Remembering Irene Hirano Inouye

Dear Friends,

I want to let you know that our dear friend, Irene Hirano Inouye, and member of The Center’s Board of Advisors passed on April 7, after an extended illness.  Irene received her BA and MA in Public Administration from the Price School and had a dedicated lifetime of public service and civic leadership and a commitment to a more diverse and inclusive community.  Particularly noteworthy are the two institutions she built – the American Japanese National Museum here in Los Angeles, and the U.S.-Japan Council – both of which have missions to bridge cultures. In addition, she provided strong, consequential leadership to a dizzying array of the nation’s premiere philanthropic and nonprofit boards – including serving as Chair of The Kresge Foundation and the Ford Foundation.  She had a generosity of spirit and a willingness to share her experiences and insights with others, inspiring our work on philanthropic leadership and shared governance.

There are three moments that are particularly vivid as I think about her impact.  The first was her suggestion to invite Rip Rapson to speak as part of our Conversations in Philanthropy Series.  The two of them shared their story of transitioning the mission of The Kresge Foundation to focus on Detroit and American Cities as Rip became President while Irene chaired the Board.  It was a remarkable conversation that pulled back the veil on strategic choices that a national foundation made as it pivoted from providing capital support to rebuilding communities. It kindled The Center’s relationship with Rip and The Kresge Foundation that led to our joint work on “Drawing on Detroit,” and continues to shape our thinking about how philanthropy can leverage all of its resources, working with the other sectors, to create opportunities in our cities.

The second was a lunch conversation in DC where she was reflecting on her experiences on foundation boards and the paucity of resources for preparing one for such leadership. At the time, she was chairing the Ford Foundation board as they searched for their next President. As she reflected on the challenge, it reminded me of the discussion she had with Rip and the adage that the most important thing a board does is to pick the foundation’s executive.  She did not tip her hand where they were in the hiring process, but wanted me to talk to someone at the Ford Foundation to get a better sense of what was happening inside the foundation.  When I asked her who, she paused before suggesting that I meet with Darren Walker, who was then one of the Vice Presidents.  So I did just that.  He became President of the Ford Foundations just months later. He has since joined us in LA for one of our Distinguished Speaker luncheons, where he displayed all of the qualities that we in the sector have come to appreciate as he pushes for a more just and equitable society.

The Center is honored to be home to the Irene Hirano Inouye Philanthropic Leadership Fund – an endowed fund to support case studies of philanthropic leadership derived from the shared governance between foundation boards and executives. The first case study examined the forces behind Detroit’s Grand Bargain: Philanthropy as a Catalyst for A Brighter Future.  We were delighted to host a discussion with Judge Rosen, the federal bankruptcy mediator, Darren and Rip to launch the Fund.  Most do not realize the influential role Irene played providing support and advice in the boardrooms at two of the lead foundations, Kresge and Ford, as they worked to bring the city out of bankruptcy in a remarkably short period – helping to protect the pensions of city employees, preserve the Detroit Institute of Arts and put the city on a road to revitalization. This episode underscores her uncanny knack for leading through challenging times with grace, determination, and a generous spirit.

We will miss her, but celebrate her legacy.



Be sure to also read the piece in the New York Times about Irene’s life and legacy.