MEMBER PROFILE: Catherine Crystal Foster

Catherine Crystal Foster Vice President on the Advisory Team at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA)

Catherine’s roles in the social sector have included policy advocacy for a national children’s program, and leadership of the Westly Foundation in California, and philanthropic innovation lab Magnify Community. She also founded Policy & Advocacy Consulting, where she advised on strategy and evaluation for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The California Endowment, and David & Lucile Packard Foundation.

In Journal, Catherine shares how she leverages her superpower, connecting people and ideas, for the social enterprise Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA).

Tell us a little about your role at RPA.

RPA’s mission is to accelerate philanthropy in pursuit of a just world. It’s my dream job, bringing together all the components of my 30-year career in the social sector, where I’ve worked as a public interest attorney, policy advocate, philanthropy consultant, nonprofit leader, foundation leader, and philanthropy entrepreneur.

I lead a team of advisors in our San Francisco office and work with families, foundations, and corporations on all aspects of philanthropy, from getting started with giving to devising complex philanthropic strategies and implementing grantmaking programs.

When was RPA founded, and why?

We were founded in 2002 as a spin-out of the Rockefeller Family Office. Our founding team was helping some of the hundreds of generous descendants of John D. Rockefeller with their giving and realized that there was a strong need among others outside the family for advice on more thoughtful and effective philanthropy.

Today, RPA accelerates philanthropy in pursuit of a just world through a diverse team of experienced grantmakers with significant depth of knowledge across the spectrum of issue areas.

Tell us a little about RPA’s clients and accomplishments.

Since our founding 20 years ago, we have facilitated over $4 billion in gifts and investments, and we facilitate almost $600 million annually in more than 30 countries across lines of service. We produce various materials that can guide giving and advance practice in the field. A few include Operating Archetypes, Impact Investing Handbook, and our suite of guides for donors, including the Philanthropy Roadmap.  We’re now embracing work related to futurism in philanthropy.

Our clients work on wide-ranging issues —education, de-incarceration, climate, food security, and so much more. We have some very exciting projects underway on gender equity, democracy, and economic inclusion.

What developments in your field are you most excited about, and why?

We’re excited to work with families new to wealth and open to new ways of generating impact. We have clients whose philanthropy spans generations who are taking very thoughtful approaches to engaging the younger generations and shifting strategies to be more proactive in addressing pressing issues like climate change, and to engage the communities they serve in informing their grantmaking. Many of our corporate philanthropy and private foundation clients are embracing impact investing, which magnifies their impact in addition to their grantmaking.

What changes would you like to see within the arena of philanthropic growth and innovation?

We would like more philanthropic capital accelerated more boldly, since philanthropic capital can be risk capital. The challenges we face in our communities, in our democracy, and as residents of a warming planet require bold action taken in partnership with those closest to the challenges or most affected by them.

How do you define sustainability?

Keeping my footprint on the planet as light as possible, adopting a mindset of abundance regarding generosity and social action, tempered by humility and attentiveness to natural resources. There is much we can do to be good stewards of what we have, avoid waste, and regenerate as much as possible.

How does your membership at CANOPY support you in your work?

In 2022, I signed up for a Nomad membership, which gives me access to well-designed communal workspaces for 60 days per year on my “at home” days when I’m not in RPA’s San Francisco office.  We often rent conference space at CANOPY when we meet with our Silicon Valley clients—the spaces are comfortable and put our clients at ease.

What single piece of advice do you like to give to someone who wants to enter your field?

Listen actively and respectfully to nonprofit and community leaders to understand what they need. Remember that philanthropy is accountable to the public and those served by the philanthropy.

What’s a skill everyone should master?

Cooking! It keeps you healthy and self-reliant, allowing you to give others joy by serving them a home-cooked meal. I find cooking very meditative and relaxing. It’s my creative outlet.

Do you have a favorite podcast?

The Ezra Klein Show. He always keeps me thinking.

What’s your favorite thing to do in the San Francisco Bay Area?

Hike in the glorious Open Space Preserves on the Peninsula


Follow Catherine on Linkedin and on X (formerly Twitter) @act4all, and RPA on X @RockPhilanth.