A Conversation with Flozell Daniels Jr., CEO of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation

Flozell Daniels, Jr.

A native of New Orleans, Flozell Daniels Jr.’s first exposure to grantmaking was while serving as a public policy specialist for then-Mayor Marc Morial. After a stint as assistant vice president and executive director of state and local affairs for Tulane University, Daniels landed his first job in philanthropy at the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, which was launched in 2005 to support communities after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

In 2012, the foundation was renamed the Foundation for Louisiana (FFL), and Daniels was appointed president and CEO. During his 14-year tenure, he oversaw the expansion of FFL’s portfolio to include grantmaking, leadership development programs and advocacy on issues like climate justice, economic justice and criminal justice reform.

Daniels became the CEO of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in 2021. Based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the funder is committed to helping people across the South move out of poverty and achieve greater social and economic justice through its three “pathways of change” — democracy and civic engagement, supportive policies and institutions, and economic opportunity. The foundation disbursed $22 million in grants and had $177 million in net assets in 2022, according to tax filings.

I recently caught up with Daniels from his home in New Orleans to discuss the best piece of advice he ever received, issues that could benefit from more philanthropic support, and the many advantages of living in the Big Easy. Here are some excerpts from that discussion, which have been edited for clarity.

Can you think about a time when things didn’t work out as planned, but looking back, it turned out to be a blessing?

There was a moment after we founded FFL where I was deep in the practice of building out a donor base, and Mike, I failed miserably. It was a very challenging time for the foundation. I eventually spoke with a friend who was a fundraising professional, and she provided a different perspective. She said we had to provide things that were aligned between what community needed and what philanthropy was looking to fund, and we’d have to have some discipline around it. I have an MBA, but I don’t talk in those terms, so it was something of a revelation. What I was doing before didn't work out, but once we made that pivot, things took off. 

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?

When I became a CEO of the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, I was advised to talk to a few of the elders in the field. One of the people I spoke with was Dr. Emmett Carson, who was head of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation at the time.

I was talking about the challenges I was having from a leadership perspective. I said, “How in the world do you make decisions at this massive foundation with all of the varied interests pulling at you?” And he said to never forget to check in with no less than three people external to your organization who are willing to tell you the truth. It’s advice that I’ve used 1,000 times — I’m not exaggerating — and it has made the difference between making OK decisions and transformational decisions. 

What types of individuals do you typically reach out to?

It’s folks inside and outside of philanthropy. They’re deeply justice centered, deeply equity centered, and are doing the kind of leadership work that speaks to my values and that of the foundation. I consider them the “customer” — people who tell us if we’re doing a good job based on what they’re seeing by way of impacting community. The folks who are in philanthropy can speak plainly to me because they don’t have an institutional relationship with us. I think everyone should have some version of this.

What was it about your role as president and CEO of FFL that prepared you for your current position?

I learned that there is a patience in management. As a CEO, I’ve found that people often want me to move quickly and be decisive, and I am wired for that. But that is frequently how bad decisions are made, and I learned that at FFL in more ways than I could tell you. And so there was a patience in the work that is part and parcel of what I’m bringing to Babcock.

There is tension there. We’re social justice philanthropists with deep commitments to racial equity and supporting groups that are building power to answer one of the most dangerous moments in American history. We owe them a sense of urgency. But there is also something to be said about being patient and being consistent.

Funding leaders could name a dozen issues that aren’t getting enough attention from the field. What would be a few of those issues for you and why?

Only a few? [Laughs.] Well, we have some deep commitments to support organizations that are building power, which means having an analysis about power — how do you wield that power and how do you build more of it toward the goal of measurable racial equity? That shows up in different ways in different states that we fund in.

I don’t think philanthropy has an analysis about power-building to make the work more effective. Even internally, we have gone back and forth about what do we mean by power. Just last week, I was meeting with a group of peers and almost no one was contemplating the question, and these are some of the largest funders in the country. 

The second thing that is consistently important for me as a Southern funder is thinking about building wealth, particularly in Black and brown communities. The data has shown that wealth in the Black community has grown, but the disparities have also grown. It is very difficult to consider anything else beyond folks having enough income to take care of themselves in real time and protect themselves sustainably. 

My third issue is democracy work. We at Babcock are committed to protecting democracy, the right to vote, and these areas are under attack from the most powerful and wealthy interests in the world, and frequently, that work is funded by other foundations. We don’t talk about the fact that our peers — technically, at least according to the IRS code — are funding work against the things that we support every day. We have competing interests, and there’s something to be said about that.

What’s the one book you’d encourage our readers to check out?

As a team, some of us have read “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America,” by Nancy MacLean, although it’s not my official answer. The one that I’ve been suggesting to folks because of our commitment to racial equity is “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” by Heather McGee. She tells readers that we’ve been tricked. We’ve been told it’s “us versus them,” when in fact, it’s all of us in this together, and she provides some ways that we can come together to solve it.

You’re from New Orleans. There’s no shortage of incredible things about the city, but is there anything specific you want to mention?

I think about the South as the most high-potential opportunity for America, and New Orleans is a poster child for that. The city was built on a swamp, but folks saw the possibilities. They saw the natural assets like the Mississippi and the bountiful harvest of the Gulf Coast. It’s still a city of opportunity, even with its challenges around race and class. It’s one of the most vibrant and diverse places in the world by so many different measures — the people, the culture, the food, and not just the opportunity to have a good time, but the opportunity to raise a family and be well educated.

Any parting thoughts?

The foundation will be observing 71 years of work this year and we want folks to know that we are amping up our efforts to be a partner. We want to leverage our expertise and resources with others who have Southern intentions, and there are many good reasons to do so, particularly with regard to racial equity outcomes. We’re looking for folks who want to make investments in Southern people in a way that can be copied and expanded across the country.