Skip to main content

Click here to listen to the episode on Spotify.

In the tenth episode of the Saturdays at Seven Podcast, Todd Ream interviews Romanita Hairston, CEO of the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. Romanita starts by sharing her vocational journey in leading different organizations. Then, they discuss the “Murdock-ish” values of the Trust and how they practice that with their partners and beneficiaries. Lastly, they talk about how philanthropic organizations can support the Church and church-based educational institutions.

Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Our guest is Romanita Hairston, the Chief Executive Officer of the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. Thank you for joining us.

Romanita Hairston: Thanks, Todd, for having me. It’s good to be with you.

Todd Ream: Over the course of your career, you’ve served in leadership roles for non-profit, for profit, and now philanthropic organizations. What would you identify as the common thread in your vocation that’s woven into efforts that, at least on the surface, can appear different in purpose and scope?

Romanita Hairston: A great question. You know, I think the things that come to mind for me, and I’d say there’s probably more than we have time to chat about today, but you know, one of the first ones is a focus on learning and building capacity. And when I talk about building capacity, I mean that probably at its broadest level, it’s building capacity in the teams that I support, building capacity in those who have been served by each of those organizations.

Um, so customers, stakeholders, partners, beneficiaries and really thinking about what that means from a learning standpoint. And so being in not just a learning mode, but taking the approach of a learning organization. And so that’s a pretty deep, what I call red thread of connectivity, is this focus on learning and building capacity.

I think the other part of that has been working on end to end solutions to intractable challenges at scale. At World Vision, we were working on child well-being, which in and of itself is a significant issue. And then at Microsoft, we were working on how do you build technical confidence and intensity in the global customer base, but also helping to open up accessibility to those who might not traditionally see themselves in tech careers.

And the work of the Trust is obviously dedicated to building capacity and organizations and then ultimately those that they serve. And all of which are big, intractable challenges, particularly at scale.

Todd Ream: In what ways if any, would it, would you have predicted the evolution of your vocation?

Romanita Hairston: I don’t know that I would have predicted the evolution of my career. And, you know, there are people who, to their great credit, begin with an end in mind. They have something they want to achieve and then they achieve it. I think my focus has always been on what I would say is my highest and best use. And how is it that I show up in service, particularly as a person of faith, to the sacred purpose and calling that I believe that I have. And ultimately believing this notion in Scripture that your gifts will make room for you.

Um, what I would say about the role that i’m in now is it is the result of a very prayerful and thoughtful process. I really love the work that I was doing at Microsoft. And during the time of what I call the quadruple pandemic, there was a real sense in my heart of highest and best use and wondering if while I was doing work that I love that was significant and important, if that was my highest and best use, given all of the time I had spent in the nonprofit sector and some of the time I’d spent in philanthropy.

And so I spent about 18 months sitting with other leaders because I, on occasion, I would get a call: are you interested in leading this organization? On occasions, I had applied for roles and actually had offers to lead things but I didn’t presume that because you can lead something you should. And it was important for me to go through a thoughtful process with other CEOs and leaders to really discern, to understand the role, the uniqueness of what it requires, and to then feel a sense of discernible call, um, to it. 

And coming through that process, I did, and that happened to be at a time where the Trust was looking for its next leader and, you know, my sense of calling and the Trust’s sense of need and purpose and focus for the future aligned in such a way that I find myself here today. So I’d say for a large part of my career, while it has been focused on applying my gifts and allowing them to make room, this particular move into a role did come after a bit of prayer and discernment on the basis of the doors that were opening up to me at the time.

Todd Ream: Wonderful. What would you define as the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust core organizational values?

Romanita Hairston: I’ll start with what I think is a principle, and it’s a principle that precedes the values. You know, we work from a core principle of staying true to original donor intent. Um, our work is to keep that donor intent of Jack Murdock evergreen. And also consistent with the original trustees that Jack appointed who knew him.

