The power of place

Alesha Washington standing

Alumna Alesha Washington, CEO of the Seattle Foundation, brings a Cleveland-born sense of community to the Pacific Northwest

Nonprofits played a crucial role in Alesha Washington's upbringing in Cleveland—and provided her first lessons about community-serving organizations.

She attended preschool at an early learning center and served as a camp counselor with the YMCA branch in her Glenville neighborhood. "I recognized later there were these institutions that helped me progress in life," said Washington (MNO '07), "and I had a sense that I wanted to give back in some way." And give back she has—as a college student, nonprofit leader in Cleveland and, since 2022, CEO of the Seattle Foundation, with $1 billion in assets.

While Washington said leaving her hometown was tough, she was drawn to the foundation's commitment to advancing racial equity and the potential to work at the juncture of public policy and advocacy.

"The Seattle Foundation seemed to already be there in terms of understanding that intersection—and the power of using that in the work," she said. "And so I leaned into the audacity of that moment to say, 'Why not?'"

Since then, she has been struck by the size of the donor community, the vibrant public and private sectors and the extensive ecosystem of nonprofits and community-based groups. She's also enjoyed the opportunity to view it all from a vantage point that allows her and the foundation staff to envision possibilities for organizations they hadn't seen themselves.

Washington attended Oberlin College as an undergraduate. During that time, she mentored high school students and held a work-study role focused on community service.

She later earned a Master of Nonprofit Management degree at Case Western Reserve. "I use my degree from [the university] all the time," Washington said. It provided her a fundamental understanding of good governance and honed her "legal acumen, understanding of philanthropy and power and how they move through civic life." She still has a well-worn financial management tool from her campus days. "Some of my colleagues and peers from Case [Western Reserve] joke that we were all still using that same Excel document from the financial budgeting class," she said.

Washington served in various roles in Cleveland nonprofits over 17 years, most recently as director for Vibrant Neighborhoods and Inclusive Economy at The George Gund Foundation.

At the Seattle Foundation, Washington's priority has been to strengthen the business fundamentals of an organization with a staff of 50 and a $12 million operating budget. "A stronger core gets me into a space where I am able to focus on inspiring people to want to give more and be connected in deeper ways," she said.

Washington enjoys exploring her new home city with visits to the organizations the foundation supports. They include Wa Na Wari, an art space and community center in Seattle's Central District, a historically Black neighborhood that has seen significant gentrification in recent generations.

"This nonprofit is creating a space of belonging for people that feel like they no longer have access to the community where they grew up," Washington said. "It's a powerful community example to me of what it means [for the foundation] to invest in the thing that matters: the place."


This story appeared in the spring/summer 2024 issue of Think magazine.