Philanthropic innovator to lead Kellogg

By Ret Boney

With a new wife and a new job, Sterling Speirn is returning to his home state of Michigan to take over the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Having led the San Mateo-based Peninsula Community Foundation through a period of explosive growth, both in assets and programs, he now turns his attention to managing one of the world’s largest private funders.

“I’ve had a chance to work with so many private foundations and they have been some of my best partners,” he says.  “It had always been a back-of-the-mind fantasy to work with and lead a big-league, major private foundation.”

Heading a foundation with about $7 billion in assets, total program expenditures of almost $220 million last year and 188 employees, his fantasy will become a reality when he succeeds retiring president and CEO William Richardson, who led the foundation for the last decade.

“He is a very creative, innovative person,” says Cynthia Milligan, incoming board chair for the foundation. “He has been doing creative philanthropy, and that interests us.  He can take us to the next stage.”

Speirn’s primary goal, she says, is to use his experiences and talents to further the mission of the foundation.

“My marching orders are to build on the legacy of Mr. Kellogg,” says Speirn.  “I felt I was coming into a very strong foundation, with both a sense of continuity and a sense that every generation has to renew and reinvent the legacy over time.”

Speirn joined the Peninsula Community Foundation in 1990, when the organization had less than $60 million in assets and five employees.

With $611 million in assets and 59 employees today, the foundation distributed more than $500 million in grants during Speirn’s tenure.

Sterling Speirn

Job: President and CEO, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Battle Creek, Mich., effective Jan. 1.

Education: B.A., political science, Stanford; J.D., University of Michigan Law School

Born: 1948, Detroit

Family: Wife, Diana Aviv, president and CEO, Independent Sector; son Paolo, 17; son Danny, 13

Hobbies: Outdoor enthusiast; roller blading; music; guitar; training for triathlon with son

Favorite piece of classical music: Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony

Inspiration: Mother, who he once had as a substitute teacher. “There’s richness to community life, where you can be with people who share experiences from a different viewpoint.  It showed me that people had more than one identity.”

While at Peninsula, he was a catalyst for innovative community change, starting the Peninsula Partnership for Children, Youth and Families, for example, a partnership with the county that works to get kids ready for school, beginning in infancy.

“Much of my experience has been at the local level in public-private partnerships, but at the scale of a county,” Speirn says.  “Our foundation has co-evolved with our county because we have been in such close partnership.”

He also started the foundation’s Center for Venture Philanthropy, which encourages the use of venture-capital funding models in affecting social change, involving longer-term investment, investment of expertise as well as dollars, and an expectation of measurable results.

Before that, Speirn spent four years in the corporate-giving arena, managing Apple Computer’s computer grants program.

Born in Detroit, he originally wanted to be an environmental lawyer, he says, but when jobs were hard to find, he taught middle-school English and literature for two years, with an emphasis on mythology, poetry and American literature.

It was the hardest job he’s ever had, says Speirn, whose work experiences include painting houses, practicing law with a legal aid group and managing a community health center.

“It’s great to have so many different experiences,” he says.  “It gave me a great opportunity to see the broad range of the giving areas of the Kellogg Foundation.”

Speirn plans to start his new job by getting to know the foundation’s staff, board, grantees and programs, he says.

“I want to totally immerse myself with staff to find out the next big thing they’re excited about, or what’s incubating there,” he says.  “Are we doing the right things in the right places in the right ways?”

He will also be leading Kellogg through potentially turbulent times as the Senate Finance Committee contemplates increased regulation of nonprofits.

While he believes the sector will see “basic good housekeeping rules” around ethics, accountability and transparency, as well as changes to donor-advised funds, payout ratios and supporting organizations, he hopes the response will be measured.

“Hopefully Congress will give the sector time to demonstrate its commitment to self-regulation,” he says.

Speirn will likely be well-briefed on any changes, given that his new bride, Diana Aviv, heads Independent Sector, the Washington, D.C.-based network of nonprofits that convened the Panel on the Nonprofit Sector to provide recommendations to the Senate Finance Committee.

“If you can’t live with your spouse full-time, you can at least work in the same sector,” says Speirn, who plans to relocate to the Battle Creek area.

He also sees this as a time when philanthropy needs to step up and be a stimulant to social progress.

“We live in interesting times,” he says.  “Seeing the power of our free-market system, the question is how do we capture that same zeal and transfer it into the other two sectors?  It takes all three sectors to truly solve and tackle social problems.”

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