Um, and so in that spirit, we work to do a few things that are a part of our corporate values, which I’ll also say as we’re refreshing and updating our strategy, we’re thinking about in reviewing. And so in that list of things is to exercise humility. That is a core and central value for us, um, as a trust. Um, we want to exercise that in the care for our grantees, our partners, our stakeholders, our employees.

Um, we believe in engaging relationally, which speaks to really being people focused and community minded. Um, we have a value of pursuing excellence through continuous improvement and innovation. We focus on exercising stewardship, um, really in thinking about not just the grants we make, but the investments that we oversee.

And for us, that stewardship is of every resource that we have. And it’s of also stewarding Jack’s legacy and again, his original donor intent, and so that shows up for us in the work that we do in scientific research. Our initiatives around all of that work, um, values that were important to Jack around the health of people in communities and particularly the places in which they live, um, democracy, civic engagement, um, arts, culture, education, which, you know, when you think about those as his values in our sectors, you can see that real alignment and commitment to legacy over time.

I mean, and then one that I would say is a value of the Trust is around being a faith-friendly institution, particularly in, in today’s context, allowing people to be, um, not just human at work and to bring their full self, which includes their faith, but also in the way that we serve our grantees and ensuring that we pay attention to the validity of science and I like to say the value of faith.

Todd Ream: Wonderful. In what ways if any are the Trust’s organizational values different then from other philanthropic organization, perhaps such as the Lilly Endowment or the Templeton Foundation?

Romanita Hairston: What I’d say 15 months in, I wouldn’t say I’m a student of other foundations enough to compare us specifically. But what I can say is we’re distinguished by a few things in the way that we operate generally in philanthropy and particularly in our region, when you think about the funders in our region. 

One is we’re highly accessible. This is, um, I like to make this analogy just because I think it really brings home, um, the point, you know, when it comes to grant making, we’re kind of open 24/7. Um, organizations have access to us and our grant making 365 days of the year. Um, we’ve got a regional focus, which is unique and for an organization of our size. Um, and then we really focus on operational capacity building, which really puts us at major inflection points in organizations, right? 

Points of growth, points of change, points of transition, where they’re moving from one state to the next and the way we partner and come alongside them, given our scale, is very relational in that we try to come alongside as a partner in their process to help them build that capacity. 

And we think about the organizations we support over the long term. You know, we’re a long term grantor with a three year funding cycle for our strategic grants. And so all of those things are real distinctives of the Trust in the region.

Todd Ream: In what ways, if any, do philanthropic organizations learn from one another?

Romanita Hairston: You know, one of the benefits that philanthropic organizations have is that we have the power to convene. And so I would say not only do we learn from one another, I think we learn from each other’s grantees, each other’s initiatives, each other’s demonstrated work and effectiveness.

And so you’ve got leader to leader collaboration. You’ve got what I might call cohorts of leaders who convene and learn from each other around specific topics. And then as philanthropic organizations, we have the ability to convene and hopefully to add value, first and foremost, to our grantees, collaborators, and stakeholders who we bring together.

But then we have that ability to invite each other into those convenings and also to share the learnings that we have from them. And we’ve got some great examples of places where we’ve done that. Um, we did a essentially a convening and learning cohort with another foundation around arts and the future of arts and the business models. And it’s a great example of that work.

Todd Ream: Yeah, I was just going to ask if there are any examples of ways that, you know, philanthropic organizations have collaborated together to marshal their resources to serve a particular need in particular ways.

Romanita Hairston: Yeah. And that, that arts collaboration is a great example of that happening to really build greater capacity in the sector, to build greater awareness amongst funders. Um, and it has sort of what I would call a long tail and that it’s continuing to drive impact and learning, for those organizations who participated and really future leaders who are coming into those organizations who might not have had any participation in the convening and the learning that it produced.

Todd Ream: As you look to the future then, what would you define as the largest qualitative and perhaps also quantitative growth areas for the Trust’s portfolio of programs?

