformational Generosity: A Chat with Maeghan Jones

Maeghan Jones has been the President and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga since 2015. She leads a team of professionals dedicated to aligning the community’s resources around critical, long-term challenges - a philosophy she and her colleagues call “transformational generosity.” Maeghan came to this role after leading the Chattanooga Area Food Bank for several years and before that, she was an attorney at Legal Aid of East Tennessee. Her unique professional background working alongside the community’s most vulnerable makes her well-suited to understanding the complex needs of Chattanooga’s most vulnerable families - and gives her unique insights into what philanthropic organizations like the Community Foundation can do to help move into lasting economic stability.

In March, we sat down for a chat with the President & CEO of the Community Foundation, Maeghan Jones, to talk about her inspirations, her time at the Foundation, and her experience in Chattanooga. The short form of this conversation was published in Chattanooga City Lifestyle.

Where do you like to take people visiting our city for the first time?

What’s great about Chattanooga is that there truly is something for everyone, whether the visitor loves the outdoors, arts and culture, history, or enjoying a great cup of coffee in a quaint café. We love taking our “foodie” friends to one of the many incredible restaurants in our city and, for those who are not from the region, introducing them to southern dishes they may not have had before like fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, or greens. For those who appreciate the arts, we bring them to the Hunter [Museum of American Art], which is an incredible art museum for a city of our size. From there we can walk down and look at the Ed Johnson Memorial. That experience gives someone a fuller picture of our community, our willingness to grapple with our history, and our hope for a future of healing.

Who is a mentor who has had a meaningful impact on your career?

Dallas Joseph has been a consistent mentor and friend to me since my time at the Food Bank. He asks insightful questions that help me broaden my perspective and reflect on my learning journey as a leader. We started with those kinds of conversations about the Food Bank's strategic plan and organizational development, but over the years, whenever things have been hard, he's always shown up for me. A lot of people are willing to support the CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, which is wonderful, but Dallas has also supported me as the person – asking questions like, “How are you doing as a leader? How is your family? How are you managing the stress and the joy of the work and balancing that with being a wife and mother?”

I think that that is unique and interesting about Chattanooga - when you're in a leadership role, people seek you out to provide support and feedback. I was so thrilled earlier this year when Dallas assumed the Chairmanship of the Community Foundation’s Board of Directors. His business acumen, relationships in the community, and conviction around our mission are tremendous gifts to our team. I’m grateful that we all get to learn from him as we work together in a new capacity.

I sometimes describe our mission as ‘making hope tangible.’

What do you love the most about your job?

I’m fortunate to live in a uniquely generous community with a legacy of strong civic leadership and whose leaders understand the importance of giving back. In my role as President of the Community Foundation, I get to experience that generosity first-hand every day. My team and I help people really define the values that motivate them and the issues they care most about.

Then we help connect their passions with real needs in the community and make introductions to organizations that are doing difficult, life-changing work in neighborhoods throughout Chattanooga. I sometimes describe our mission as ‘making hope tangible.’ Helping donors articulate the legacy they want to leave is sacred work and such an honor.

Who is a role model in the world of philanthropy?

I've been inspired by Darren Walker, and what he's done at the Ford Foundation. Darren was one of the first national foundation executives who came into a high-profile role from a humble start – he was in one of the first Headstart classes in Texas, for instance, and credits his success, in part, to his access to high-quality public preschool. He celebrates the best of philanthropy while challenging those in the sector to be more reflective about how we need to change to better serve our communities. For example, he writes eloquently about the importance of not only addressing symptoms of issues like intergenerational poverty, but also the root causes.

In addition to being a foundation executive, you’re also a wife and mom. How do you describe what you do to your son?

I've been fortunate enough to have opportunities for Oliver (9) to experience the work of the Foundation first-hand. For example in the summer of 2021, we worked with partners throughout our community, including leaders from the faith community as well as local nonprofit arts organizations, to host a series of vaccine clinics. We focused on neighborhoods that had low vaccination rates and where there were concerns about vaccine access. Together with partners throughout the community, we created a series of “block parties''. These included food trucks, games for kids, and, of course, access to free COVID vaccines.

I was able to bring Ollie with me to six or seven block parties, and we would be there all day. I remember telling him on the way there, “We're doing this work for the community and I need you as my partner. It is going to be hot, and you may even get a little bored at times, and I am not going to be able to entertain you, but this is an opportunity to care for your community and be part of something that’s bigger than yourself.” When we arrived our team gave him jobs to do to support the setup and he took a lot of pride in being able to help.

I think it shifted his understanding and relationship to my work in an interesting way. When you're a little kid, you just want your parent with you; anything that takes your parent away is not necessarily a positive thing and that’s natural. However, as he began to participate in the clinics, saw himself as part of the solution, and experienced first-hand what community care could look like and how important that was, I could see a shift in how he talked about my work. That wasn't my intent, but it had a profound impact on both of us.

Your job is very demanding and requires you to be near the front lines of many very difficult situations in our community. How do you care for your mental health and well-being?

Finding balance is a constant practice and, at times, it’s a struggle. I hear this from leaders across the community, particularly since the pandemic. I believe everyone's on their own journey to find out what balance is to them, but I encourage the staff to take a mental health day when they need a break: when you’re feeling tired or your fuse is short, or you know that it's time to just take a step back, then step back. Be with your family.

For me, I recharge by being with my family and close friends. I may not be able to be as home as much as I want to be, but when I am, I’m focused on them which means I’m not taking that call or responding to that text. Oliver and [my husband] Kirk know when I walk in the door, they're going to be my focus. To be honest, I wasn’t always able to set that firm of a boundary, but COVID put a lot of things in perspective for me. I realized that I needed to set better boundaries in order to maintain balance and to bring the best of myself to my family and my work.

Looking ahead to 2023, what are the big issues facing Chattanooga? How do you and your team decide on the foundation’s strategic focus, given everything that’s going on in our city?

Unequal access to high-quality public education – how are we as a community going to ensure that every child here has access to high-quality education, regardless of the neighborhood or their socio-economic status? We're fortunate to have an insightful and experienced superintendent who has a strong team and incredible teachers, and many people who care about this issue. It’s going to take all of us coming together to invest in our public schools, because education is critical to the success and well-being of our children as well as our ability to stay competitive in the region, in terms of attracting jobs and building local talent.

We've seen studies, including from Raj Chetty at Harvard University, that indicate that Hamilton County is one of the most difficult communities for people to move up the ladder of economic mobility. If you're born poor here, you’re more likely to stay in poverty throughout your life than in other communities. Foundations like ours have to think about: How are we building those ladders of economic opportunity? How do we remove barriers to opportunity and create pathways to economic mobility and prosperity for all Chattanoogans?

I have been inspired to see business, nonprofit, education, and community leaders and institutions from across our community coming together to grapple with these questions. These issues are not unique to Chattanooga, but I believe we have a unique opportunity to solve them.