Charlie Casey’s 20th Anniversary at PFS
Congratulations on 20 years! If you could share one milestone accomplishment with your time at PFS, what would it be? What are you most proud of?
I am generally really proud of everything we have accomplished at PFS over these past 20 years. My goals have never been around revenue, income, or number of clients. We’re not trying to be the largest or most prominent philanthropic management company. We have very little ego and see our role as facilitators of great grantmaking. The focus has been on evolution and change to be the very best company we can be. That change has been progressive and incremental as we have grown.
I will say that one milestone (or more of a realization) is that PFS has an incredible reputation and our team is deeply respected in the community. With that increased visibility, we have started to find ourselves more comfortable and better equipped to take positions on issues around philanthropy. Not about what foundations should be giving to, necessarily, but rather how they should be giving. We have embraced trust-based philanthropy and have taken a position about how donors show up and partner with their grantees. It has been liberating to speak up and have our clients acknowledge our perspective.
Talk to us about the evolution of PFS since you first started with the organization 20 years ago. How has PFS grown into what it is today?
When I came to work for my father at PFS in 2003, I was fresh out of business school, and we had five client foundations and six staff members. We didn’t even have a server, and employees were communicating with grantees and clients with their personal emails. It was sleepy, to be honest. But I saw the value in the work: our clients appreciated the professional management of their foundations and the nonprofit/grantee community saw the value of a single staff managing multiple foundations. There was real value there – a unique model in a niche industry. So I just started building: infrastructure, systems, hiring great people, and adding clients. All the while, my focus was on culture and leading with integrity and generosity. I had worked in some toxic work environments earlier in my career, so I knew what I didn’t want for a workplace. I think I mostly got lucky, because we have had the good fortune of hiring a very diverse and talented staff that have generally stayed for long periods of time. It is the employees that create the culture and it has been wonderful to see a handful of genuine friendships that have developed over time among the PFS crew. I like coming to work and I think our team is the reason.
What has changed for you professionally over the past two decades? And if you’re comfortable in sharing, what has changed for you personally?
Having grown up in San Francisco, but also having lived away from the Bay Area for the better part of 15 years, returning to San Francisco to join PFS, as a program officer, gave me exposure to a whole different side of the Bay Area, which was tremendously rewarding.
I got to know hundreds of organizations and their leaders who were all trying to fix a problem or solve an issue. It was very inspiring and I continue to draw inspiration from that work. What has changed professionally for me is that I now spend most of my time on administrative tasks as we have grown to an organization with over 40 clients and approaching 50 employees. The work is more complex and I have less time to spend with our employees and clients – and much less out in the community supporting issues that I care about. While I wish there were more hours in each day, I still feel very connected to the work and believe in the value of our work.
On the personal front, my family has grown and two of my kids are already in college, which seems impossible. We had a baby girl when we arrived back in San Francisco, and now my youngest of three girls is in seventh grade. My wife and daughters have always been the most important thing in my life, and I have been able to balance my priorities, even as I worked hard for these past 20 years.
What has kept you in the philanthropy sector?
I have always been super aware that it is the nonprofits, and not the philanthropy, that is doing the hard work. Nevertheless, giving money (particularly when it is other people’s money) is challenging work, especially if you want to do it well. I have my frustrations with our sector – someday I will write about the many ways that institutional philanthropy colludes against the very organizations that we are trying to help. A consultant we have worked with made an astute comment: Philanthropy is not a system of giving; it is a system of withholding. While I agree, there is a lot of good done with philanthropic dollars and we at PFS have the privilege of supporting many incredibly generous and thoughtful boards. Our model allows foundations to be more efficient, which we hope provides more dollars for the community. So it feels good to work at the intersection of nonprofits and philanthropists. It is a privileged position to be in and I tend to see the good in people.
If you had a crystal ball, how will the next 20 years in philanthropy play out? How about the next 20 years at PFS?
I have two predictions: one is that in 20 years, there will be fewer private foundations formed, fewer foundations focused on perpetuity, and more foundations that choose to sunset within a generation. The second prediction is that there will be much more scrutiny on large endowments (foundations, university endowments) and DAFs from the government. There is a hoarding of capital in these endowments that have a detrimental impact on our society, as they slow the velocity of money and mostly serve to enrich single institutions and the people that manage the money. As for PFS, I won’t try and predict the future, but I am clear that our focus will remain on centering our values and the work of the nonprofit sector, while promoting generosity and effective grantmaking.
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