Romanita Hairston: You know, it’s a great question. We’ve just, um, come through a process of some reorganizing and redefining of our sectors. I think that sectoral focus that we are now engaged in is really the foundation upon which these, this question would be answered. Um, I think what I can say in regard to this outside of to be determined and in process is that what we’re doubling down on is being a capacity builder and really being a premier capacity builder.

And so for us, what that means is really understanding the ways we can uniquely build capacity. How do we continue to do that at our scale and size and future anticipated scale? And how do we do that staying true to our values of serving organizations, considering each and every grant in a deliberate manner? And fueling this sort of continuous improvement and impact on the common good and human flourishing. 

And so that’s the thing that I think we’re uniquely focused on and that our sectoral strategy is going to help us get to. But I would say that’s work to be done. And the thing that I’m really excited about with the sectoral strategy is it’s going to allow us to work even more closely with our grantees and partners and other subject matter experts in our ecosystem, to really define the answers to these particular questions. 

And I think that is what makes us uniquely Murdock-ish in the ways that we go about our work. And I certainly hope to be a contributor to that, but I will do that along with all the other leaders in the organization, our trustees, and those trusted leaders in our ecosystem.

Todd Ream: I love that phrase. Uniquely Murdock-ish. Um, I don’t know if that came with you since you arrived 15 months ago, or if it’s part of the culture, but I like it. What, if anything, does the average workday at the Trust look like for you? If there is an average workday.

Romanita Hairston: I’d say I don’t think there’s an average workday, but I’d say probably in general for most CEOs and senior leaders, average workday is something you kind of would long for, but don’t necessarily have. But you know, what I would say is, you know, each and every day for me, my work is the leadership of strategy and operations. It’s caring for our people. And it’s partnership in our governance framework with our trustees, and then finally service to our external stakeholders. 

And so every day is a mix of that, right? Helping the organization to achieve its goals, um, on behalf of those inside of the organization to maximize their gifts and accelerate those for the organization. And then to ultimately ensure that that’s achieving the impact that we want to see in our region and really brought more broadly in the country.

Todd Ream: What efforts then yield the greatest personal and professional satisfaction for you? And perhaps those are two different, perhaps they’re the same.

Romanita Hairston: You know, I’m probably not a person who’s got sort of this list of these are the things that I really love and these are the things that I don’t. What I can tell you is my orientation and as a person of faith, my personal mission probably since my early twenties has been to know the Lord and to make the Lord known.

Um, and so for me, I think I find joy in ensuring that as a leader, I’m formed in such a way that I am reflecting, um, all of my beliefs, that there’s integrity in my actions and the way I show up. And simultaneously to that, that in the way that I live those things out, um, and attend to them, um, with real commitment that that’s demonstrated in the life of the organization and with the people that I’m leading. 

I like to say nonprofit work is a lot of things. And I just talked about some of them, right? It’s strategy. It’s governance. It’s stakeholder and partner relationships. It’s convening. But nonprofit work is highly people-oriented, in that we’re trying to transform system structures and a lot of things. 

Um, and leadership is a team sport. And so I really get joy out of serving people, seeing their passions ignited, seeing their passions activated and seeing the impact and outcomes that happen when teams are motivated in working together to do, to do those things. Um, I’ve got a longstanding statement about work to say, I always seek to love the things I do, but my ultimate satisfaction is in really loving in that godly agape way, the people with whom I work.

Todd Ream: You mentioned humility earlier as an organizational value of the Murdock Trust, but what virtues animate your approach then to philanthropy?

Romanita Hairston: Yeah, it’s a really good question. You know, I’d say, and I don’t know if you mean classical virtues there, like temperance, wisdom, and justice, but as a person of faith, I’m animated or motivated by the virtues displayed in the fruit of the Spirit, right? Forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, love, joy, peace, those things, which get me even now very animated. 

