Christiano Sosa has served Coloradans for 25 years in both the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. As Rose Community Foundation’s new vice president of community impact, Sosa leads the department focused on strategically deploying discretionary grantmaking dollars to help drive impact in the Greater Denver region. We sat down with Christiano to discuss his professional background, thoughts on philanthropy and goals for the future.
Q: To begin, could you talk about the path you took to philanthropy?
C: I’ve always been committed to this type of work, and all my previous jobs have been in the nonprofit sector. When I was working towards my Bachelor of Social Work at Colorado State University, I had an internship with the Northern Colorado AIDS Project and came back later in my career as their executive director. In terms of philanthropy, I’ve worked at the Gill Foundation, a private foundation; the Denver Foundation, a community foundation, and now Rose Community Foundation. I’ve jumped in and out of philanthropy and I think the reason for that is it’s important for me to keep a sense of empathy amid rapidly changing times in the nonprofit world.
Q: How does your background as a nonprofit professional influence your current role as a grantmaker?
C: I’ve written many grant requests and served in executive roles overseeing fundraising, revenue, expenses, staffing, impact—it’s a tough job. As a grantmaker, I think we need to be empathetic and understand the tremendous pressures facing nonprofits and work to remove barriers. Almost all my past positions had a social justice and equity lens, which makes landing at Rose a natural step in my career. Lived experience is important if you want to understand the many cascading and competing priorities nonprofits face every day. I hope my experience makes me an inviting grantmaker and one that is always learning. I would never want to join forces with an organization that claims to know what’s best for every community or what nonprofits “should” be doing; we’re really an extension of the community and we need to be learning.
Q: There have been many inequities that have been exposed during the pandemic. How have you seen grantmaking change, and how has the local nonprofit ecosystem responded to issues around COVID-19?
C: I think in the last two years we’ve come a long way in terms of grantmakers being flexible and embracing trust-based philanthropy. I also think that philanthropy has a sense of increased transparency and accountability to the communities in which they are located or are serving. I’m thrilled that foundations increasingly are looking more like the communities served, whether it be on staff, in their donor pool, or on their committees and board.
Nonprofit organizations are always going to be responsive to pressing needs, and they have risen to the challenge and have been crucial in informing community dialogue. We in philanthropy get to offer donors, volunteers and community members an opportunity to act on the things they care about most. In that regard, we’ve really moved the needle in a short period of time.
Q: What has been your highest priority in your first few months as vice president of community impact?
C: Learning, listening and developing new opportunities for community partnerships have been top of mind. We were recently able to develop an RFP focused on equitable economic opportunity that I think is meeting our communities where they are at. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time trying to understand the landscape and all the levers of values-driven philanthropy. We are in a unique and privileged space to be able to move those levers in a way that is going to be impactful in the years to come.
Q: The Foundation recently concluded a grant cycle focused on Social Emotional Learning (SEL). What are some of your biggest takeaways from that funding opportunity?
C: It is clear to me that the team at Rose is a dedicated, thoughtful group of people and the grantees are equally matched in terms of their thoughtfulness and their resiliency, especially in the social emotional learning space. Organizations had to shift their programming overnight, but our grantees didn’t miss a beat and started using new tools and developing new opportunities for engagement. As much as the nonprofits have been flexible, I think there are also tremendous stories of resiliency in the communities and families they serve. It also showed us that we have so much work to do as a sector. That includes nonprofits, philanthropists and individuals most affected by the issues. Clearly the effects of the pandemic are far-reaching, which is compounded by the economic turbulence facing organizations and individuals. It’s hard to address social-emotional learning without also thinking about mental health, housing, inflation and the other structural barriers that were laid bare.
Q: What do you see as philanthropy’s role in advancing inclusive, engaged and equitable communities?
C: I see community foundations in particular as servant leaders. As a servant leader you always need to be learning, you always need to be listening and you need to take your cue from the communities you serve. We’ll continue to support emerging and longstanding efforts to fuel impact for those furthest from opportunity. We have a laser focus; we have a charge, and we have a mission. If we don’t address community issues in an inclusive, equitable and engaged way, then we need to get out of the way. My vision is that Rose will continue to be at multiple tables, in multiple communities, working on multiple issues because life is complex and there is a myriad of challenges that affect any community, family or individual. I think there’s also a realization for me that it’s a long game. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” We have been taking care of the community since our founding, and I look forward to what the future holds.
Q: What has been the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received?
C: I have been blessed to have so many mentors in my life and people who have really helped to create a path for me. Nobody can do any of this work in isolation. Some of the best advice I’ve received is to find your north star and take the time to engage people along the way, even if it means going slower because that’s where you’re going to have the greatest impact.
Q: What motivates or inspires you to do this work?
C: The team at Rose inspires me, the community motivates me and our work to address systemic issues compels me to do even more. It may sound glib, but I sleep well at night, and I think many nonprofit professionals do. Mostly that’s out of sheer exhaustion, given all that we do, yet I wake up every day emboldened for the day ahead. Sometimes we take two steps forward and one step back but, just like the MLK Jr. quote, our path bends towards justice and we get to be a part of that.
Q: What are your goals for the next three to five years? What do you hope will be different between now and then?
C: Our strategic plan compels us to double down on resources to strengthen communities, foster engagement and advance equity and justice. We are in a moment of increased awareness of the many challenges facing Greater Denver, the nation and the world. There is a great opportunity and I think community foundations are uniquely equipped to elevate voices and offer platforms with which change can really take hold.
I’m excited to roll up my sleeves to ensure that people most affected by the issues we are working on are driving the agenda and priorities. I look forward to striking the right balance between responsive and proactive grantmaking, and I look forward to sharing our lessons learned and elevating the impact of the philanthropic sector.
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