Leadership Profile: Natalie Jones

What is your role at your organization? 

I am senior vice president of external affairs and diplomatic engagement, which means I am focused on three things: first, driving revenue to the organization through philanthropic partnerships; second, amplifying and highlighting the work/impact of Meridian through communications; and third, engaging with a wide range of stakeholders, from government to diplomatic to private sector leaders. 

Tell me more about the project BFF is currently funding. What are your visions/goals for this project? What value has being part of the BFF ecosystem brought to your organization? 

We are immensely thankful to the Bernstein Family Foundation. We feel fortunate that we are able to partner with an organization that values sustainable change and has a bold approach to tackling issues.   

One of the big projects BFF is helping to support is a program called Diplomacy RISE. It’s a professional development program geared toward developing the next generation of American diplomats that fully reflect America’s diversity and are ready for 21st century challenges like climate change, global health, and cyber security. Everything that has happened over the past year and a half, highlighting the racial injustices in the U.S., has also forced us to look at American diplomacy at home, and how it has traditionally leaned toward “Yale, male, and pale”. In order for America to be strong, we must have diplomats that reflect the full breadth of our country’s diversity: racial, gender, socioeconomic, geographic, you name it. That’s what this program is focused on: strengthening American democracy by building a stronger, more diverse American diplomatic corps. 

How can people get involved in the work of your organization? 

One of the things I love about Meridian is that there are so many entry points to our work. First and foremost, if people want to financially support Meridian, they are able to join some of our communities of interest. Second is through expertise. We host over 4000 emerging leaders from around the world every year. These leaders come to the U.S. and engage with Americans to learn about specific issues (women’s economic development, climate change, etc.). We want to connect them with their American counterparts. Third, for those who want to learn about a different culture, one of the best ways to engage with Meridian is hosting these exchange participants at your home for dinner and conversation. You just learn so much. When they come to the U.S., as part of our evaluation practices, we survey them, and that experience of being in someone’s home and sharing a meal with them is always their favorite experience of the trip. Sharing a meal goes a long, long way in building those relationships. 

Has Covid changed the way the organization works or views its role in society? If so, how? 

It’s been so hard: we’re in the people-to-people business! I love this quote from Edward R. Murrow: “The most important work of diplomacy takes place in the last three feet”—the three feet between one person and another. A lot of our programs were based on establishing that relationship and that rapport, in addition to learning new skills and developing experiences. We’ve been able to pivot to virtual and hybrid programs—not only continuing Meridian’s work, but broadening the work to reach more leaders. We have more resources available to our international exchange participants. A big thing we’re focused on is making sure that the alumni of our programs stay connected. Embracing this digital/video conference tool has been extremely helpful in making sure that those connections can stay in place. It forced us to think about how we engage and how we can be effective and how we can reach more people; it’s made us stronger. It was hard to see that at the very beginning, but looking at it now, I am so proud of our team and how we’ve been able to pivot and grow.  

As a non-profit leader, how do you evaluate your progress and success? How do metrics play into your work? What suggestions do you have to other non-profit leaders about using metrics? 

Metrics are extremely important. We have systems and tactics in place to measure the impact of our programs, but I will say that it’s so difficult to quantify. A lot of the impact comes from these international exchange participants, or people participating in our programs: they are the change-makers of tomorrow, and they are working on policy issues that require such incremental change. We had a wonderful young Pakistani woman who was part of our programs, and she went on to become a member of Parliament and pass legislation protecting women and girls; to quantify that impact is difficult.  

I would say to leaders that metrics are important, but don’t forget about the qualitative part—what those relationships mean, and looking at things over time. Look at the long game. One of my favorite quotes is from President Obama: “It’s not a marathon, it’s not a sprint—it’s a relay race.” He was going to do as much as he could, and then pass the baton on to someone else. That’s the way I think leaders should look at their work as well. 

We seem to be entering a new age of philanthropy and activism, based the intersectionality and interconnectedness of previously separate interest categories. How can Meridian be a leader in this environment? 

This is one of the reasons we love the Bernstein Family Foundation and we love Ami. A lot of that thinking is actually what Meridian has been doing for years! Meridian is a center for diplomacy. We believe America is stronger at home when globally engaged, so we focus on strengthening engagement through three core programs: global leadership/international exchange programs; arts and culture—using them to connect people around the world; collaboration—bringing together different viewpoints to tackle a range of global issues. Meridian for years has been this nonpartisan neutral platform where we can get together stakeholders who don’t’ even know they should be in the same room, talking to each other about an international trade issue. We purposefully are intentional about curating our discussions so there are perspectives across party lines, across borders, across industries. We’ve been very hyper-focused on getting people outside of their silos to work on these global challenges. 

How can the arts be a tool for social change? 

The world has become more polarized. It feels like there are more things dividing us than there are bringing us together. Arts and culture are universal—music, art, food, fashion, sports—these are common denominators. That’s what Meridian really leans into: using culture to bring people together who perhaps wouldn’t see eye-to-eye otherwise. 

What books have inspired or challenged you? 

I’m reading now Killers of the Flower Moon. I love nonfiction; usually the truth is more interesting than fiction. It’s about the Osage tribe in Oklahoma, and there was a series of murders in this tribe. It’s a true story; it was a conspiracy to steal their wealth, and it was covered up. I think just broadly, I love reading about these periods of American history I didn’t learn growing up, or sometimes were also glazed over. America does have some dark parts—it has so many amazing parts, but also some dark parts. Going back and reading about those times is important. 

What is your mantra? 

There is a quote I heard recently at an event that really struck me, and it’s been my most recent mantra. It’s from Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said; people will forget what you did; but people will never forget the way you make them feel.” It’s a good lesson of life and a good way to think about how you treat people—personally, professionally. And then as I think about our work at Meridian . . . of course, all the skills and knowledge and experience our participants are receiving are so important, but at the end of the day, it’s how they feel about our program—about the people they meet, about the environment we create for them. It’s a good reminder that we can pour all of this time into planning the perfect schedule or saying the right things, but at the end of the day, it’s “How do you make people feel?” 

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