Meet McKnight’s New President
Tonya Allen is a veteran foundation leader from Detroit. Photo by Shawn Lee

Meet McKnight’s New President

Tonya Allen says she's looking to get into some "good trouble" in her new foundation role.
Tonya Allen is a veteran foundation leader from Detroit. Photo by Shawn Lee

Tonya Allen becomes the fifth president of the McKnight Foundation on March 1. With more than $100 million in annual grantmaking, the foundation plays a catalytic role for Minnesota’s nonprofits, particularly those working in McKnight’s regional focus areas in the arts, Midwest climate change and energy, and its broadly defined area of “vibrant and equitable communities.” Allen previously was president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation in Detroit. In a recent interview, she discussed how she’ll approach her McKnight leadership position.

What did you do to learn about Minnesota to help you decide this could be a place for you to work and call home? I looked at big statistics for the state. I was curious about average income, average educational attainment, what the employment rates were, what the quality of life looked like, how the state thought about taxation—all of those things were important to me. I wanted to see whether this is a place that was progressive enough to tackle the challenges that McKnight has identified in its mission. That was the first body of work I looked at.

Second, I looked at the demographics of the state and how they were changing. I looked at the economy, and I looked at the leaders who were in place. I wanted to know: What kind of leadership is there? Are they bridge builders or do they put up walls? I was so pleased to find that there were so many bridge builders in place and people who were really open to solving problems and working to show up authentically.

[Finally, I looked at] the robustness of the philanthropic sector and the corporate sector. What kinds of things were they interested in? How did they partner? What were their ambitions for the community? I was also looking for people who were interested in getting into good trouble, because that’s the kind I want to get into.

Minnesota and Michigan both have “red” and “blue” regions, and they have sharp divides between their urban and rural populations. How do you bring the state of Minnesota together? That’s not just a great question for me, it’s a great question for our country—that we figure out how to stop being polarized and find ways to find common ground and unite. I’ve had great opportunities to work on really tough issues with colleagues from various sectors and to work across political lines.

I work with a very important principle. It’s really how I believe cross-collaboration, cross-cultural, cross-political work gets done, and I call it the 70/20/10 principle. On any topic you’re working on, for the most part, people can agree on 70 percent. If you’re passionate about climate or if you’re passionate about racial equity or whatever the issue is, you can usually agree on a large number of items.

The challenge is that there are some things that you definitely never will agree on. That’s the 10 percent. Then there’s a gray area where there’s another 20 percent where you might be able to negotiate. My goal is always to move us from the 70 to the 90 percent range and never stop at the 10 percent. We have to set goals and aspirations and culture that allow us to listen to each other, not come [to the discussion] with predisposed expectations and biases about what’s driving people’s values and their work. If there are people who want to do good and create change, we can find a way together, if we listen and work collaboratively. That’s my approach.

So you don’t need to wrestle someone to the ground over the 10 percent. Right. The point is, let’s do what we can together on the things we agree on. And then once we get that success under our belt, that gives us possibilities; it gives us muscle memory that will allow us to try to do some things that are even harder than what we’ve done before. That’s the spirit that I’ll bring: How do we build the capacity of our state to tackle tough problems?

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What is your goal for your relationship with the corporate sector here? When I talk about the corporate sector, I’m not talking about their charitable giving but about their responsibility as corporate citizens. That’s the place where I think business and the nonprofit sector come together, around the sweet spot of impact. Business is interested in high-quality places to live and work. To do that we need business leaders to embrace good climate solutions and racially equitable practices, both as individuals and for their institutions. Change comes from institutional practices and individual behaviors and also from corporate practices. Then we need them to contribute societally, and I know that’s the ethos of corporations in the Twin Cities.

How do you see the connections among McKnight’s separate program areas? I want to make sure that we have coherence across our programs, that they reinforce and impact each other. How do we ensure that all of these great assets, all of these great ideas, all these great investments really go full throttle? We are a place-based foundation fundamentally, and that means no matter where we work, we really believe that we have to listen to people: that we have to prioritize their voices, that we have to make long-term commitments with them and forge deep relationships and partnerships, that we have to do this work together and trust the people on the ground.

Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media, and philanthropic sectors.

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