Um, and I think relate back to my own personal mission of knowing the Lord and making the Lord known. And I think that that happens when we live in great integrity to our faith. I’d say for the Trust as an organization, you know, we are a faith-inspired and a faith-friendly institution. And so certainly Judeo-Christians- our Judeo-Christian values are a part of the core of what shaped the organization. Um, and the values through which we live, um, out our work and show up each day and certainly humility is a central one of those. 

But I also like to say, you know, I would hope the organization, the values that are animating every organization are the values we teach our kids on the playground, right? Be kind to others, be respectful, um, listen well, play nicely, share your resources, have fun. You know, all of those kinds of things. Um, I think one of the things that I think is uniquely Murdock-ish is, you know, our real commitment to human flourishing and to seeing people thrive. And that is virtuous work in and of itself.

Um, and therefore, the values that animate the Trust are as broad as the people who are a part of the organization and the things that matter to them, um, which center around these notions of humility, service to the common good, um, a collective belief in human dignity and one another, and a myriad of other things that I could probably list that I see evidenced in our people and in our work each day.

Todd Ream: In what ways are philanthropic organizations positioned well to cultivate virtues in the organizations they support?

Romanita Hairston: Yeah, the thing that I would say in this regard, you know, I like the word cultivation. I think it might be probably the best word that could be used. You know, I’m gonna start maybe by talking about what I think philanthropic organizations, you know, our best position to do. We have a saying that, you know, we have no natural predators in the foundation world, and I’d say we have- which means we don’t necessarily have a stick, right? Um, and that can either seem like a really good thing or a bad thing. 

But you know, we’re not in a market where we’re generally competing with other foundations, right? Um, we’re a foundation because we have been funded and capitalized to do our work. But what we do have is an intrinsic natural motivator. Our, um, carrot. Um, if you were to take the carrot and stick analogy, the stick being kind of this predator of competition that drives business generally, um, as most people would think about it. Or this carrot of this great future in front of us, we have a beautiful intrinsic natural motivation related to our mission and the people we serve.

And what you find in the philanthropic and nonprofit sector are people who get up each day thinking about how to make other people’s lives better, who are generally motivated by service, who typically don’t tend to be people who have this natural orientation towards kind of their own incentive and, um, the highest and best for me, but they’re really thinking about the common good, the highest and best for us.

What does it mean for us all to flourish? And so with that as a backdrop, uh, to your question of what are philanthropic organizations best positioned to do? Um, and how can, what can they cultivate as virtues in other organizations? It’s to steward that unique gift well. Um, it is actually to demonstrate the virtues that we want to see in other organizations.

Um, there is a lot that we do by not misusing the power that comes with being a funder, meaning our biggest vice could be to overestimate or inappropriately use our influence and power in ways that subvert organizational leaders or community voice. When we show up as a partner working in humility, listening carefully to the organizations, the leaders in the communities that we serve, we demonstrate something that I think is powerful and needed, and we open the door for greater, greater impact.

And so I think that those are the ways that we help to cultivate or use whatever influence we have to seek organizational change around us, by aspiring to the best of what we hope to see in other orgs. And then the last thing I would say on this particular point is we have to hold ourselves to the same standards we hold those we grant to and have as stellar operations and impact as we seek in those that we fund.

Todd Ream: Yeah, thank you. You mentioned, say, the improper exercise of power, uh, in relation to the organizations you fund. Can you say a little bit more about what license do you believe philanthropic organizations need to avoid embodying and or then perhaps cultivating within the organizations they support?

Romanita Hairston: Yeah, I would probably sort of stick with kind of a little bit of a reiteration and maybe further exposition on the comment that I made around, um, how we show up as a partner in humility. I think when you are a funder, you know, I, there’s a, um, term called courtesy bias and, um, I call it something that’s probably a little bit different than that, but courtesy bias sort of suggests when someone defers to you, right? Out of courtesy, appreciation, gratitude, and courtesy is a genuine desire to be encouraging, to be promoting, um, to be affirming.

