This Women’s History Month, we are proud to spotlight some of our FCCP member leaders who make a difference in not only the way we do our work, but how philanthropy shows up for democracy. Today, we are pleased to highlight Angela H. Cheng, Senior Program Officer, Democracy at The JPB Foundation.
Q: For those who don’t know you, tell us a little about yourself and how you arrived at working in philanthropy. How did you get started?
My journey to philanthropy started when I was nine years old. I was born in Taipei, Taiwan and came to the United States when I was nine when my dad decided to pursue going back to school. We moved to Ohio, where I learned about America; I learned English; and a different way of life. I share this context because this singular decision by my parents to move here changed the course of my life and, even more so, shaped my worldview.
We moved back to Taiwan after his schooling was complete. For a variety of reasons, we moved back to the U.S. in less than a year and settled in Tennessee just as I started eighth grade. In Tennessee, we lived in a suburb that was not racially diverse, and a lot more religious compared to my experience in Ohio. I went to a fairly affluent high school where I never felt I belonged. Having lived in different cultural, social, and economic environments affected how I think of democracy work at The JPB Foundation, which is the portfolio I manage. My experiences affected how I think about narrative and culture change as I came here as an outsider. Being from Taiwan, which has a complex geopolitical history, and is often not even recognized as a country, influences how I think about belonging and agency and democracy. And it makes me root for the underdog.
After college, I worked at an organization that provided legal assistance to nonprofit organizations; its mission was to improve the quality of life for low-income New Yorkers. I learned about nonprofit governance and nonprofit law and became really curious about how nonprofits were funded and supported. What does it mean to make funding decisions? In 2008, I joined the Open Society Foundations working with the Criminal Justice Fund in US Programs and I saw more of how systems and policies affect low-income communities—that the people who were most impacted by the criminal legal system were those who were low income and people of color. I learned so much there about philanthropy and systems change. I joined The JPB Foundation in 2016 to continue building off my experiences to support JPB’s efforts to uplift low-income communities and eliminate poverty in the US.
Q: This is such wonderful background to have on how you come to this work and really illuminates how the democracy portfolio and the area of poverty really are intrinsically connected. Tell us more about your work today at The JPB Foundation.
I came to JPB in 2016 to work on the Democracy portfolio, which had always been a part of the foundation’s work. As we see it, poverty is a systemic issue from policy choices. Healthcare, fair wages, immigrants’ rights, abortion rights, just energy transitions—they all tie back to democracy and civic engagement. And, when I say civic engagement, I don’t mean only voting, which is important, but what we really seek to uplift is the voice of people; that is, how people engage in their communities and have a say in the policies and decisions that affect their lives. That is what JPB cares about–and it shows up across the Foundation regardless of issue.
I credit FCCP for informing my thinking around power building and racial justice in grantmaking. In 2018, I had the privilege to join some incredible network leaders on FCCP’s Power Impact Team [a small group of funders and field leaders to discuss what it takes to build power and for funders to support power building]. It was a rare opportunity to have honest conversations with organizers and field leaders and look introspectively at what my place was within philanthropy. The team made a list of recommendations for how funders can help communities build power. It may be what many already knew, but it was a great reference point to ground my analysis at time when I was settling into JPB. I can attribute a lot of my thinking back to that Power Impact learning process and the field leaders who were so generous with their time and wisdom.
As a national foundation, JPB tends to fund nationally, but we care a lot about impacts at the state and local levels. We also know that we can’t do the work alone. Our census work is a good example of how JPB values collaborating with funders to support the communities we care about. Even before I joined JPB in 2016, JPB joined an informal group of funders that started to talk about the 2020 Census, knowing that the census affects equitable distribution of resources and power. It made sense to work with other funders to support a fair and accurate count. We became one of the larger census funders and saw how powerful it was when foundations came together, and in partnership with field leaders; it felt like something co-created and did together, albeit in different ways. We saw how funding groups on the ground at the state and local levels can have critical impact. And, as a result of our experience with the 2020 census, we continue to support census work through the Census Equity Initiative and see the census as an essential part of our democracy. We know a lot of policy decisions happen way before the count and so we continue to maintain strong collaboration with FCCP’s Funders’ Census Initiative and funders committed to continuing this important work.
Q: You’ve been quite active in FCCP over the years: our Power Impact Team, our Funders’ Census Initiative, and now our 2023 Convening Planning Committee. What are you most looking forward to around this year’s convening?
Oh wow… There is so much! I am looking forward to going to New Orleans, of course, and very much so looking forward to seeing friends and colleagues. There is an energy in-person that is hard to replicate online. Having a sneak peak at the agenda and the sessions that were proposed as a member of the Convening Planning Committee, I think it is going to be a really rich conversation over our four days together that is timely and much needed. For me, FCCP is a place to build relationships and learn from peers. The expansion last year of inviting field leaders as attendees feels like a great opportunity for philanthropy to examine how we can be true partners and how we can do convenings, and other areas of our work in a different way.
Thank you, Angela, for taking the time to talk with us and share your story. We are so grateful to count you as one of our leaders this Women’s History Month and always. See you in New Orleans!