Don Chen Selected as Surdna Foundation’s Third President

NEW YORK – The Surdna Foundation’s board of directors announced today its unanimous and enthusiastic selection of Don Chen as the foundation’s new president. “Don has the track record, experience and deep commitment to social justice values that we were looking for,” said Peter Benedict II, board chair.

“Don has collaborated with the foundation for over 20 years, first as a grantee and later as a peer funder. When the board met Don, his passion, purpose and authenticity were abundantly clear and magnetic. That is the kind of leader that we, and the world, need now,” said Benedict.

Chen’s deep personal and professional dedication to advancing social justice is what attracted him to Surdna. “The U.S. is facing unique socio-economic, cultural and political challenges that require a mission-driven institution like Surdna to lead with bold ideas, strong actions and fierce urgency. While we know the path to social justice is long, I am honored and humbled to take the helm of an organization – and join forces with a family – that has such a long-standing commitment to the cause. Working with Surdna’s outstanding staff and board, I am eager to build on the substantial legacy of the foundation and the Andrus family.”

“As the son of Chinese immigrants, I’m especially proud to assume this role in the name of the countless families that are fleeing danger and hardship and seeking to make contributions to their communities in the U.S.,” said Chen. 

“Don’s appointment reflects Surdna’s values of social justice and represents a significant achievement for diversity in philanthropy,” said Tracy Palandjian, chair of the Surdna Foundation’s Investment Committee. “As a fellow Chinese American, I’m thrilled that Don will be among the first Chinese Americans to lead a major national foundation.”

Chen currently leads the Just Cities and Regions team for the Ford Foundation. In this role, he transformed Ford’s approach to urban development strategies that reduce poverty, expand economic opportunities and advance sustainability in the U.S. and countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

“I’ve known Don since he led Smart Growth America 15 years ago and have seen his development into one of the shining stars in the field of philanthropy. Don is an ideal leader for Surdna in this moment and possesses the perfect combination of temperament, leadership and management experience to lead the foundation into its next century,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation.

Phillip Henderson, Surdna Foundation’s president since 2007, endorsed the choice of his successor, noting “Selecting such an accomplished and respected leader as Don shows how serious the family and the board are to make meaningful progress on social justice.”

Prior to the Ford Foundation, Chen was the founder and CEO of Smart Growth America, where he led efforts to create the National Vacant Properties Campaign (which later became the Center for Community Progress) and Transportation for America. Surdna made a seed investment and provided core support to Chen when he first launched Smart Growth America.

Chen earned a master’s degree from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a bachelor’s degree from Yale University. He is a founding member of Funders for Housing & Opportunity and former board member of the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities. He has authored many pieces on land use, transportation, social equity and environmental justice. He will be the foundation’s third president since 1989, when Surdna established a full-time, professional staff. The foundation currently has more than $1 billion in assets.

Benedict summed up why the board selected Chen as the foundation’s next leader: “Don is the future of Surdna and embodies our vision for the foundation and, more profoundly, a better world.”