Nonprofit leader tries her hand at philanthropy

After 17 years at Pillsbury United Communities (PUC), Chanda Smith Baker, current president and CEO of the nonprofit, is moving on to the Minneapolis Foundation. Born and raised in North Minneapolis and a third generation North High graduate, she hails from a family that has always put community first. Her new position, senior vice president of community impact, allows her to focus on the community through a broader lens.

Chanda Smith Baker (Photo courtesy of Minneapolis Foundation)

Strongly influenced by her father’s brother, community building has always been a part of her life. “My uncle, Richard Greene, was the first African American superintendent in the Minneapolis Schools, and the first African American chancellor of a New York school. Through him, I think my family — or me in particular — saw education from a much different lens.

“My uncle was quite an influencer, in the sense that [in his] role of superintendent [he saw] the responsibility of community, of school board members, of teachers, of students working together towards quality education for all of the students that attended. I think this was very much his influence on my life.”

It was in the spring of 2011 that Smith Baker had an opportunity to play a crucial role in helping to support the Northside community through a time of crisis. “The tornado hit on May 22, 2011. I became the CEO of Pillsbury on May 2, so it was 20 days into my leadership in the organization.”

The tornado was one of the worst natural disasters North Minneapolis had seen, damaging many homes, displacing residents, and leaving many without power for days. “That tornado damaged my house and four of our Pillsbury buildings,” explained Smith Baker. “So I was impacted personally and professionally.”

She was asked to lead the recovery efforts by making sure that people were safe and connected to resources, including housing. This was her main focus during the first year after the tornado and a trial by fire during her inaugural year as a new nonprofit leader.

Though she served in different capacities at PUC during her 17 years there, she has been president and CEO for six of those years following the organization’s 35-year leadership under Tony Wagner. “I am very proud of the time and investment that I’ve made in developing and supporting leadership across the organization,” she said.

“The innovations in programs that we’ve led really started with our strategic plan that I wrote and led. [I wanted us to] disrupt our own process and push beyond our own kind of organizational limits to provide opportunity for community. I’m extremely proud of that.”

From that process came North News, a monthly North Minneapolis news publication that began under PUC in March of 2016 (after purchase from the previous owners). Also came North Market, which will open in the fall of this year with a goal of improving “the overall well-being of the community by intertwining quality foods, health services and whole-health programming into a single experience to foster a thriving North Minneapolis” according to their website.

What tempted Smith Baker to make the move to Minneapolis Foundation? “Well, certainly the idea of being able to scale my impact as a leader was really important to me,” she answered. “I’ve been involved and around philanthropy for a long time, and as a leader of [PUC], raising funds and working for investment in our programs [was important], so I’ve always had a curiosity of what it would mean to work directly in philanthropy.”

She describes herself as someone who approaches problems by considering multiple points of view, and the move to Minneapolis Foundation, she said, allows her the opportunity to approach her work of supporting the Minneapolis community with an alternative viewpoint like the work she did at PUC. She officially begins on September 5 but is already preparing to assume the new role, and said, “I’m straddling both roles.”

On August 1, Adair Mosley, who is now chief innovation officer for PUC, will serve as its interim CEO.

“Leading Pillsbury United Communities has been very challenging, rewarding, satisfying, all of those things, but the idea of being able to see the work from a broader lens, and to see the great work of many organizations and being able to support that was of interest to me,” she said. “I think the city is in such an interesting place as we think together as a community how to make this city livable and workable for everyone.

“And so I am most looking forward to working with a new team, working with nonprofit leaders in a much different way to think through how Minneapolis Foundation can leverage its resources and be an instrumental part of pushing the city toward a more equitable place to live and be and work.”


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