Remarks and Reflections of David Farren at the Arts Club of Chicago

Remarks delivered by retiring Executive Director David Farren on December 6, 2023 at a reception honoring his 11 years of service to the Foundation.

I’m honored for all of you to be here to mark my retirement. It’s really a celebration of what we’ve done together—which is a lot across about 300 grantees! We’ve always believed that fostering connectivity among our grantees is as important as your individual relationships with the foundation.   

Thanks for coming and to those who provided the stunning visuals about your organizations that bring to life the work of the foundation. 

The word that comes to mind is gratitude. 

It’s serendipitous that I could come to lead a foundation with a footprint in the two different regions where I’ve spent most of my life: Chicago and the Lowcountry of South Carolina. And the three mission areas line up with my passions: conservation, arts, and collections. I have to say it’s been a dream job for an environmental lawyer with an anthropology degree who likes to paint and who has three daughters in the arts. 

These are less common areas for a foundation, even though they are at the core of what sustains and defines us as humans.  I don’t need to tell this group these are need-to-have, not just nice-to-have, areas to nurture and support. 

The mission areas tie closely to other important issues of the day like social justice, public health, and free expression. I am grateful to the Donnelley family and the rest of the board to be able to evolve our work to help tackle issues like systemic racism and climate change. 

I knew a fair amount about conservation from my 20 years at an environmental advocacy organization—funded in part by the foundation for work in South Carolina. 

I have to say, I’m so inspired by the work of our arts and collections grantees, learning about your passions and challenges. Your determination as we made emergency grants during Covid was a watershed moment in our trust-based philanthropy aspirations. 

I have only one regret—that I could not finesse my travel schedule, so I’d be able to spend the summer here in Chicago and then be in our Charleston office for the winter.   

At this moment in our history, I’d like to share a bit about the trajectory of the foundation over the last 11 yrs.  

First, I want to give a shout-out to my predecessor Judith Stockdale, who stewarded the foundation as its first full-time executive director. My goal has been to build on the strong platform she created.  

During my time we’ve awarded over $75 million in many hundreds of grants. Just as important, we offer back-office technical assistance, informal counsel, sponsor convenings, and provide advocacy support. While we are not the biggest funder, we instead aspire to be a steady partner. 

One of my goals has been to find ways to leverage our resources. We’ve done this through partnerships with other foundations, drawing on and pointing our grantees to public resources, supporting policy advocacy, and in one case, even litigation. We always have an eye on the underlying conditions in which our grantees operate, seeking to help address systemic issues. 

Ultimately, it’s not about the dollars, it’s about being values driven and being inspired by all that you do. That’s the magic of having a place-based focus—really knowing the communities and the people leads to better grantmaking, and genuine partnership. 

I want to give credit to an outstanding staff team who come out of our mission areas, who understand what it’s like to be on the NGO side of the grantmaking table. I also want to credit our board members—currently six family and eight non-family—with deep connections in our two regions. 

We’ve been around since 1952—we’re not going anywhere! The foundation will continue into the future under new leadership—which will be announced very shortly. [Arnold Randall was announced as the next executive director on December 7—Ed.] 

A big thank you to all of you, our board and staff, and especially our board chair Laura Donnelley who has so thoughtfully anchored us in our values, and been a huge support to me, over many years. 

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