(John Talty recently concluded his service on the Board of Directors of Episcopal Charities, including the last five years as its President. He recently sat with Episcopal Charities’ staff members, who asked John to reflect upon his time on the Board.)
How did you first become involved with EC?
I was retiring from my first career in financial management and thought that I wanted to start a foundation, but wanted to learn more first. I’m a member of St. Matthew’s Bedford, so I spoke with the rector, Terry Elsberry, about those working in grantmaking and he introduced me to David Shover, then-Executive Director of Episcopal Charities. I hadn’t known much about the organization, but I liked what I heard and the tie-in with the Episcopal Church also resonated.
Do you still think about starting your own foundation?
No. Episcopal Charities helped me to learn that there are better ways for me to “give back.”
What about Episcopal Charities met your expectations? And what surprised you?
One surprise was its full whole spectrum of program types. Other organizations I’d looked at were very focused on one particular issue.
The other real surprise was the grass-roots nature of the programs and seeing how, literally, some of them are run by one person out of a church basement. I remember my first site visit. It was an after-school program in Yonkers, but they were also running a food pantry. The food was delivered that day, and the people who they were serving were actually helping to unload the food. All this was happening in a former storefront garage because the church had burned down. So, I’m looking at this environment that is foreign to me, and just seeing the incredible optimism and energy of those involved. It was inspirational.
What are the most notable changes you’ve seen with Episcopal Charities during your years on the board?
One is the increased involvement of parishes. It’s wonderful to see.
The second notable change is the enhanced quality of the funds-allocation process. The Board sets the direction but the Advisory Committee’s really discerning where every dollar has the most impact. It looks at programs closely and compassionately, truly seeing what a difference even a thousand dollars can make. I think it’s very different and much more refined than it was 11 years ago.
In the true spirit of outreach, every program that Episcopal Charities supports is free of religious content yet we do what we do for a reason. How does that match up with your own beliefs?
You don’t need to be particularly churchy or religious to see God’s love at work in Episcopal Charities and the programs it supports. The people in the programs, how much they care. The Advisory Committee, the time they spend. The volunteers and so many caring donors. And the Board… very busy people, but their commitment and their willingness is awesome. And it’s just the spark of compassion everywhere. It kind of reaffirms your faith in human beings that can sometimes get shaken a bit. To me, that’s God.
I haven’t run into anybody, on the Board, staff or Advisory Committee, who I just thought was there for some other reason. They care.
Do you think that those involved start off that way, or is that transformation?
Some start off that way, but I think for many their involvement is transformational. There’s just a whole host of people whose lives, I think, have totally changed by being on the giving side, rather than the receiving side of Episcopal Charities.
Our mission statement at Episcopal Charities is about transforming lives and you talked about how Episcopal Charities has transformed your life. Can you say a little bit more about that?
During my time on the Board and as President, I was struck with the fact that people would gladly do things you asked of them… people would go out of their way to help. I don’t know how to explain it, but that goodness, that willingness and compassion, made me look at the world differently. And it made me look at people differently. It made me realize there’s much more good out there than you think.
What was the hardest thing in your role as Board President?
I’m a worrier by nature, so I worried about Episcopal Charities. All the ideas that everybody had… what were we really going to be able to do? Were we going to be able to expand our reach in the Diocese? Were we going to raise more money? But it was more personal worry for me, not organizational worry.
So, given your own transformation, what comes next?
Well, one, I’m on the vestry of Trinity Wall Street. Which is a new and exciting challenge. But I’m approaching it, and life, with a sense of contentedness. I feel more spiritual and more sure that there is a God. I’m just more at peace after my time at Episcopal Charities.
Do you want to share any final thoughts?
I think about the importance of good governance. Episcopal Charities’ first President, Cecil Wray set the organization up well, and his successor, Doug Mercer carried it forward. The Board runs so amazingly efficiently. It makes such a huge difference. You don’t realize how much this means until you’re on a board that isn’t efficient, you just want to pull your hair out. Anybody that attends an Episcopal Charities Board meeting and deals with the Board and staff knows that their time won’t be wasted.
Secondly, I think Bishop Dietsche has had a huge impact. He’s visionary, very outreach-oriented and was willing to consider everything we ever requested. His work in helping Episcopal Charities to deepen its relationships with parishes… it’s really, it’s incredible.
Finally, just thinking about all those that received help, and knowing that you had something to do with it… it’s one of the most meaningful and rewarding things I have done in my life.