Eight Questions for Jacob Fraire, President of ECMC Foundation

Jacob Fraire. Photo Credit: Gina Ciaccio Photography.

In February 2023, ECMC Foundation, a national funder focused on improving equity in postsecondary education, welcomed Jacob Fraire as its new president. Fraire succeeds retiring head of ECMC Foundation Peter Taylor.

Fraire grew up in El Paso, Texas, and is the son of migrant workers. He received a bachelor’s from St. Edward’s University and a master of public affairs from the University of Texas at Austin. Before ECMC Foundation, Fraire served as the director of policy and strategy for the University of Texas at El Paso’s Diana Natalicio Institute for Hispanic Student Success. Fraire has also served as president and CEO of the Texas Association of Community Colleges and as vice president of philanthropy for Trellis Company.

IP recently spoke with Fraire about his interests, upbringing, education and career. Here are some excerpts from the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

My absolute favorite pastime is to walk with my wife, Virginia. We try to walk every day unless we're on opposite coasts of the country. It’s super-quality time. That's what I do for fun. I know it's not very adventurous but we love it!

What are you watching, listening to, or reading right now that you’re enjoying?

I read science fiction stuff because it really does take me away from the fray. I read so many research papers and they're all fun because I am a total data geek.

I'm a big fan of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Little known fact: (“Star Trek” creator) Gene Roddenberry is from El Paso, Texas, where I’m from. He was a great dreamer who was really able to see the world in a different way, where everybody gets along — and not just the human species, but across all the universe. But most of the other time, I’m putting my passion and energy toward work.

What parts of your history would you say are really important to who you are today?

I am one of 10 children of Mexican American immigrants. Mom and dad brought most of us across the Mexican-U.S. border when I was five years old. I was the last of the 10 children born in Ciudad Juárez.

The experience on which I draw every day is my experience as a migrant farmworker. I spent the better part of my childhood going through the migrant camp migration throughout California coming from El Paso. Every April, we would pack our bags into two or three vehicles and caravan with stops in Fresno, Sacramento, Bakersfield and Stockton, following the migration. We did that for about nine years. The experience moving from campground to campground grounded who I am in terms of understanding abject poverty. 

You go from one school to the other, and moving through your educational journey is tough enough, but then to see it through the lens of your parents who are literally moving for work — that grounded my thinking as a young person trying to figure out what life meant to me. It really meant to me early on that I needed to find something that allowed me to serve others who find themselves in the space where abject poverty was the only thing in their time horizon, absent education.

What was your own journey to college and higher education experience like?

This is where faith and luck come together sometimes. In 1983, when I was 18 years old, there were only two universities in the country that had a program specifically designed for children of migrant farmworkers: Oregon State University and St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas. I was summoned to my high school cafeteria to meet with a college guidance counselor who was visiting from St. Edward's University. I just happened to be one of the lucky five people that went to the cafeteria that day and heard this counselor tell us about these amazing stories about a university in Austin I'd never heard of. Three or four months later, I got accepted.

The week after I started college in Austin, I got the notice from what was then the Immigration Naturalization Service saying it was my time to come back and be sworn in as a U.S. citizen. So I started college, then flew back to El Paso and got sworn in as a citizen, and then went back to college. I felt on top of the world as the first one to leave the family to go off to college. I was excited by the dream of being able to escape abject poverty as a newly sworn-in, newly minted U.S. citizen. That all felt great.

You’ve been on the job for three months, now. What have you learned about the ECMC Foundation thus far?

What I’ve learned in the last 90 days is where we have opportunities to truly serve the mission of the organization — to be a national organization with national impact. If you think of the scale in which we have audaciously given ourselves as a foundation, our scale is every state in the union plus the territories of the United States. What I've learned so far is that we have absolutely the right people on the bus to do that, but now we need to build that capacity to serve the country in that way. 

Every state matters and every region of the nation matters, and while I will not say audaciously that we intend to serve all 330 million Americans, we’d like to be able to think that we will be able to serve all corners of this great nation and certainly that we will serve all communities. We will be using data intentionally to make sure that we are always aware of who's lagging in terms of enrollment and outcomes, and where the equity gap exists, and we'll start with that. 

How does ECMC work intentionally with grantees?

We have set aside significant dollars for what we call “strategic responsiveness,” meaning we want the field to tell us what are the needs and biggest pain points that that community is addressing, whether it's the nonprofit sector working adjacent with colleges and universities or whether it's college leaders themselves. Rather than only prescribing specific strategies or initiatives, we also invite letters of interest articulated by the field. We're also one of the few national foundations that still have an open LOI process. We have our own internal metrics of how quickly we have to respond to those requests so that an inquiry from the field about an idea that they have to address a particular need doesn’t sit for weeks on end without a response. 

Another priority of mine is measuring impact, which for us does not mean putting the onus on our grantees, but it means that we double down our own resources and processes to make sure that we're supporting our grantees’ own processes for understanding what’s working or not. We have a measurement learning evaluation strategy that is one part evaluation and one part learning. How do we learn from this subset of grantees and take the knowledge to share with another set of grantees or even non-grantee partners across the country?

What's something that you hope changes in the philanthropy sector?

Imagine if we were to work in concert through philanthropy, where some of us support original research, some of us support nonprofit organizations understanding what is working and how that gets conveyed to policymakers and others who might be advancing policy advocacy organizations. But all of us are working in concert, because that ecosystem in totality is what's going to have to be addressed in order for it to be the right policies. I used to argue to my colleagues that policy that happens in a vacuum without institutional practice is bad policy. Conversely, policy implementation could also be poorly done if we don't have any implementation strategies to boot. I'm hopeful that in philanthropy, we can all learn together, but how do you make those bridges connect? Let's go together and make sure that space works together for our students, because they're all our students.

Some people hear “strategic philanthropy” and think “donor-centric.” What does strategic philanthropy mean to you?

Strategic giving is not about prescribing from the funder to the nonprofit; it's about philanthropy being mindful of how one investment and its learning connects to another investment. For example, this year we announced a grant to the University of Southern California (USC). Dr. Shaun Harper at USC is launching on our behalf a project called Takeoff, supporting 12 colleges to stand up their respective efforts for men of color. What I mean by strategic grantmaking is not that we're going to prescribe to Dr. Harper what the strategies and interventions are. It’s about how those 12 connecting points connect in their ecosystems. What are the intersections? How do those states align in terms of their policies and leaders? I want to make sure we are cognizant of the interconnectivity to see how we can be two or three moves ahead. Even as this work just launched, how can I already be thinking about what we do with this in 2027 and who it would benefit? That's what I mean by being strategic and mindful.

Michelle Dominguez (they/them/elle) is a Queer and Trans Los Angeles native born to Colombian immigrants. After a decade-long career in higher education student affairs, they switched to the nonprofit and philanthropy sector in 2021. What brings Michelle joy? Quality time with loved ones, mindfulness, and Disney magic.