[Rising Stars In Philanthropy] The Art Of Faith In A More Courageous Philanthropy

To Sherylynn Sealy, philanthropy means giving, sharing wealth, and investment, but it is quite obvious that there is something much more spiritual in her motivations, thoughts and actions. This interview showed me that saying philanthropy is both an art and a science does its role in our community a real disservice, it ultimately includes a person’s own evolution that over time includes a deeper searching for meaning and through our own built wisdom, an understanding of the injustices of our world and the desire to help tip the scales back to even to support equal opportunity, equity and a pathway to true social, economic and racial justice.

It wasn’t Sherylynn’s work at Grantmakers in the Arts which had me excited to profile her work, it was really her work outside of GIA (through both faith and wellness), where she concurrently helps to advance the sector by creating space for folks in her faith community to connect with a spiritual movement practice that feels aligned to their own lifestyle. What does that mean exactly? In Sherylynn’s words it is “by creating space for dialogue around how to navigate through life’s challenges in a healthy way. It is important for everyone to have space to pause. And in these moments of pause, we can find encouragement and balance through journaling and other therapeutic activities.” This helps because at the end of the day we are all human and we all need encouragement no matter what part of the sector you operate from. “So this helps to keep people going–you can’t pour from an empty cup!”

Sherylynn Sealy is a strategist, yoga instructor, performing artist, educator, and founder of her wellness company, TrustLoveKnow. She is also on the steering committee of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP)-Boston Chapter (of which she moderated my recent book conversation with chapter members). Prior to her Senior Program Manager role with Grantmakers in the Arts, Sherylynn was a Philanthropy Fellow with the New York Community Trust where she engaged with arts and culture funders and organizations across New York City. She previously served as a consultant for the Mayor’s Office and Superintendent’s Office on their implementation of the City-wide Youth Stat Initiative in New Haven, CT. Managing over 200 student-cases, she served as the point of contact for schools and local partners. 

As you know, I am a vocal advocate for our philanthropic professionals to come from a varied professional background (it just provides unique insights that help inform and connect the dots to solutions in ways that can’t be captured in a logic model). Sherylynn was a Teach for America alumna, received her MPA in Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy from New York University, and her BS in Education and Psychology from Northeastern University. She also served on the Dance/NYC Junior Committee. 

Best of all – she continues to explore her passion for performing arts, traveling, and spreading a message of hope.

Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) is the only national association of both public and private arts and culture funders in the US, including independent and family foundations, public agencies, community foundations, corporate philanthropies, nonprofit regrantors, and national service organizations – funders of all shapes and sizes across the US and into Canada.

Sherylynn’s focus at GIA is helping to advance the sector by creating space for dialogue about issues in the field, providing platforms for leaders to share their lessons learned and best practices, and by offering opportunities for teaching new ways of being a funder that is more racially equitable, thoughtful, and inclusive. She does this via planning and production of webinars, podcasts, twitter chats, co-facilitating our racial equity workshops, and working with colleagues to plan their annual conference.

From my vantage point, I’m seeing that national affinity groups really have their fingers on the pulse of the sector’s grassroots needs, work & goals. That’s why I’m always intrigued to know what folks are seeing, feeling and hoping for when it comes to organized philanthropy.

Sherylynn shares that when done thoughtfully and in solidarity with those impacted, it can be a very good thing and is needed. It can move beyond triage to healing which has become a very prominent talking point for the sector especially with the success of Edgar Villanueva’s book Decolonizing Wealth. “It is a good way to correct for/reconcile harm done and to return stolen wealth. Philanthropy is inherently inequitable, so those involved should take time to learn how to reconcile issues with their own funding practices and fund projects that seek to do this as well. Those in the sector should also look at what is going right, and do more of that.”

She expands on these thoughts and observations by discussing how the non-profit sector has an interesting way of sustaining itself. “The standard practices almost feel…unsustainable. If the majority of non-profit funding comes from grants, organizational staff work tirelessly to apply for funding and hope for the best. If they do not receive the grant, the staff still needs to be paid through left over funding and the project will hopefully still get done (if there are reserves and volunteers). Otherwise, hopefully the nonprofit has other sources of income to sustain itself. We saw the impact of the pandemic.Many nonprofits were unable to keep doors open, lights on, and staff paid. Hopes and dreams were put to rest due to a lack of adequate funding.”

