By Jose Fermoso
No matter where she finds herself, Betsy Campbell always tries to help communities in need.
As a young student at Georgetown in the early 1980s, while others established financial and political careers, she enrolled in the School of Foreign Service after spending a year teaching and traveling in Mexico to get the educational base to pursue her interest in international development work. After a stint at Johns Hopkins for a masters in social change and development, Campbell went to work for Save the Children, where she focused on supporting its small enterprise and microfinance programs in Latin America. The organization’s focus on community-based development, especially women’s roles, provided an opportunity to learn about the intricacies of injustice and poverty. What she learned in her early work and travels set up a life dedicated to connecting vulnerable communities and nonprofits to key sources of funding.
It’s not surprising, then, that after more than 30 years in the business, Campbell finds herself at another organization with a reputation for helping others in need. Beginning last month, Campbell is part of the Hispanics In Philanthropy Board of Directors.
Her path to HIP started with a trip to Cuba organized by HIP’s president, Diana Campoamor. Set up to connect U.S. philanthropy leaders to the island country as it rose from a multi-decade political slumber, the trip engendered understanding of its human rights and public health needs. After meeting with civil society organizations and representatives of U.S. and Cuban governments, Campbell realized it was important to be part of an organization focused on Latino issues at this point in time—especially as the political situation for American Latinos has become more complicated. From that trip on, Campbell decided to become more involved in helping HIP carry out its mission.
In order to provide a better understanding of her history in philanthropy and to learn how she will seek to positively impact our organization, we called Campbell at her office in New York.
(Note: the following conversation has been edited for clarity.)
You’ve been at Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) for nearly ten years now. Can you tell us about your work there?
I’m the VP of programs at RBF where we focus on some of the great challenges of our times, from climate change to the state of our democracy and peace, especially in the wider Middle East. As we seek opportunities to support solutions, we have a broad mandate to address diversity and inclusion in our grant-making. As we move forward, we [want to connect more] with Latin America and Latino communities in the U.S. so their perspectives, ideas, and interests are better supported. We’re funders with a global perspective, meaning we look at solutions to climate change emerging in China, the U.S., and elsewhere; try to advance good governance at the national and global governance levels; and support efforts to transform Middle East conflicts for global peace and security.
How does your current role at RBF connect to poverty prevention, one of the big problems in Latin American communities?
Our focus is on climate change, the functioning of our democracy, and peacebuilding. Innovative solutions and partnerships across civil society and with public and private sectors are essential. But ultimately, if we don’t address the climate crisis, create conditions for enduring peace, or strengthen our democracy, we won’t succeed in addressing poverty. At the RBF we are interested in the larger systems that affect the prospects for all communities to realize their aspirations—and we also know that when large systems are not working in an inclusive manner they will further marginalize already vulnerable communities.
What do you think are the most effective ways to address poverty and how have the programs you fund found solutions?
If there is anything we’ve learned, it’s that those affected need to be involved in the search for solutions. In the early years of my career, I helped improve access to finance for small women-owned businesses in Latin American countries as a way to increase incomes. Later, at the Ford Foundation, I was responsible for microfinancing for rural communities in the U.S., including on the U.S.-Mexico border. We always insisted on involving intended participants in the design of those programs so that they worked for them. Over time I became intrigued by rural community colleges and community foundations serving rural states and regions. Both mobilize human and financial resources and offer a platform for building a vision for shared prosperity and strategies to achieve it. It was amazing to see how both community colleges and community foundations, as they recognized and celebrated the diverse cultures they served, could play a powerful role in building the inclusive dialogues and skills needed to address poverty.
In my latter years at Ford, we supported efforts to help low-income people create, restore, and manage community and financial assets and natural resources. Our support for asset building aimed to secure for low-income communities the independence needed to pursue productive livelihoods, participate in economic and political life, and confront injustice. In our current work at the RBF, support for diverse constituencies to advocate for climate solutions, rule of law, democratic values, and peace is an essential part of many of the RBF program portfolios.
What are some of the recent grants from RBF that are supporting Latino communities?
One recent grant is for GreenLatinos, which is preparing a summit to help environmental justice advocates from Hispanic communities and national environmental organizations get together to collaborate. We also support Futuro Media Group which is the leading investigative journalism organization bringing Latino voices and perspectives to public attention. The Cuban Artists Fund is another. [The latter] supports cultural exchanges with the Cuban arts community. In addition, we have recently provided several grants to expand capacity to meet the increased needs for legal assistance for immigrants threatened with deportation (which is part of a special initiative to support and defend vulnerable communities in the new political environment).
What are the biggest differences between the philanthropic needs of Latin America and the U.S.?
The philanthropic ecosystem is different but the needs are the same—from human services to the need for good governance and strong institutions. In Latin America, there’s a rich tradition of charitable giving from the church and corporate philanthropy, but less presence of private independent foundations. It’s hard to generalize why that is and it varies by country. In Bolivia, for example, there were no community foundations and few independent private foundations. The ones I worked with there were spin-offs from former USAID programs that created endowments and encouraged them to become independent.
How does your work supporting civic and political engagement help communities?
Having a real voice in politics is [very important]. If people have opportunities to participate in the public domain and achieve representation, they will end up with better policies and distribution of resources in their communities and across the country. We’ve supported Vote Run Lead to encourage women to run for political office. We want to see people running for office that reflect the demographics of this country. We have also supported the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and other groups for election monitoring and other efforts to make sure everyone’s right to vote is respected.
Tell me about your early career in Latin America and how it shaped your worldview.
I lived in Mexico and in Costa Rica, and ended up working across Central America in the 1980s into the ’90s. More recently I lived for four years in Bolivia. All of my work has been devoted to development organizations and the communities they serve. My journey is one of discovery and appreciation of the values and perspectives reflected in different approaches to the stewardship of natural resources and maintaining a sense of community identity. My formative experiences in Latin communities were really meaningful and helped me develop an understanding of how to build philanthropic institutions that can make a difference in those communities. [I care about Latin America] because the people and the continent’s natural resources are extraordinary. I’ve hiked all over the region, connected with remote communities, and have always found a real a sense of purpose in helping to support their aspirations for their environment and communities.
You’re sound like you’re excited to join HIP.
Yes, the HIP mission, with a focus on equity, leadership development, and amplifying the Latino voice is so important to strengthening this country. And I know that if we have stronger Latino communities, we’ll all be better for it. My joining HIP is a way for me to contribute my international perspective and help encourage philanthropic investment in Latino communities. I’m eager to support the mission of HIP but also to learn from what HIP is doing in ways that will help RBF expand its engagement with Latinos.