Dear Friend of Victoria Foundation,
On behalf of the board of trustees, I am writing to share the bittersweet news that after 20 years of service to the Newark community leading Victoria Foundation, Irene Cooper-Basch will be retiring at the end of March 2022.
Six months ago, when Irene shared her intention to retire, we were saddened, but not surprised by the thoughtful timing and care in her decision. She leaves behind a powerful legacy, a strong institution, and a compelling new vision for the board, staff, and community to carry forward. Shifting the foundation's direction was achieved in large part to Irene's humble and visionary leadership, her emotional intelligence, and her ability to help trustees stretch and imagine what was possible. We are forever grateful for her service.
During her time as Executive Officer, Irene's efforts have shaped and served the mission of Victoria through authentic relationships with community, nonprofit leaders, staff, and trustees, carrying out more than $200 million in grants to Newark and the environment statewide. The impact of these investments has touched, and in many cases transformed, thousands of lives.
Irene was instrumental in convincing the trustees 10 years ago to move the foundation's headquarters from Glen Ridge to Newark, where 90% of the grantmaking was taking place. She understood that if we ever wanted to be seen as a trustworthy partner, we needed to be an integral part of the Newark community. Her empathetic nature has been especially evident during times of crisis—such as Superstorm Sandy, the Great Recession, and the COVID-19 pandemic—encouraging trustees to approve millions of dollars of 'above and beyond' grants to Newark organizations responding to the immediate needs of Newark children and families. Irene's profound love of Newark was never more evident than when she volunteered to chair the fundraising committee of Newark Celebration 350, raising $3 million to commemorate the city's 350th anniversary with a year full of cultural and historical festivities.
Over the past two decades, Irene's leadership has resulted in many significant shifts at Victoria Foundation. When she joined the foundation, there was one person of color on staff and three on the 15-member board. Today, with her influence and guidance, the majority of staff members are Black and Latinx, and 50% of trustees are people of color. This shift in the foundation's demographics, with the associated and relevant lived experiences around the Victoria table, paved the way for the recent 18-month strategic planning and learning journey that staff and trustees jointly engaged in.
In 2014, Irene completed a Ph.D. at Rutgers University-Newark in Urban Systems. Over a three-year period, while raising two children and working full-time at Victoria, she researched the Victoria archives, conducted dozens of oral histories, analyzed grantmaking trends, and wrote a powerful dissertation on the history of this 98-year-old foundation, with a special focus on the Newark years. Irene facilitated a series of conversations with trustees based on lessons learned from her research, including debate on the fundamental question of impact.
There is a direct connection from those exchanges to a new body of work two years later known as the Thriving Neighborhoods Initiative (TNI), a resident-driven effort to improve outcomes for families in Clinton Hill in the South Ward and Fairmount Heights in the West Ward. While traditional grantmaking continued, the intention with TNI was for local leaders and residents to set priorities and inform funding decisions, addressing quality of life concerns, such as access to nutritious food, public safety, green spaces, and safe and affordable housing.
With early and encouraging results from TNI, Irene was able to persuade trustees at their annual board retreat in March 2019 to take calendar year 2020 for reflection, learning, and strategic planning to dive deeper into the role of structural racism in generational poverty—all while awarding the foundation's current cohort of 112 nonprofit partners 2020 continuation grants without the need for new proposals and site visits.
What evolved into an 18-month learning journey resulted in a powerful new mission for the foundation, one that centers racial justice and community power in Newark:
Victoria Foundation partners with Black and Brown residents and other marginalized communities in Newark and nonprofit organizations to champion bold strategies that strengthen community power, foster economic justice, promote youth self-determination, and respond to pressing needs.
Not only was the institution transformed with a new strategic direction, but the individuals involved also changed, including our leader. In the middle of 2020, Irene began talking to board members about a co-leadership model. She advocated for Craig Drinkard, born and raised in Newark and a stellar colleague for 14 years, to be promoted to Co-Executive Officer. She believed that the traditional model of the single positional leader, especially a White leader of a foundation focused on a Black and Brown community, was wrong, and that the quality of decisions would improve with two strong leaders thinking through issues collectively with staff. And she was right!
I would be remiss if I didn't include something about Irene's connection to and collaboration with sister foundations both within New Jersey and nationally. It shouldn't surprise anyone that after several years of board service on the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, her peers elected her to become chair of that organization for her final two years. In 2019, Irene was asked to participate in the inaugural cohort of Philanthropy Forward, a yearlong fellowship jointly sponsored by the Neighborhood Funders Group and the Aspen Institute. This timely opportunity placed Irene in solidarity with 14 other foundation CEOs from across the country working to disrupt and transform philanthropy by centering racial equity and sharing power.
Victoria Foundation will move forward under the exemplary leadership of Craig Drinkard as Executive Officer and Sharnita Johnson, Vice President of Strategy, Impact, and Communications.
Please join us in wishing Irene the very best after her decades of service, and join us in sharing memories, photos, videos or words of support on this tribute page we are gathering for her send-off.
Frank Alvarez, VF Board President