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Welcoming a New CMF Member: The Song Foundation

We’re talking with Khalilah Burt Gaston, the first executive director of the Song Foundation, about the journey from personal giving to organizational philanthropy and what’s next for the foundation.

The Song Foundation, a new CMF member, is working to improve the quality of life for all across Southeast Michigan through trust-based grantmaking, advocacy and partnerships.

The family foundation was founded in Ann Arbor in 2019 by Dug Song, co-founder and former chairman and CEO of Duo Security, and Linh Song, Ann Arbor city council member, after a long history of personal giving and community engagement, primarily in Washtenaw County.

The couple are first-generation Americans and met while attending the University of Michigan where they developed their individual and collective care and participation in the local community through volunteering together.

“A part of establishing the foundation for them was their interest in how they could support and galvanize work across the region,” Khalilah Burt Gaston, executive director of the Song Foundation said.

Gaston began her role as the foundation’s first executive director in February 2022 after a year-long search process led by Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group (NPAG). Gaston and NPAG will be co-leading a session at CMF’s 50th Annual Conference on the topic of executive searches and transitions.

Gaston joined the foundation with previous experience in the field as a program officer at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and as executive director of Vanguard Community Development Corp.

The foundation was founded at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted the foundation to be flexible in response and use its resources to support the social safety net and small businesses in Washtenaw County. The foundation seeded $1 million to the Washtenaw County Small Business Resiliency Fund and supported the United Way of Washtenaw County Community Impact Fund.

“The foundation has been on quite a journey so far from launching to doing rapid response grantmaking and then recognizing the need for full-time staff to come on board,” Gaston said.

Gaston shared that for the past six months the priority for her and the Songs has been relationship building and listening. They have attended a variety of local and statewide meetings and convenings, including the Detroit Chamber Mackinac Policy Conference held earlier this year. That event served as an opportunity to meet other CMF members and partners in philanthropy as well as leaders in the nonprofit sector, policy and business.

Most recently, the foundation started engaging with a consultant to focus on creating a cohesive vision that best aligns with its mission.

The foundation is also exploring the implementation of a trust-based philanthropy approach to balance the power dynamics between the foundation and its nonprofit partners. Gaston shared that this approach aligns with Linh Song’s lived experience as a social worker and now as a city council member.

“We’re aligned in our cause to simplify and streamline our application process, and we aim to be really transparent and responsive. We hope there’s a way that we can be seen as a partner and understand the ways we can leverage our skills, values and expertise to be of assistance beyond the check,” Gaston said.

Gaston shared that because the foundation is small and new, that can be used to its advantage to create impact.

“I’m working with a living donor, and I’m engaged weekly and sometimes daily with them. I’m able to talk to them directly about their aspirations and where they see opportunities. We don’t have a lot of hierarchy, so I can hear direction and ask questions more directly, which has removed barriers and allowed me to move at a quicker pace,” Gaston said.

The foundation’s funding areas are still being determined; its geographic area will be throughout Southeast Michigan.

According to Gaston, the foundation is in the process of identifying organizations to support, looking at the foundation’s different vehicles of giving and matching the Song’s passion areas.

“A part of our work will be in engagement and advocacy. We’re looking at how we can support grassroots organizations to advocate for themselves in their communities and hopefully galvanize statewide advocacy,” Gaston said.

Gaston shared that the foundation has been relying on the knowledge of the field for learning, including from CMF members.

“The CMF community has been invaluable in my role so far. I’ve had many CMF members reach out to me to see how they can be supportive, to share policies and contacts at various organizations and I’m thankful for their support,” Gaston said.

Want more?

Learn more about the Song Foundation.