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Rhea Suh, a veteran nonprofit leader and a former official in the Obama administration, has been selected as the new president and chief executive of the Marin Community Foundation.
Thomas Peters, the foundation’s president and chief executive for 23 years, announced his retirement last year.
“One of the most consequential periods in professional life comes when the seasons change, and the time is right to pass the baton,” Peters said. “I am personally delighted and exceptionally proud to do so with Rhea.”
The foundation, which includes the Buck Family Fund, has some $3 billion in assets and distributes an average of $150 million annually in grants.
Suh, the daughter of Korean immigrants who now live in Mill Valley, was president of the Natural Resources Defense Council from January 2015 to September 2019. From 2009 to 2015, she was assistant secretary for policy, management and budget at the U.S. Department of the Interior. She was nominated for the position by President Barack Obama.
In 2013, Obama nominated Suh as assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks in the Department of the Interior. Her nomination was withdrawn, however, due to stiff opposition by Republicans in the Senate.
Republicans objected to comments Suh made while working for an advocacy group in 2007 that natural gas development was “the single greatest threat to the ecological integrity of the West.”
“It was the run-up to an election year, and an incredibly partisan environment,” Suh said. “Being a political appointee at that level was like being a Christian in the Colosseum.”
Before working in government, Suh was a program officer for both the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Suh has bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Barnard College and received a Fulbright Fellowship to Seoul, South Korea. She has a master’s degree in education, administration, planning and social policy from Harvard University.
“I feel an enormous sense of privilege in being appointed to this position,” Suh said. “MCF is regarded as a leader in the field, with an influence that extends across the country, and I believe that my diverse experience and skillset can extend that influence to make an even greater impact in the community.”
While Suh was president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the organization grew by more than $50 million and increased its membership by more than 40 percent. She helped guide high-level discussions that resulted in the global climate agreement in Paris; lobbied for a settlement for the residents of Flint, Michigan, during the city’s toxic drinking water crisis; and appeared as a featured speaker at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, D.C.
As a member of the Obama administration, Suh established a diversity program for the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and led an effort for federal recognition for the native Hawaiian community.
“The range of her experience and the depth of her expertise mean that Rhea’s leadership is sure to herald an exciting new phase of evolution for the foundation,” said Mark Buell, chairman of the Marin Community Foundation board.
Suh said, “My life’s ambitions are uniquely in sync with MCF’s mission, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to explicitly pursue the conjoined goals of equity, justice, prosperity and sustainability through the lens of place, and with the focus on people.”
The Novato-based foundation consists of two funds that are overseen by separate boards.
The foundation was created in 1987 after a legal battle over control of a $435 million charitable fund that grew from a bequest by Ross resident Beryl Buck. The Buck Family Fund has since grown to about $1 billion.
The Buck Family Fund, commonly referred to as the Buck Trust, distributes each year an amount based on a five-year rolling average of its annual valuation. Eighty percent of that amount is distributed exclusively to Marin nonprofit organizations and schools.
The other 20% is divvied up among the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, the Buck Institute for Education and Alcohol Justice. The Buck Family Fund has given out $36 million in grants so far during the fiscal year that ends on June 30.
“The foundation and the county have a lot of shared mission and we work together all the time,” said Marin County Administrator Matthew Hymel. “My hope is we will continue to do that with the new director.”
A separate board of directors oversees the foundation’s operations and $2 billion in family and community funds. The foundation administers charitable funds for people, families and businesses.
These giving accounts are known as “donor-advised funds” because the donors consult with the foundation regarding how their money should be spent. The donor-advised funds have given out $132 million in grants so far this fiscal year.
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