“I always consider it a happy accident when you have a peer who makes you better,” says Max Williams, who was new to philanthropy when he entered his role as CEO of the Oregon Community Foundation and found himself in the ever-expanding orbit of Martha Richards. “Martha has been a tremendous friend, ally, and mentor to me,” he says, adding that Richards, executive director since 2008 of the arts- and education-focused James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation, is “a wizard at understanding the problems nonprofits face.”
It’s a skill she’s constantly putting to work for others. “Sometimes I think Martha helps people without them even knowing,” says Angela Hult, president of the Kuni Foundation “She’ll look at something and say, ‘I think I can be helpful in this challenge. I think I can make these connections,’ and the people may never know.” But there are other times, Hult says, when everyone is aware of just how much Richards is bringing to the table, both in her role as a funder of arts and education organizations, helping them to be impactful and sustainable, and as a mentor and guiding hand. “I don’t mean to present her like a quiet, lurking-in-the-corner person. She’s not afraid to lean in and speak up and talk about what’s needed.”
Once an aspiring actor, Richards certainly is not a lurker. Raised in a family of nine children in a small town in Iowa, she didn’t end up making it on the stage, instead working her way from the box office to running capital campaigns to being the managing director of a small professional theater company in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“The first mistake I made as an administrator at an arts organization was to believe that I had to have all the answers,” she says. “After you make that mistake and realize it’s impossible for you to have all the answers, you turn 180 degrees, and you develop relationships among those you perceive to have all the answers.” Of course, those people don’t have all the answers, either, but person by person, link by link, the understanding grows.
“It isn’t just about the grants and financial support,” Hult says of the way Richards attacks an issue. “She looks at the entire ecosystem.”
Richards arrived in Portland in 1989. She worked in nonprofit management and as a capital campaign consultant. “It was a real education for me about all kinds of nonprofits,” she remembers. “I think the arts set me up well for that, in that there is no straight line between A and B when you work in the arts.”
When she took the Miller job in 2008, she immediately felt comfortable navigating the foundation’s arts programs, but she had to “learn to speak education,” she says. Sitting on the board of Foundations for a Better Oregon (formerly known as the Chalkboard Project) and helping to create the Educator Advancement Council, a partnership to improve outcomes for teachers and students across the state, she’s gotten to learn “from other foundations and from educators and administrators and students, and from community organizations who feel that school cultures don’t see them.” (She’s so intertwined with the local nonprofit community that she’s been on the Light a Fire panel for several years, but she recused herself from any role in this category.)
And each new connection can come to benefit not just the task at hand, but all of her other contacts, too. One of those is M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust CEO Steve Moore, who sought out Richards when he first came to town to get the lay of the land. “She’s known for asking great questions and for seeking to identify the ways [philanthropic organizations] can really help people to achieve their mission,” he says, adding that there’s another reason to always try to have her in the room. “If a meeting gets too heavy, Martha’s sense of humor will come out and relieve the tension.”
Richards attributes her strong network to a readiness to have clear, hard, honest conversations. “My goal is not to be the person who knows, but the person who goes out and tries to understand and tries then to craft something that’s going to work,” she says. “You can’t force people to give you money. You can’t force an organization to make really good decisions financially. You have to work it out.”