Foundations probably of all institutions see the great benefit of courtesy bias, meaning when we talk to organizations and we listen and we engage because we are a funder and that has an inherent power of deciding, we can sort of get back a lot of really positive feedback. Oh, your processes work. You’re doing these things really well. 

And you can imagine all the points of feedback we might get. It could be really difficult for the organizations we support to give us negative feedback. That is a courtesy bias. It doesn’t mean that organizations are trying to tell us something that’s not true. It means people are more inclined to tell you the positive than they are the negative. 

That’s a general human disposition anyway, because most people don’t like to give hard news or conflict. It is additive when you add the power dynamic of funding. And so we have to be self-humbling, um, creating more opportunities to listen. 

And so the sort of opposite of what I think is the altruistic approach, the vices are to not listen, right? To over assume our own goodness, um, to over control because we’re funding, um, and again, to be subverting organizational leaders and community voices that need to shape the way organizations develop. I think we have to have the right amount of humility and self-awareness about who we are and our role in the ecosystem of impact.

Todd Ream: Thank you. In the near future then, what would you identify as growth areas in terms of how philanthropic organizations understand themselves?

Romanita Hairston: Thinking about the best way to frame this. So I’d like to expand the answer here maybe to the nonprofit sector as a whole. So people talk about the sector, you know, relative to other sectors, right? In business tech or otherwise, um, the philanthropic sector can be seen as a small sector. And oftentimes there’s a lot of what I call assumptions that come with that around the effectiveness of the sector as a whole.

And one of the things that I like to say, knowing, let me put a lot of caveats and framing and scaffolding around this comment, nonprofits deliver great impact every single day, and there are innovative nonprofits who are doing tremendous work. And I like to say the life of a nonprofit is innovation because nonprofit leaders are often working with the least amount of resource to innovate and grow programming in a highly human landscape of change and transformation. 

So- and philanthropy is a small sector of giving overall, right? With individual giving being the largest amount. So even institutional funders like the Trust are a much smaller portion of what overall giving is in the broader landscape.

But one of the ways I like to describe what I would call a bit of the hidden nature of what nonprofits and philanthropic organizations, like the Trust do, is we are a finger in the dike of the social challenges we face in our society. And we are stop gapping significant points of fracture in the social structure, right? Serving as more than a safety net, right? We are like the shield wall, um, for a lot of things that are happening in our overall society that affect, um, the general development and flourishing of our communities, of our regions, of our country. 

And so when I think about that and think about the future, I would go, my general sense is that, that is this sort of unseen impact of the sector, um, and something that I think about in our role and position, we need to pay a bit more attention to. It’s not just what we’re trying to drive forward. If you were to think about our humanitarian efforts as a social mission, nonprofits are not just trying to drive forward change. They are a stabilizing force. And I think philanthropic organizations are that as well. 

And so now to get to your specific question with that foundation having been laid, when I think about philanthropy’s unique role, I certainly believe there is a place for individuals, family foundations, institutional giving that’s centered around theories of change, meaning the funder has a theory of change that they’re trying to drive and they’re really funding that theory of change.

And we see a lot of that. The sector has moved in that direction in some significant ways. And I think there’s a lot of goodness that comes out of that. Another area, though, where I think philanthropy has a unique opportunity is because of that comment I made earlier about no natural predators, but this intrinsic motivation for good, we’re also free to think about solutions to the most intractable challenges. We have the ability to convene because we’re funders. Some of the brightest minds, people who think very differently about things because funders typically have access to folks who think very differently about some of these solutions that if they were simple, we probably would have solved them. 

