A Conversation with Nike Irvin
Currently Vice President of Programs for the California Community Foundation (CCF), Nike Irvin serves on several boards of directors and is a trustee for regional and national organizations. She is a graduate of Yale University and was named one of the “100 Most Inspirational Alumni” by the UCLA Anderson School of Management, where she is an active alumna volunteer. She has received numerous fellowships, including the Henry Crown Fellowship, the Marshall Memorial Fellowship, and the Next Generation Fellowship of the American Assembly.
Many of Nike’s pivotal career choices have been based on the fact that she was born in South Los Angeles. She has consistently felt an obligation and feels fortunate she has a daily opportunity to be supportive of her state, county, city, and community. On April 29, 1992, the night of civil unrest in Los Angeles, Nike was working for Pepsi in New York. It was a heartache to be away from her home during that crisis period. “I knew I’d be home soon.” And she was... before the end of the year.
Why did she come home? She knew there was work to do. “Serving my community is my North Star.” And now she is on this path—her obligatory path of providing opportunities to those who do not have full access to everything our communities provide. Through the California Community Foundation (CCF), Nike leads teams that invest in our local communities. CCF serves as a facilitator for donors. Along with development and donor relations teams, Nike and her program’s staff help donors support a better and more inclusive Southern California. These types of activities provide a sense of daily pleasure, which is good since “working to build capacity for nonprofits in L.A. requires relentless optimism.”
Nike understands that with the privilege of helping come trade-offs. “There is a huge element of responsibility. There never is enough money or enough time. We are making the most of limited resources.” The work requires “us to be smarter, to partner with others, and to maximize our assets.”
And, as Nike says, “donors have become savvier and savvier.” As options for giving continue to expand, especially in the online universe, the role of the facilitator needs to expand also. At CCF, there is an inherent responsibility to know not only the needs of L.A., but also the strategies and partners that can best support these needs, both for now and in the future. In her current role, Nike is responsible for knowing and understanding the best investments for donors: what things work with their vision, what will make them happy, and where their assets can do the most good.
This is why Nike cherishes the importance of human capital—the ability to create and facilitate relationships between those who have the expertise in implementing change and those who have the assets to support it. Like Nike, donors have a vested interest in making Los Angeles better. It is these partnerships that make her work wonderfully rewarding.
The future, according to Nike, requires a bigger tent: more people and differing perspectives need to be involved, leading to an expanding dialogue. This will require “forward thinking, action-oriented work and changing the narrative. We have to move away from lower expectations for communities and punitive interactions.” For example, with the BLOOM Initiative, CCF made a commitment to help African-American young men redirect their lives away from probation and towards high school completion. In place of a dialogue once driven by fear and punishment, there is “ redemption, hope, truth and reconciliation.”
Nike admits that sometimes she worries. However, her worry is never about money. “With good ideas,” she says, “money will come.” Her worry is more frequently focused on bureaucratic relationships that can get in the way of big ideas. With eighty-eight cities and eighty-one school districts in the County of Los Angeles, the independence of each entity can limit progress and present roadblocks. Nike’s question is always, “How do we rethink ourselves?” The most scare resource is time: “the clock is ticking and there is so much work to be done—homelessness, the reform of the incarceration system, high school completion.”
Regardless, her relentless optimism is apparent. Nike considers herself extremely lucky to have been born in South L.A. As the 25th anniversary of the 1992 civil unrest approaches, we in Southern California are happy that Nike is here.