SVCF is reviving an occasional series in which we present Q&A-style profiles of some of our staff members. In this edition, we feature Avo Makdessian, vice president of Community Partnerships and Learning.
How long have you been at SVCF? What led you to this work?
I’ve been at SVCF for just over seven years. I started my career in local government and political campaigns which led me to focus on community development work and public policy. What led me to SVCF was an opportunity to lead a new department called the Center for Early Learning, which more recently evolved into our Early Childhood Development strategic initiative. At the time, the community foundation wanted to put a stake in the ground to support our youngest residents. I thought it was a great opportunity to start a new department and realize the impact our community foundation could have on the lives of children and families. And, it personally aligned with my belief that the best investment we can make is during the first five years of life. That investment, or disinvestment, can last a lifetime. I was blessed with an all-star team and we realized some remarkable outcomes for kids, including influencing the 2018 California governor’s race to focus and deliver on children’s issues and launching The Big Lift – a collective impact initiative led by SVCF, the County of San Mateo and the San Mateo County Office of Education that has improved the reading proficiency of thousands of local students.
With the implementation of the new strategic plan in 2020, how has your role evolved?
Over the past couple of years and with the completion of the strategic plan, I moved into a much broader role supporting our community-focused work. I’m proud to say that I’m heading a new department called Community Partnerships and Learning, again with an outstanding set of teammates. Our department is charged with three main objectives: First is connecting community needs and solutions to investment opportunities for our donors.
Next is leading collective impact initiatives that are focused on a broad range of issues. For example, we’re leading the implementation of two multi-partner, multi-sector and multi-year partnerships right now: The California Black Freedom Fund (CBFF) and Equity Forward. The CBFF is focused on building a Black power infrastructure in California so that Black communities have more voice, agency and power of self-determination to thrive in this state. Equity Forward is much more local, focused on closing the racial economic divide in Silicon Valley.
Last, but not least, is a new and exciting area of work for our foundation: evaluation and learning. Our role is understanding how our community work and our grants are having impact, measuring that impact, and iterating on our programs if they are not having impact. We have never had a research agenda as a foundation, so part of the department’s role is creating that new research agenda. What do we want to learn about our community? What challenges do we need to uncover? And how do we translate that to action in the form of grants, advocacy, or convening stakeholders to drive a solution?
What excites you most about SVCF’s new direction?
Three things come to mind: One is the opportunity to meet this unprecedented moment in our history. There are major issues that we’re all dealing with, from achieving racial justice to preparing our communities for the next disaster. These aren’t surface issues that can be addressed with a single grant or in a single year — these are deep issues that require persistence, boldness and acting with urgency, and I think our new direction has primed us to be responsive and meet the need of the moment.
Number two is our ability to be focused yet nimble and responsive to changing community needs. Our community expects us to be responsive, not rigid. That sentiment is captured in our strategic plan and was on full display when we had to jump into action to respond to the COVID pandemic last year. I’ve never experienced a more difficult year in my career. At the same time, it was also the proudest year of my career.
Third is the intentionality about cross-collaboration between departments and individuals that we may not work with every day. We’re becoming a much more dynamic organization, where it’s less about what department you work in and more about what project you’re working on and what collective goal we have. Organizing around projects and outcomes is a really engaging way to do the best work for the community.
What are your hopes for the future of Silicon Valley?
I hope that it becomes a region that is equitable for everyone who lives here, and that every resident can enjoy everything that this region has to offer.
What do you most like to do outside of work?
I have two kids, a five-year-old and a three-year-old, so spending time with them is always at the top of the list. And whatever they tell me to do is what I want to do.
What charities or causes do you support and why?
I donate to my Armenian church often, mostly to keep our cultural heritage alive. Our church is not just a religious center in our family, but also a cultural center for local Armenians, both in language and cultural practice. We are also ardent supporters of local museums and zoos that offer amazing learning opportunities for our kids and other local families – Happy Hollow and Curi Odyssey are at the top of our support list.
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