Life of a Knight Liaison

An Article from the Knight Foundation 2001 Annual Report

SAN JOSE — IT’S 7:30 IN THE MORNING and John Williams II is 300 miles from home. He’s already in a staff meeting with other Knight colleagues. Via conference call. While he’s downloading files from headquarters. From a sluggish modem in a hotel room. Again. John is a liaison program officer, one of eight who will work for Knight’s Community Partners Program nationwide. He’s the one on the front lines in San Jose and Long Beach, Calif., as well as in Boulder, Colo. He’s helping Knight inaugurate its new partnerships in these three Western cities. John’s office is in Long Beach, and he lives just north of that in Los Angeles. But his schedule keeps him on the road. Last week he was in Boulder. In two weeks he flies to Miami. This week he’s in San Jose for what he calls “early reconnaissance.” “I never assume to know what’s going on in a community,” John says. “One of the most important aspects of my job is to listen.” When his staff meeting is over, John turns to the files he’s been downloading: recommendations concerning Knight’s Sept. 11 Fund. He updates some files and sends them back to headquarters. While that’s uploading, he calls the vice president of a local community foundation to discuss their 9/11 funding priorities for San Jose. Then he sends an e-mail to a Boulder contact concerning an upcoming meeting on early childhood education. For 10 minutes he’s on the phone with the chairman of the Long Beach Community Advisory Committee. Then he’s ready to start his day.

Banking on Community Services

You might say John is uniquely qualified for his job. He began his career as a banker in New York City in 1981, working for Chase Manhattan Bank. After Chase transferred him to L.A., he found himself volunteering more and more for human service projects. He served as the area director for the Special Olympics and as board director in charge of the Los Angeles Watts Summer Games. “What I found out,” John says over lunch, “is that I enjoyed doing community service and human service work. It coincided with my core values about social justice, fairness and equity.”

In 1989, John began working for nonprofits full time, first at Covenant House, which helps homeless street kids in L.A. get back on their feet, then at the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. As manager of community development, he gained firsthand experience with a wide range of community needs and nonprofit organizations. Meanwhile, he earned a master’s in public administration from the University of Southern California. And in 1998 he became a program officer for the California Community Foundation. In that position, he focused on community development. “What I liked most about that job,” he says, “was working with local nonprofits and helping them build their capacity. And that’s a good part of what I do now. We’re working to form a service community.”

John has been with Knight for about six months.

Do You Know the Way to San Jose?

Of Knight’s 26 cities, Long Beach is the furthest along in inaugurating the new Community Partners approach. The community advisory committee has been selected and has met several times. It has recommended specific priorities, identified nonprofit partners, and has developed fundable projects already under way. Knight’s advisory committee in Boulder has been selected and has recently chosen early childhood education as its priority. San Jose is at the beginning of the process. An advisory committee has been selected, and John is in town for its orientation meeting. He has already been to San Jose several times and has studied the available research and reports about the city. A few weeks ago, he met with the Community Foundation Silicon Valley and visited several of Knight’s current grant recipients. In the Mayfair community of San Jose, for instance, he met with several nonprofits that are collaborating to provide after-school services to low-income youth. “We are diversity,” Barbara Nakasone, the principal of Lee Mathson Middle School told him. “That’s who we are.” Yesterday he drove around San Jose again, walking the neighborhoods, meeting with a variety of local nonprofit groups — some that have been Knight grantees, some not.

“At this early stage I ask a lot of questions, I do a lot of listening,” John says. “But I also want to see for myself. Where are the business centers, the social centers, the low-income neighborhoods? What are the corridors of public transportation? Where are the housing hot spots? Where are the nonprofits and other resources located?”

The Next Milestone

At the San Jose advisory committee meeting, John emphasizes the value of the committee’s insights in selecting local priorities. Through the Community Partners Program, John explains, Knight is planning on contributing $1.7 million annually in San Jose over the next five years. This is a significant amount of money, he says, but still a drop in the bucket considering the diverse needs of a city as large as San Jose. One of the committee’s most exciting roles, he says, lies in refining and narrowing its focus to those areas where it can have the most impact. “This is an outcomes-focused program,” John says. “Each grant will have to tell a story about how it lends itself to specific outcomes in the community.” The committee immediately picks up on that theme. “I like that approach,” a member of the seven-person committee says. “It’s refreshing,” someone else says. And several people agree. After the meeting, John hardly stops to take a breath. He suggests that “the next milestone is priority setting.” That will take several meetings. “Then we’ll be involved in grants development,” he says. “It’s challenging to find the right partners with the right capacity to reach the agreed-upon outcomes.” But for now, John is content to let that wait for future visits. Tomorrow morning he meets with another nonprofit. Then he flies back to L.A. Where he’ll be home for the weekend. For a change.