Q & A with Murdock Trust CEO Romanita Hairston

Hairston took over the position as CEO on July 5 after former CEO Steve Moore retired from the Trust

ROMANITA HAIRSTON CEO, M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust

Back in March, the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust announced that Romanita Hairston would be taking over the role of CEO of the Trust after the retirement of former CEO Steve Moore. On July 5, Hairston officially took on her new role as CEO of the Trust, and the Vancouver Business Journal caught up with her to find out some more about her new role, what she’s looking forward to and more.

VBJ: Can you share a bit about why this role felt like the right opportunity and fit for you?

Romanita Hairston: There were several key factors that led me to step into this role. The first was the alignment of my experience and skillset to the profile that was developed by the Murdock Trust Trustees through deep listening to our grantees, stakeholders and staff. The second key factor was an increasing internal sense and desire to find the place of my highest and best use in these unprecedented times as we face so many historic issues. The final key factor was my deep respect and appreciation for the work of the Trust and our emphasis on serving the common good in innovative and sustainable ways.

The Murdock Trust has a broad and diverse group of constituents representing a variety of sectors. All of whom are doing amazing work, by the way! Through my background, I’ve had the opportunity to gather first-hand experience in many of these areas. I’ve been fortunate to gain meaningful cross-sector experience and demonstrate impact in the for-profit, nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. I spent a significant portion of my early career taking on roles with increasing complexity and responsibility in the nonprofit world. That is where I was able to lay my foundation in the fundamentals of nonprofit service, management and leadership. This was followed by a move to the Murdock Trust where I learned the grantmaking side of philanthropy. In 2018, I brought many elements of this experience together in a move to Microsoft where I led skilling efforts focused on increasing employability and building greater technical competence in global partners, customers, employees and future generations. Along the way, I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer with a variety of groups and serve on a number of nonprofit boards as well as launch my own consulting company.

This experience gives me a unique understanding and perspective on how the Murdock Trust supports these groups and how we can continue to grow and improve. I have spent my career focusing on finding solutions to sticky challenges through collaboration and partnership, two values that are central to the Trust’s work. I am driven each day by a desire to find ways we can all serve the common good together.

VBJ: How did you first become involved in the nonprofit sector? What motivated you to become involved with that area?

Hairston: I spent the first 20 years of my career at World Vision after graduating from the University of Washington. I was taking a year off before going to pursue a joint law degree and PhD. During that time, I was really reflecting on my next steps. I had started a social support program while at the UW, which led to a partner at the time telling me about the role at World Vision. After hearing more about the work, I decided to take a contract role with the nonprofit. It was a great way to spend my gap year. Well, the rest is history. My heart was captured. I stayed and served for almost 10 of 20 years in the role of vice president of U.S. Programs. I also went on to get my MBA. I loved the work, and I was able to grow professionally while doing it. I am still connected to young people, partners and staff from my time there.

VBJ: What are your current short-term goals as CEO of the Trust? What about long-term goals?

Hairston: My first few months at the Trust are really focused on listening. I want to make sure I understand the nuances of the work underway at the Trust as well as begin to understand the work and needs within the communities we serve. My focus now is on ensuring we have a great transition that not only provides stability in our operations but lays a foundation for the exciting road ahead. We continue to work to honor the legacy and intention of benefactor Jack Murdock while evolving the way we work to serve the emerging needs of our region.

I have a few things that are not goals, but they are top of mind. Covid has stretched and put pressure on most, if not all, of us. The staff is an organization’s greatest resource. I want to ensure we are taking care of the Murdock Trust team, as well as supporting our partners and adjunct staff. Covid also pushed everyone further into the world of digital transformation. We have to continue to consider how we best use technology to aid us in our mission and support our grantees. Finally, we have a turbulent economic environment right now, and this requires our close attention both for how we plan as an organization for our own work but also for how we anticipate the coming needs of the sectors and region we serve.

VBJ: I know you’ve just very recently stepped into your new role, but so far, what have you enjoyed most about it?

Hairston: I am very fortunate to work with an incredible team. The Trust believes in thoughtful leadership succession and the team, led by our Trustees, has worked hard to make sure I feel welcome and positioned for success. It has been a joy to get to know them and learn more about the various ways they work to bring the mission of the Murdock Trust to life every day.

VBJ: Did you have to move to this area to take on this new role? If so, where did you move from?

Hairston: I have lived in Seattle since I was in high school. We’re in the process of fully relocating to the Vancouver area, and I am eagerly looking to build new connections here in Clark County and throughout the region. I still have close family in Seattle. I am grateful that they are only a few hours away.

VBJ: What are a few reasons that you think that the work the Murdock Trust does is so important?

Hairston: I think to understand the work of the Murdock Trust, you really have to look at the organizations we support. We like to say that “the fruit of our labor grows on the trees of others” and it’s true. We don’t believe that we can know the unique needs of Native Alaska or rural Montana or urban Vancouver better than the individuals who are on the front lines of those communities. The people who live and work in these communities every day, who understand the historical, cultural and social elements that may influence how change can take place. We look to those community leaders to help us understand where we can be of most help and we seek to come alongside and support the projects they believe to be the most important.

The Trust’s emphasis on capacity building is also worthy of consideration. One of the great gifts within the Pacific Northwest is that we have an ecosystem of giving. Several contributors – philanthropy, corporate donors, community foundations, individual givers – who all find ways to give. Those diverse contributions create a connected web that helps serve the variety of needs that emerge in our region. For example, some funders are focused on serving urgent crises. Others focus on more longer-term needs. At the Trust, our emphasis is on capacity building. We want to fund the project that will help a nonprofit strengthen its foundation so that it can grow and serve for years and generations to come. It’s rewarding to see the impact of an individual grant in the moment, but also to see the long-term ripple effect of giving over time.

Finally, the Trust seeks to bring together some of these key leaders to have unique conversation and discover innovative solutions to some of our most intractable challenges. Collaborative solutions by coalitions of diverse backgrounds are key to solving these complex issues and we are grateful to play a role in helping gather these voices for constructive discussion.

VBJ: What challenges, if any, do you see the Trust facing over the next year or two?

Hairston: I think the entire philanthropic sector is working through change. The events of the last few years have challenged all of us to rethink the way we plan, the way we give, the way we work and the way we engage day-to-day with our constituents. The Trust is no different. We are looking at how we can incorporate new practices that emerged during the pandemic while keeping our donor intent evergreen and maintaining the best parts of our historical foundation.

To be perfectly honest, this is a very exciting time. There is investment in rethinking the way we work and the way we serve to address the needs of our constituents, both at the Trust and across the region and sector. There is great opportunity to invest in innovative and sustainable ideas and I am excited to lean into that opportunity.

Joanna Yorke is the managing editor of the Vancouver Business Journal. She has worked in the journalism field since 2010 after graduating from the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University in Pullman. Yorke worked at The Reflector Newspaper in Battle Ground for six years and then worked at and helped start ClarkCountyToday.com.