InterView – Marian Kaanon- Optimism for the Future

Marian Kaanon
By Chris Murphy

Marian Kaanon has a story that will blow your mind and you will find her, and what she does inspirational. A refugee immigrant to the USA as a child, speaking zero English, she grew up, became well educated, and with the strength of her background, has put her experience and expertise to use making our community a stronger place.

As the CEO of the Stanislaus Community Foundation, she is entrusted with the charitable finances of many in the community to manage, with the goal of grantmaking to local nonprofits, and providing scholarships to students. There are so many needs in a normal year and this year as just blown up the normal we used to know. The challenges are greater and the needs are bigger. Stanislaus Community Foundation stepped up to the plate by creating the Resilient Stanislaus Fund and they’ve tripled their grants so far this year, to help local nonprofits.

I asked my friend Marian a few questions about how we all make it through the space we are in, hold steady when we need to and how we can look forward with some hope. Marian lives in Modesto with her two kids and is always willing to volunteer and make a positive difference here in Modesto. Let’s learn a bit more about Marian.

ModestoView: Your story about how you got to America is amazing. Did it steel you for a tough upbringing or did it create a different desire for learning?

Marian: I had a tough upbringing but no harder than many kids today who live locally. I think my refugee journey opened my eyes to the possibilities that America still promises, even if those possibilities seem improbable right now.

My nomadic background really instilled in me two desires: the first was to commit to my home, wherever that would be. We moved to Modesto when I was fifteen and I’ve been here off and on every since. Because I was a refugee and moved around so much, the sense of ‘home’ and a ‘hometown’ are incredibly important to me. The second desire was to not just ‘belong’ somewhere, but also commit to making that place better, with whatever tools or gifts I possess. These two twin passions have driven me for my entire adult life. I love Modesto, for all of its challenges and its unique quirks. And, I’m committed to make this community better, to lend my time and energy to helping us become a community for choice for all who call it home.

MV: People probably wonder what you exactly the Stanislaus Community Foundation is. Tell us about what you do.

MK: I LOVE what I do, who I do it with, and the ‘why’ behind it. Stanislaus Community Foundation is a local funder, first and foremost. We work with local family philanthropists as well as corporations to support their charitable giving goals. We provide several million dollars a year in grants to nonprofits and scholarships to college-bound students. But we’ve also embarked on our own leadership work in the past seven years, since I became CEO. Our leadership work is focused on education, economic opportunity, and civic engagement.

MV: How did you find this opportunity and when did you know it would be such a good match?
MK: I love the nonprofit sector (I worked at Community Hospice for eight years before coming to Stanislaus Community Foundation in late 2012). The idea of working in a purpose-driven organization has always been my professional focus. When I heard about Stanislaus Community Foundation, I was intrigued by the opportunity it presented to be BOTH a philanthropic institution AND a leadership organization.

When I joined in 2012, our community had not fully climbed out of the recession. The Board of Directors at the time saw a real void in pragmatic and visionary leadership that took the long view on quality of life issues in Stanislaus. The idea of shaping that vision and supporting our community across multiple issues really appealed to me. I tend to be both a ‘big picture’ strategist and also equally and relentlessly focused on tactics and results. Stanislaus Community Foundation gives me the opportunity to engage in a larger conversation about who we want to be as a community, and also fund specific programs, partnerships and prototypes that will get us to that future.

MV: What did COVID do to your programs, and how has it changed how you operate?
MK: We’re a small team of just six staff members, so luckily there was no impact on our staffing. However our team has worked remotely since March, and this has presented some logistical challenges, as we are a highly engaged, high productivity team that is deeply relational within our office and with all of our partners. It’s been hard to have that distance between us, but we’re hitting our groove and we’ve really embraced the tech tools to make lives easier. I’m really proud of our team for all the ways we’ve responded to COVID-19, with our grantmaking and our leadership work.

MV: You have been a participant working for solutions on poverty and homelessness, how has this been affected by this?
MK: Poverty and homelessness have been further exacerbated by COVID-19; our food banks saw a 400% increase in demand in just weeks after the initial shutdown took place in mid-March. That tells us how many local families are living on a knife’s edge financially. We are even more committed to supporting new structures to support these families, like the creation of a Community Development Corporation in South and West Modesto; as well as a local Community Development Financial Institution that provides specific financial/banking products to low-income and under-banked families.

MV: What are some of the needs you have seen recently?
MK: We have seen needs across every type of nonprofit serving our community. Our arts organizations are struggling due to lost revenue, and so are our youth-serving organizations. Our basic needs/shelter service organizations are struggling due to increased demand and also COVID outbreaks among their clients. Stanislaus Community Foundation has partnered with the United Way as well as Stanislaus County public agencies and the City of Modesto to coordinate our funding, because the financial need is so great.

MV: If our non-profits were underfunded before, how are they surviving with the additional stress in our lives and how are they coping?
MK: I think they are trying to figure new ways to fundraise, like social media campaigns. A lot of nonprofits luckily were able to receive PPP and CARES Act funding. We’ve also had a lot of local donors step up to support the organizations they’re passionate about. We have provided a series of webinars to local nonprofits to help them with financial modelling, unlocking government grants as a new source of revenue, and we’ve provided free financial counselling through a nonprofit financial partner, Mission Edge, for area nonprofits.

MV: What makes you optimistic for the future?
MK: I’m a naturally optimistic person. The opposite of optimism is not an option for me…what a bleak existence, to not have hope! I always think our better days are ahead, even if some dark ones have to come before the better days. I am optimistic because I see so many teens and young adults who are thoughtful, earnest and hardworking, who are questioning the America that they’re inheriting. I’m hopeful when I look at those young adults and realize that they have a lot of energy, possess incredible wisdom, and are ready to tackle the hard challenges that are being passed on to them.

MV: What is your ideal COVID day and what is your “normal ideal day like?
MK: My ideal COVID day actually moves much slower than my pre-COVID days, and I’m learning to embrace the different pace. I usually get up before my kids, meditate & journal, then work out. Then the kids get up and we have breakfast before they start school and I start my work day. My days usually end a little earlier than they used to as well, because the kids are home, and we’ll go for a walk or a bike ride. I’m trying to embrace this new routine and it may become my new ideal day!

MV: Finally Beatles or Stones?
MK: That is a TOUGH CHOICE. I’m going to have to stay Beatles overall for their entire body of work, but my favorite song is by the Stones: Start Me Up.

Learn more at the Stanislaus Community Foundation



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About the Author:

Chris Murphy is the President and CEO of Sierra Pacific Warehouse Group and Publisher and Founder of ModestoView Inc. Chris worked globally in the cycling industry returning to Modesto in 1996. He is also the founder of the Modesto Historic Graffiti Cruise Route, Legends of the Cruise Walk of Fame, Modesto Rockin’ Holiday, the Modesto Music History Organization and co-founder of the Modesto Area Music Association. Chris is married to his artist wife Rebecca since 1985 and has two daughters Madison and Abigail, both graduating from Modesto High and UC Berkeley. He is lead singer and guitarist for his band, Third Party that donates their performances to non-profits.