Margaret Boles Fitzgerald Reflects on 20 Years as Chair of the Board

June 10, 2022
Margaret Boles Fitzgerald Reflects on 20 Years as Chair of the Board
Chair Emerita Margaret Boles Fitzgerald (center) with newly elected co-chairs Debra Knopman (left) and Terry Adamson (right). Photo by Liza Fitzgerald.

Wrapping up her 20th year as Chair of the Board of the Henry Luce Foundation, Margaret Boles Fitzgerald announced her intention to step down as Chair. She will continue to serve as a member of the Board, passing the baton to our newly elected co-chairs, Terry Adamson and Debra Knopman. 

As we celebrated and toasted her accomplishments, including her oversight of over $500 million in grants, she sat down with communications staff to reflect on her journey and growth as a leader, her approach to stewarding the Foundation, and her perspective on the strengths and future of the Foundation.  

On Becoming Chair of the Board 

I was elected to the Board in 1987, and in 2002, I was asked to step up to the role of Chair. It was a surprise...and an honor. I was the youngest person on the Board at the time, and while there was the family connection—Henry R. Luce was my great uncle—that doesn't necessarily make one worthy of the role or the responsibilities it carries. I'm especially grateful to Elisabeth Luce Moore and Jim Laney for their belief in me. Those two in particular saw something in me that I didn't yet see in myself.  

On Collaboration 

I have always loved working with and learning from the many teachers in my life, and specifically at the Foundation, from the President. I've grown with each of the Foundation’s leaders, first under John Cook, and then under Michael Gilligan, and now under Mariko Silver, and you couldn't have three more different, immensely talented people shaping and guiding the Foundation’s daily work. I believe that leading begins with a strong partnership between the Chair and the President, one based on mutual trust and a spirit of collaboration. I’ve also relied on the encouragement and lessons offered by my colleagues at the Luce Foundation: my distinguished directors, and of course, the capable staff.  

On Her Approach to Philanthropic Governance 

For me, an area of great interest throughout these past two decades has been in the Foundation’s governance.   

When I was appointed Chair, I was encouraged to consider the roadmap of the past, where it has taken us and where it might take us in the future. This was not a move away from the past, but a reimagining of how to build upon our venerable tradition of philanthropy. Michael—who was chosen as President about six months after I became Chair—and I asked ourselves, “What works well? What needs a fresh ‘take’? How—and why—should we propose a new course of action?” 

Michael and I went back to square one, learning from the past and embracing a new model of transparency. We revisited all of our governing documents without fear or favor—the bylaws, the employee handbooks, the Board handbooks. We even took some discretionary privilege away from ourselves! For example, there is a small fund for special grants that the President and Chair oversee. When we first started, Hank had set it at $300,000 per year, and Michael and I reduced it to $100,000, thereby returning $200,000 to the grant pool. We placed our confidence in the shared wisdom of the Board and the program directors for the allocation of those funds.   

On Respecting the Foundation’s Roots and History 

I bring institutional, historical, and familial memory to this role. As Chair, I chose to imbue historical context and contemporary thinking into the shared work of the Board and staff. I choose to honor the past, work in the present, and look forward to the future. 

When he started the Foundation in 1936, Harry Luce [Henry R. Luce] left very few specifics about the operations and grantmaking of the Foundation. The first grants were made to institutions in China or to institutions in America that worked with China—in honor of his missionary parents and the land of his birth.  

Harry Luce believed that big ideas were not limited to one country. He was ecumenical in every sense of the word. So we return to this very simple and yet near-limitless philosophy of defining what are the big ideas to come to the public square. How do we honor the framework of what Henry Winters and Elizabeth Root Luce [Harry’s parents] did when they became “reverse missionaries”? 

They went [to China] to take what they perceived to be the best, most edifying, of America and share it. They found that they connected to people in a country that taught them, profoundly, that under heaven, there is one family. Their service to the people of China transcended this theological construct and moved into institutions of higher education, arts, sciences, culture. The Foundation has stayed committed to that more universal definition of field building through our enduring Asia program and by building bridges through and across all of our programs. 

On Responding to Historic Moments 

I remember in 2002, I had just stepped up, and the horrors of 9/11 had happened the year before. That was a turning point for our country, and it made me think a lot about how Henry Luce would say, "How do we take the weaknesses and strengths in our country and make them a force for a greater good?”   

The Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs emerged from that period and was a defining moment for the Foundation because it [brought together] everything that Henry Luce strove for by honoring his parents. How does religion factor into the fabric of the world and the daily lives and governance of citizens of the world? It was an important rethinking of our philanthropic footprint, connecting areas in which we claim a certain amount of deep knowledge: Asia and the world, religion and theology, governance.  

And then there was 2020. Mariko started in late 2019 and within seven months, the world changed with the global pandemic and the exposure of many fragile social, political, and cultural constructs. I think the Board demonstrated that we could be nimble. We pivoted in the moment, empowering Mariko to consider and develop COVID- and pandemic-related responses. We had responsive grants, emergency grant funding—we went where there was the greatest need. We trusted Mariko and the program staff to assess, reassess, and reimagine in our areas of strength, and they delivered.  

On the Luce Foundation’s Strengths 

If I had to pick an area where I feel we really excel, it’s how incredibly respectful and responsive the program staff—really all the staff—have been to the outside world and to grant seekers. I think that's one of our hallmarks.  

Through the power of his creative thinking and the press pulpit he created, Harry Luce invited robust (and often contentious) conversations on what he called “the big ideas.” He was both a messenger and a harvester, knowing there would always be change, new things to learn, contrarian thinking to debate, other voices to hear, and different perspectives to consider. 

At the Luce Foundation, we listen with great intent, and we learn through powerful engagements. We rely on our program directors and our President to glean the best of thinking and the important work being done by practitioners in our areas of focus. This respectful collaboration over shared ideas, ideals, and aspirations contributes to successful outcomes. 

On the Future 

I couldn't be more excited by the appointment of our Co-Chairs, Terry Adamson and Debra Knopman, who are so respectful of the past and grounded in the Foundation’s mission. As former Luce Scholars, they possess a distinct understanding of Asia. They are true leaders in their chosen fields of commerce and philanthropy, and they are just incredibly thoughtful, kind, caring people.   

They represent the quality of deep, personal, respectful connection, understanding the humanity of citizens around the world. They have a sensitivity to our interconnectedness, an understanding that our “neighbor” might be next door or halfway around the world. 

I think their co-chairmanship, alongside Mariko—with her energy, enthusiasm, and intelligence—will only enhance our engagement with the world and contribute to even more purposeful and effective work. To me, it's a dynamic model that makes me so enthusiastic for the work that lies ahead. 

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