Prior to sitting down for her WAG interview, Juanita T. James returned to her office at Fairfield County’s Community Foundation as the newly minted winner of the Martha S. Newman Award, the highest honor presented by the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy.
“It is overwhelming, humbling and affirming to know that people want to appreciate and recognize the work you do,” says James, who became the philanthropic foundation’s president and CEO in 2011. “One of the things I said in accepting this award is that I don’t come from philanthropy — I am new to the field of philanthropy.”
But, then again, she adds upon reflection, she had a lifetime’s education in the value of philanthropic outreach via her mother.
“We come from very humble beginnings in British Guiana, which is now Guyana,” she recalls. “Her father died when she was 13 years old. She ended up quitting school and supporting her entire family because she had the ability to sew, and she made a living out of her sewing. As a result, she was able to educate her brothers and sisters. When she migrated to the U.S. pregnant with me — I’m a first-generation American — she stressed the importance of education as a way to be successful. She taught me that my job was to go to school, learn and get good grades. Growing up, she ended up sponsoring many of her brothers and sisters to come to the U.S. And she sponsored my cousins to come over and get an education so they could make a living and change their economic well-being.”
Also key to her mother’s life lessons, she says, was the importance to “share one’s blessings with others, how important it was to give for the sake of giving and not for recognition or asking from others in return. She didn’t have financial resources, but she gave of her time and her wisdom, and most of my cousins and I were raised with that discipline about the importance of hard work. And what she gave of them was the access to opportunities and to be able to do for themselves.”
James earned a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and a master’s degree in business policy from Columbia University. Entering the private sector, she was cognizant of seeking out companies that shared her values and principles.
“I started out my career at Time Inc., which later became Time Warner, and that was all about ideas,” she says. “Time Inc. encouraged all of its employees to volunteer and be active parts of the community. I started serving on my first nonprofit board in 1977. When I left Time Inc., I went to Bertelsmann for a few years and then I went to Pitney Bowes — I completely changed careers and sectors, but one of the reasons I chose Pitney Bowes is because of its reputation as a major community citizen involved in making a difference and an impact.”
James served as Pitney Bowes’ vice president and chief marketing and communications officer until 2010. In the decade that she has been away from the private sector, she has been enthusiastic at how the corporate world and the next generation of leaders have embraced philanthropic ideals.
“I came up with the generation of GE and Pitney Bowes and these big corporations that were philanthropic and engaged in their communities,” she says. “Now we’re seeing the private sector really stand up for influencing and being involved, whether it is community economic development or education. And I think our generation of millennials is very, very interested in the impact they are going to make, both socially and financially, on the world. They may not be in a position to volunteer the way previous generations did — we’re all sort of strapped in terms of time — but from what I am observing, they want to use their time wisely and they want to know they are making a difference.”
One of James’ key triumphs in her leadership role at Fairfield County’s Community Foundation is the annual Giving Day event, which generates donations to the region’s nonprofit organization. This year’s sixth annual Giving Day event raised a record $1.71 million, a 17 percent increase from last year, with total of 16,576 gifts from 11,742 donors and funds going to 415 local nonprofits.
James heralded the record-breaking results by praising “the determination of thousands of our neighbors to create a thriving region for the people and places that are served so admirably by our nonprofit sector.”
James’ leadership skills have been sought repeatedly by nonprofits and private-sector firms. She is now a director for Asbury Automotive Group, First County Bank, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and Community Foundations Leading Change. She is also a vice chairwoman of the board of trustees at Lesley University, a trustee emerita of Princeton University and a former trustee of the University of Connecticut, as well as a former board member for the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy. Beyond the foundation, James serves as a deacon and elder at the First Presbyterian Church of Stamford. Even on Sunday, she is reminded of the importance of giving back to the wider world.
“The Presbyterian Church’s founding principles are religious education and a mission component to the work we do,” she says. “Most of my church colleagues are involved in the community, and our church has an afterschool program that we call creative learning — and the students we serve, we see a significant improvement in their grades and commitment to school.”
Clearly, James is a very busy woman, and she admits she is “trying to see if I can allocate my time a little better, in terms of thinking that I try to squeeze less activity into a 24-hour day — or, in my case, a 30-hour day.” But despite the demands on her schedule, she acknowledges that she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I find being around people energizing. I find the work I do energizing. In some ways, the reason I can commit so much time to it is because it gives me so much joy in doing that.”