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On a Unique Board Member’s Lasting Legacy

Date: February 13, 2024

Phil Buchanan

President, CEP

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During his seven years on the CEP Board, Ricardo Millett would ask the same question at some point in almost every meeting: “Effectiveness for what?”

His refrain was so common we used to joke about making it a drinking game. We joked, but we knew it was a serious — and important — question.

Ricardo, a data-driven evaluator with a deep and abiding lifelong commitment to equity and justice, was challenging us. Would we be technocrats? Or would we push ourselves to be forces for real, lasting good? Would we play it safe or would we challenge the status quo?

That’s how I heard his question, “Effectiveness for what?,” and it resonates still. Ricardo, who died late last year at the age of 78, made an indelible impact on this organization and on me, personally. Many others have written eloquently of his life and his impact on philanthropy, the evaluation field, and the quest for racial equity. I so appreciate their words. I simply want to memorialize here his impact on CEP and its people.

Ricardo and I met in 2002 when he was leading the Woods Fund of Chicago. I hoped to interest him in CEP’s work and maybe even in joining our Board, which was somewhat dysfunctional at the time. I was shocked, and thrilled, that he was interested. He ended up serving on the board from 2003 until 2010.

Ricardo helped me more fully understand and trust in my unease with the business and investing analogies that were taking hold in philanthropy at the time. He encouraged me. He saw possibilities in what we were trying to do when many others wouldn’t even take a meeting with us.

He played a crucial role in helping CEP’s early board members recognize that there were irreconcilable differences that would require some to leave and others to stay to create a functional Board. He was a vital part of the latter group — and I will be forever grateful to him for that. He encouraged us to continue to work to lift up the perspectives of nonprofits to funders, to help alter the power dynamics that often inhibited progress.

Ricardo was an engaged and thoughtful Board member who asked tough questions — of other board members and of me and the staff. But he was also a staunch ally of our young staff. He took the time to get to know each person and to let them know he valued their contributions.

His warmth and kindness made every person affiliated with CEP feel appreciated — even, and maybe especially, when Ricardo reached over, during a board dinner, fork in hand, to ask if he could sample the dish someone else was enjoying. He kept things in perspective. He made our work feel at once more important and more informal and familial; at once incredibly serious and also worth a good laugh; at once necessary and also distant from the most crucial front lines of change.

Ricardo helped shape our work, helped push us to take more risks. He also helped shape our board culture, in ways that persist today, to be one in which everyone is heard, everyone matters, and alternate or dissenting perspectives are not just welcomed but encouraged. I learned a tremendous amount from Ricardo and will forever be grateful to have known him, to have learned from him, and to have been touched by his kindness.

We thanked Ricardo many times for all he did for us, but I want to thank him once more, here.

Ricardo, from all of us at CEP, those who knew you and those who never had the chance to meet you: thank you.

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP, author of “Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count,” and co-host of the Giving Done Right podcast.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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