Seven Questions for Cate Fox, Director of the Center for Cultural Innovation's AmbitioUS Program

Cate fox

I became acquainted with Cate Fox a little over three years ago when, as the MacArthur Foundation’s senior program officer, she oversaw the funder’s arts grantmaking strategy refresh. I was struck by MacArthur’s willingness to address how its practices had unwittingly excluded parts of Chicago’s cultural ecosystem, its plans to remedy funding disparities, and its decision to roll out an innovative participatory grantmaking program.

In late 2021, the Los Angeles-based Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI) welcomed Fox as the new director of AmbitioUS, its national pooled funding program committed to “encouraging the development of burgeoning alternative economies and fresh social contracts in ways that artists and cultural communities can achieve financial freedom.” Fox said she viewed her transition to CCI as “an extension of the things that I loved about my work at MacArthur, but to get much deeper into the systems change aspect of the ways creatives are reimagining ways of being together that are nonextractive and prioritize ‘enough’ versus the accumulation of wealth.”

Fox has since settled into her role at AmbitioUS, which is scheduled to sunset at the end of 2028. When I recently caught up with her, she was bracing for a snowstorm in Chicago, about three hours south of the part of rural Wisconsin where she grew up. Our freewheeling discussion hit on the advice she’d give her 20-year-old self, the need for foundations to question the issue of perpetuity, and the three dinner guests of her dreams. Here are some excerpts from that discussion, which have been edited for clarity.

Did you originally set out to work in the nonprofit sector? 

I feel like very few people probably say yes, although when I think of the nonprofit sector, the nonprofit itself is really just a legal structure. It feels like the heart of your question is, “Why did you want to work for the common good?” and that’s something that I felt compelled to do from early on — work for “people-first” organizations.

If you look across my career, I have worked in the corporate sector, I’ve worked for mission-driven, for-profit organizations, nonprofit organizations and foundations, so I don’t know if there was an expressed intent to go into the nonprofit space, but I was always interested in “people-first” organizations and common good causes.

Did you ever second guess your decision to work in the sector?

There are a lot of really amazing things about the nonprofit sector. That said, no individual sector can deliver all the social good that needs to happen. There are a lot of limitations within the 501(c)(3) structure, and I’ve seen how organizational structures can undermine or accelerate the good that they’re trying to do. I’ve had existential crises in all the structures that I’ve worked in. If you’re inside them, I wonder how close you’re looking at them, because the systems have real challenges baked into them.

Philanthropy does seem to continually question itself, perhaps more so than most sectors.

It questions itself, but having worked inside a big structure, I can say that sometimes, it doesn’t question itself too hard, and it doesn’t always result in an ability to restructure. It’s more of, “Well, that’s a problem, but we’re going to work around it.” The most exciting things I’m seeing happen are when people are building new systems because trying to work around the system and tinkering around the edges doesn’t work.

What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

I would say to be a collector. Not like a collector of objects, but a collector of experiences, because those experiences build on themselves. I was one of those people in college where I thought, “What will happen after I graduate?” I had no idea, but it’s okay to not have a clear pathway. When you’re a collector, you can take advantage of the moments.

At MacArthur, I learned a bunch of things, but I still wanted to grow. And so I thought, “What experiences do I want to collect next?” At the same time, it’s OK to unlearn things. Not just to question them, but to actively rethink or dismantle some of those beliefs that get codified through the educational process or through your own work experience, and deciding that you don’t want to operate like that anymore.

How has the field changed for the better since you entered it?

I’m starting to see more openness toward some of these other structures and the diversity of structures that can deliver that mission-driven, people-first work. Cooperatives are an example, and I’ve seen LLCs that have bylaws that are really democratic. I’m also seeing an important shift where funders are asking communities what they need, without coming in with their own agendas or having less of an agenda.

Is there an issue that funding leaders should be paying more attention to?

I recently saw Clara Miller, who ran the Heron Foundation, give a talk at the SOCAP convention, and she talked about how perpetuity was for nature, but it wasn’t for foundations, and I found it to be very important. There’s the need to have realistic conversations about the idea that foundations tie up a lot of money forever, and what does that mean for systems change to happen and for funders to be more flexible? Because I still don’t see a ton of funding for non-501(c)(3) structures.

One of the things that I loved about coming to CCI and AmbitioUS is that it’s time-limited. This isn’t a structure that wants to perpetuate itself. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m not sure that I could work in another place that wasn’t working to put itself out of business.

The perpetuity issue reminds me of the talk around how foundations should have upped their endowment payouts during the pandemic. The debate has seemed to fizzle out.

Endowment size has become a symbol of importance, so the hesitancy for some of the organizations to consider a larger payout is sometimes tied up with the prestige that comes with having a big endowment. For that conversation to be more vigorous, folks have to decide on other ways to acknowledge the power of foundations, and not have the endowment structure as a stand-in for impact. The fear of having those conversations is very real.

Of course, universities notoriously tout their multibillion-dollar endowments to quantify prestige. We’d like to think that impulse doesn’t exist within foundations, but it does.

It’s all related. Those are two systems that evolved together. And once that becomes a sign of prestige in one place, other organizations pick up on it. I’ve heard small organizations talk about starting an endowment, and I think, “Why would you want to do that and tie up all that money? If you put it in a reserve fund and a great opportunity comes along, you can access it.” But that’s because many people see endowments as a sign of prestige.

What was the last great book you read?

“Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I love how she looks at not just Indigenous wisdom, but also the ways in which we can learn from our natural environment. I’ve underlined so many passages in that book.

You’ll have to forgive me, but I appropriated this next question from the New York Post sports section, and it’s the first time I’ve asked it. So, if you had three dinner guests — anyone who ever lived — who would they be?

Well, I have to tell you that I’m anxious because there’s a lot of pressure to go with people who will make you seem really virtuous. But I’m going to go with people who I think would make for interesting conversation. So first, I’d say Zora Neale Hurston. All of the anthropological work that she did in the South was so important. Her book, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” was a huge part of my high school reading experience. 

The second would be Questlove. His music, philosophy, work — all super-important. I think it would be really fun to have dinner with Mindy Kaling, and it would be amazing if she reads Inside Philanthropy and sees I want to have dinner with her [laughs]. And if I could have a bonus guest, it would be Ruth Bader Ginsburg. These people can’t all eat together, by the way. I would need to have separate dinners just so I could absorb everything.