And so I think the thing that I would hope in the future of philanthropy is that we would look back on a 10-year arc, and this is probably where I there is some vision in my own mind to a question you asked me earlier about what I hope would be a great contribution. And we would say over a 10-year arc, in a time where the country was at its most polarized, where there were so many issues that were driving sort of deep contention in community, the nonprofit sector, and particularly philanthropy, stepped up to create these places that were really islands of sanctity for people who thought very differently about challenging ideas to find some of the best solutions to those things. And we were able to move forward in some areas that have been pretty challenging for us. And that philanthropy served a right and appropriate role in helping to do that. That we weren’t drivers of division, but that we were actually drivers of clarity, drivers of solutions, um, drivers of impact.

Todd Ream: That’s wonderful. Thank you. You mentioned earlier the uh, geographic focus of the Murdock Trust. And that geographic focus in particular is the Pacific Northwest, states of Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and I’m proud to say Montana too. 

While some of those states have the lowest church attendance in the country, some of the most deliberate efforts at discipleship are also found in that region of the country. What discipleship efforts in the Pacific Northwest would you recommend to individuals living in other parts of the country that we may not be familiar with but are making a real impact? 

Romanita Hairston: I’d say, I don’t know that I’m the expert on discipleship efforts. So I wanted, sort of like the Surgeon General’s warning for lack of a better thing to say, I don’t know that I’m the person who’s the student of all the discipleship methods. And so this is very much a personal answer to the question. And I would say something that as I engage my own self in, you know, how I, um, disciple, engage as a person who is a public theologian, but also, um, a member of the preaching team at my church and as I connect with global leaders and have been a part of global organizations that do this work, and there are a couple of things that do stand out to me. 

You know, the first, um, is really a basic principle. I think those organizations where we see thriving and growth, um, are the ones who really pay attention to the Scripture that says they will know us by our love. And methodology aside, I think there is something to an integrity in what is being taught. The actual example of that in the leaders in the ministry that is delivering that discipleship and then a way for the individuals who are connected to see the way that that is playing out at a communal level, whether that is in the context of the congregation or the broader community. You know, the uniquenesses of houses of worship or, um, a parachurch ministries is they provide means, method, and motivation, right? To do good. 

Um, and I think that a distinctive of discipleship is not just what it happens in the life of the person being discipled, but the impact of what is happening through the discipler. And I think that is more than just the individual. It is also the institution. 

Outside of a number of what I would call tactical strategies and ways that people are going about the work, I think when people of peace find other people of peace, share the message of the Gospel, live that out in a way that is demonstrable, and then do that in the context of a community, it is attractive, um, to anyone who partakes of it and experience it. It is the beauty, right? That can save the world. 

Love is beautiful and love and action is irresistible. And I think Scripture continually reminds us they will know that we are Christian by our love. Um, and discipleship, I think, flows out of that unique sense of call to something that you wanna see replicated, right? Um, and I think the great falling away that we see often when you talk to those individuals about why they’re leaving the Church, it’s because they don’t see that love in action, rIght?

Todd Ream: Yeah. No, that’s wonderful. You mentioned the Church and parachurch organizations, then, what is your assessment of the relationship that they share to one another as they operate, say, in the Pacific Northwest?

Romanita Hairston: So this is another one where I would say my assessment would be really, really high level. But what I would say, I think the Church and parachurch share, um, particularly, um, in the Christian faith in particular, is this commitment, right? To the call of Christ and to see that displayed, whether that is generally in the Body through the working out of the five-fold ministry or through the specific focus of mission, um, through a parachurch organization that is focused on a unique call to service, a unique demographic to serve or a unique methodology for that service that can or cannot sit within the context of the five-fold ministry

You know, Scripture talks about all gifts have been given ultimately for the perfecting of the Body in the unity of the Church. And so I think all parachurch ministry and church ministry ultimately exists to serve those things, right? To see us all come into the fullness of the knowledge of God, um, with the ability to be able to then in maturity, right? Live that out. And to do that in a way that is unified, that truly reflects God’s hands, feet, um, and heart, actively moving in service to a broken and hurting world.