“That said, there are funders who are considerate of this and take steps to fund more GOS, give unrestricted grants, and are actually strategizing to spend down their endowments. Kudos to them!”

So what might that future look like and what are new ways of giving that you feel have the most potential to make an impact in our sector? Sherylynn thinks that philanthropy should have a bigger appetite for thinking about higher risk. “The sector can afford to do so, and can do this if there is more trust, more solidarity, more listening, and more doing.”

That risk also extends to the practices, processes and a pushing back of the old ways of doing things. “We need more solidarity, more sunsetting, and more frequent review of the mission of the funder. An important question to keep in mind is, “are we still prioritizing the people we claim to serve?” 

Sherylynn’s take on the future of philanthropy is really refreshing because it is authentic and driven by her own faith and values, and to be honest is something that is often overlooked as sectors become more professionalized and ‘data driven’. Sherylynn’s north star emanates out of her faith community – its where she sees hope and potential because for now she has found that there aren’t enough opportunities outside of Sunday morning church to focus on building relationships with God (which to her is so important in every aspect of her life, making both big and small decisions, showing love of all people and empathy, etc). So she has poured her heart into tackling this head on.

“Unfortunately, sometimes Christian faith and wellness work is isolated, or branded as divisive, and that can turn people away. And truthfully, some faith work that is branded as Christian can cause harm if  love and understanding is neglected. It’s unfortunate.”

“But while there are different perspectives within the Christian faith, and in life, wellness and having space to acknowledge one’s thoughts and feelings is invaluable. Self-awareness is so important. We are all human at the end of the day, and if the philanthropic sector was more human-centered, trust-based, and self/sector-aware, the world would be a lot better. I am sure of it.”

“We need to teach truth and we need to promote narrative change. That starts with research, trust, and acceptance. We also need to encourage leaders to keep learning, listening, and seeking understanding of the issues that groups of people face. The world is such a big place, and my world–or your world–is not necessarily the world.”

After all, what is courageous leadership if we aren’t actively listening to those we serve, speaking truth to power for those we represent, and building trust with those we work with?

Sherylynn Sealy exhibits all the traits I see in courageous leadership and it’s why I wanted to finish by asking her to share her own wisdom with folks that might be interested in standing with her in pursuit of a better and more engaged tomorrow for our communities. 

Her first answer was perfectly quotable – “it isn’t easy work, and if you find it to be easy, you might be doing it wrong.” If I don’t see that emblazoned on the merch at my next philanthropy conference I’ll be disappointed.

But in all seriousness, Sherylynn provided a great blueprint for new, emerging & aspiring practitioners in our field by offering the following:

1) You may be working in the same place and on the same project with someone, but your world is not necessarily their world. So seek understanding, and try to be patient throughout the process with others.

2) It’s okay to work your tail off, just make sure you find time for rest and fun.

3) As you learn new skills and take on different responsibilities, take time to pause and make the distinction between what you enjoy doing, what you are good at doing, and where those two overlap. Use that to help inform your career journey.

4) We are all human, give people (including yourself) grace.

5) Speak up when you feel it in your stomach.

6) Conflict is not always a bad thing.

7) Leadership doesn’t only look one way.

8) Relationships are key.

9) Don’t limit yourself–beware of imposter syndrome!

10) Know your strengths, and lean into them.

11) Negotiate.

“The possibility of greater progress” is something that inspires Sherylynn and I hope will be something y’all can take home too. Progress every day is something worth fighting for.

Connect with Sherylynn Sealy today:

LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/sherylynnsealy/

Grantmakers in the Arts – https://www.giarts.org 

Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/sherylynnsealy/?hl=en


If you know of anyone doing great work or believe someone espouses the values of future focused leadership and deserves to be highlighted in this way then please nominate them. If you believe this ultimately speaks to you, please, please nominate yourself.

To nominate an individual to be featured, please fill in the quick contact form here. Individuals don’t need to be specifically in organized philanthropy either – we hope to cover all facets of the ecosystem from planned giving to programming, from fundraising to IT, from nonprofits to activism or those that simply have a passion for giving back and are standing up to showcase their values through our field.

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