Gifford Foundation Promotes From Within for Transition to New Executive Director

Nov 27, 2018

Dirk Sonneborn will retire from his post as Executive Director of the Gifford Foundation at year's end. Sheena Solomon will succeed him January 1st.
Credit Scott Willis/WAER News

The Gifford Foundation will have a new leader in January after Executive Director Dirk Sonneborn announced he will retire after eight years at the helm.  He reflected on the unlikely path that led him to the not-for-profit grant-making organization.

“I come mostly out of the business world with an early career in public accounting, working for a big accounting firm, followed by making venture investments, and then getting to a philanthropic organization whose mission was bigger than life, if you will,” Sonneborn said. “It wasn’t about making money. It was about doing good things and being innovative in ways to make our community a better place.”

Sonneborn says he’s most proud of maintaining a diverse board of directors, which has helped steer the organization toward capacity-building initiatives.

“We have helped organizations that are doing good work to do more of it, or to do it with greater efficiency, whether it’s a one employee or no employee not-for-profit, or whether it’s a large human service organization touching the lives of many,” Sonneborn said.

Sonneborn will pass the torch to his colleague Sheena Solomon, who is currently the Director of Neighborhood Initiatives.  She says she wants to continue her hands-on experience with community capacity building as she transitions to her new role.

“There’s never been the Foundation saying ‘this is what you have to do’. It’s always been a personal passion of mine that I have brought with the grant-making and my style of grant-making to the Foundation. I want to definitely continue that experience in this new role,” Solomon said.

Solomon admits it’s difficult to think about what she will do differently in her new role just yet, but hopes to tap into her experience on national boards and advisory groups to tackle some of the region’s biggest challenges.

“Can we do some more work in our neighborhoods, and what does that look like?” Solomon said. “Is there a way for us to figure out: ‘How can philanthropy adjust violence and youth and things like that that is on the front page of our news?

Solomon joined the Gifford Foundation in 2007.  She’ll begin her new role as executive director on January 1st.