Todd Ream: If we add to that group of parachurch organizations then, church-related colleges and universities. What’s your observation of the relationship they share with the Church? There’s incredible diversity of institutions in the Pacific Northwest. Uh, and, you know, a lot of resources there. But what is their relationship and the way they partner together, uh, in your assessment?

Romanita Hairston: You know, so one of the underlying natures of what happens, right? In the life of, in the life of discipleship, in the life of faith, and in the journey of faith is formation, right? And our academic institutions, colleges, universities, um, are all in the process of educating, right? Informing students. And today, that is the next generation of students, but that’s the current generation of workers with so much of education now being lifelong learning. 

And so there is a deep relationship, right? Between those who are formed and then how they come to serve, whether that’s in parachurch or church ministries. And so there’s a deep connectivity, right? Um, between the worker and the work, right? Between those who are called to serve and the service that they provide. And so there’s a deep sense and need for connectivity, right? Around mission and shared purpose, right? In this maturing and perfecting of the saints, as Scripture says, and in bringing unity to the Body. 

Um, you know, one of my reflections would be from not an academic or scientific point of view, but probably more from an observed sort of sense is, on the perfecting, right? The building of competence, the development of character, you know, all of these things that not only disciple, but make great disciplers. I think there’s a great sense of connectivity and focus in that, particularly when you start to get to, um, ecumenically aligned church-related colleges and their founding institutions.

I think on this question of unity of the Body, um, there’s some work to do, right? Because that is the other mission, right? So that the, you know, um, fingers not poking the eye and one foot’s not stepping on the other. And I think that that kind of alignment between church-related colleges and universities and parachurch and church organizations is extremely important, um, to see happen, in terms of how do we all work towards the unity of the Body and, um, recognize our distributed unique gifts and our distributed and unique callings in that regard.

Todd Ream: Church-related colleges and universities are obviously a sector of the institutions that come to and approach the Trust for support for various initiatives. But what if anything do you think those institutions, church-related colleges and universities, fail to appreciate about the kinds of partnerships philanthropic organizations, such as the Trust, can offer?

Romanita Hairston: I don’t know that there’s something that I would say church-related colleges and institutions fail to recognize about what we can offer. What I would say is, I think, something that is, um, particularly consistent across all types of organizations, is the opportunity for philanthropy to be a partner, not just in the times when things are going well, but also in the times where there’s struggles and challenges and I would say the ability to enhance our mission through the learning that those institutions are undertaking.

Um, so I’d say, you know, there’s, a number of places where I see church-related colleges and universities or just academic institutions in general and philanthropy partnering on specific things. One of the things that I think is the beauty of academic institutions is there’s so much learning going on all the time that is so relevant to philanthropy’s mission and causes. And I don’t know if we have mutually fully activated all of what we could do to be supported by, influenced by, and engaged and connected with all institutions of learning for the areas that are relevant to our mission, right? 

But I would say in general, I think in philanthropy, there is so much to learn from what does not work. But I would say overall, in the culture of philanthropy, we talk a lot about what is working and what is going well. And I think to be learned- true learning organizations and partners together, we need new language and ways to talk about how we learn from the things that, you know, fundamentally failed and we’ve and that’s an aperture we have to open together.

I think institutions of learning sit in a great place to help shape how that happens and to be thought leaders on how that can happen so that we can really fail forward, as they say.

Todd Ream: Yeah, fail forward. Yeah, it’s a great phrase and perhaps a great way for us to end our time in our conversation today. 

Our guest has been Romanita Hairston, the Chief Executive Officer of the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and your wisdom with us.

Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven. 

Todd C. Ream

Indiana Wesleyan University
Todd C. Ream is Honors Professor of Humanities and Executive Director of Faculty Research and Scholarship at Indiana Wesleyan University, Senior Fellow for Public Engagement for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Senior Fellow for Programming for the Lumen Research Institute, and Publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.  He is the author and editor of numerous books including (with Jerry Pattengale) The Anxious Middle: Planning for the Future of the Christian College (Baylor University Press, September 15, 2023).