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BPM 2013 | A conversation with Decker Ngongang
August 5, 2013
In observance of Black Philanthropy Month, Valaida Fullwood, local idea whisperer and co- author of Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists, interviews, in a multi-part series, a number of Charlotte African Americans engaged in multiple facets of philanthropy and focuses on interests and concerns, 50 years after Dr. King’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech.
Decker Ngongang: Senior Associate, Black Male Achievement Fellowship Program, Echoing Green
Hometown: Charlotte, N.C.
Years as a Charlottean: 1981 – 1999, then from 2003 - 2008
Education: N.C. State University, B.A. Law and Political Philosophy
Philanthropic Involvement: Currently he works for Echoing Green, which provides seed support to a diverse group of emerging social entrepreneurs every year. Specifically he manages the search, selection and support of the Black Male Achievement Fellowship Program.
(Finish this sentence) Black Philanthropy is . . . Required
What is your first memory of generosity?
My mothers family; with nine aunts and uncles I grew up knowing a communal family where everything was rooted in common benefit. I just remember whenever there was a problem it was like an episode of House where we all chipped in to think about a solution. As a kid, it’s not too fun but when you get older you appreciate how important this support is both emotionally and for your confidence.
How does that memory influence your philanthropy and your work in philanthropy?
I think about the changing nature of family life and the need to ensure there is a village of support for young people to be able to think and dream with confidence. I didn’t mind taking risks because I knew I had a support system to both protect me but also hold me accountable. I think about the role of philanthropy as risk capital to influence the innovation and creative thinking of solution makers to know they will be held accountable while also be supported in their work and life.
Tell us about Echoing Green—its history, mission and program of work.
Echoing Green (EG) is a nonprofit global social venture fund that identifies, invests in, and supports some of the world’s best emerging social entrepreneurs—society’s change agents.
Echoing Green invests deeply in these next generation change agents as well as works to create an ecosystem around them that supports and celebrates social innovation as a high-impact strategy for social change.
Since our founding in 1987 by General Atlantic, a leading private equity firm, Echoing Green has provided more than 520 emerging social entrepreneurs working in 49 countries with $31 million in start-up funding, customized technical and other support services, and access to our global network of champions.
What can you share about the emergence of the field of Black Male Achievement? And what’s your current work in the field?
I am proud to support the Open Society Black Male Achievement Fellowship at Echoing Green. Established in 2011, in partnership with the Open Society Foundations Campaign for Black Male Achievement, the OSF Black Male Achievement Fellowship is the first fellowship of its kind targeting new and innovative organizations dedicated to improving the life outcomes of Black men and boys in the U.S.
The 18-month fellowship offers $70,000 in seed funding, mentoring and support from Echoing Green staff and experts, skills-building conferences and access to our global network of Fellows. With Fellows participating in both Open Society Foundations and Echoing Green activities and convenings, they are solidifying their permanent place in the network as Fellows and eventually as alumni.
What aspects of the philanthropic realm or “third sector” drew you from your initial career in banking? And what keeps in this sector?
I was on the board of a non-profit in Charlotte when I realized my personality and skills were suited for the types of organizations I interacted with during my civic involvement and at 25 years old, I feared never having an opportunity to see if I could be impactful in this sector.
In 2007 when I left I immediately missed the intangibles of working at a large corporation—the systems, processes, and access to a knowledge-sharing infrastructure. What people also don’t think about with corporate spaces is the level of inclusive meritocracy. In philanthropy and non-profits so much is based on relationships and networks that it can be frustrating navigating the sector. In the six-plus years I have been in this sector, I see some of this changing with the increased dialogue about impact but it is still a challenge.
A share of your work has focused on Millennials and your generation’s philanthropy and civic engagement. What have you experienced and learned that could benefit other Millennials as well as other generations?
Don’t disqualify your potential role in solution making but also don’t assume your age makes you smarter. We went very quickly from saying young people are dumb and naïve to all the sudden referencing Facebook and assuming young people have all the answers. Like with many things in life, the answer is in the middle. Millennials have unique skills and perspective due to their proximity and relationship with new technologies but there is also vital context and knowledge that comes with experience and scenario testing. All of this poses new challenges but also opportunities that will require we are intentional about building the necessary nuance into the public conversations being convened by people like foundations and corporations.
What are some of your thoughts on where America stands 50 years after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech?
I feel like we should stop calling it a speech but reference it as a strategic plan. I like to think of it that way because it provided a pretty clear framework for how we should order society and how we should hold our democracy accountable—many tactics we have ignored (many of them here in NC).
When it comes to society or our community, what is your “dream” or aspiration?
I think about my family and how we don’t always get along and we don’t always solve everyone’s problems but there is a prevailing sense of togetherness. It doesn’t get rid of drama or get rid of hurt feelings but there is a deep and almost innate sense of “we are all in this together” and we hold ourselves accountable to that. It isn’t a political philosophy but more something that seems natural in that it allows our senses to work on as blank a canvas as possible. I aspire to provide for “my sense of community” as blank a canvas as possible. When I started out in non-profits, I worked on Central Piedmont Community College’s campus where so many young people took extra time out of their day and found ways to push through the challenges and distractions in their lives to come talk about how to get involved in their community. I imagine how many of these young people couldn’t participate because of things out of their control that were in the way. I aspire to live in a society that sees our role as getting as much out of the way of these young, brilliant community members as possible.
In terms of your philanthropic endeavors, what’s your “mountaintop” or highest achievement to date?
Seeing some of the first students I worked with at Central Piedmont Community College doing amazing things and paying it forward. They are so smart, thoughtful and driven and will do so much more than I could dream of—because they have lived it.
Name a book that has shaped your philanthropy.
Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen (2007)
How can readers with an interest in Black Male Achievement help advance this expanding field of work?
Please leave us with a favorite quote that characterizes an aspect of your philanthropy.
“Some (insert young, marginalized, etc) people suffer not from a lack of interest but from a lack of access.” — Decker Ngongang (It’s a mantra I used when I worked in Charlotte.)
For more information visit BlackPhilanthropyMonth.com and follow the hashtag #BPM2013
CV thanks Johnson C. Smith, our sponsor for this series.