If you ask Elizabeth R. Brands, president and CEO of The Morris Foundation, about her leadership mentors, she quickly points to the two founders of the foundation: Linda C. and Jack B. Morris.
“Jack was one of those kids that was born with a deck stacked against him and through persistence and innovation and determination, he set up businesses, and they faltered and he persisted and set them up again and really built a life for him and his family that enabled him to set up the Morris Foundation in the way that it is now present in our city,” she said.
The Morris Foundation, headquartered in Fort Worth, was founded in 1986 and serves Fort Worth and Tarrant County, focusing its services and support in the areas of education, health care and social services. In 2021, the foundation supported 102 organizations.
Brands, head of education at the foundation since 2016, was named president and CEO in March of this year, becoming the third leader in the history of the foundation.
Brands was previously named executive director of Read Fort Worth in 2017, while also head of education for the foundation. Read Fort Worth is a coalition of business, civic, education, philanthropic, nonprofit and volunteer leaders working to ensure that 100 percent of Fort Worth third-graders are reading to learn – not learning to read – by 2025.
The program, modeled on several others around the county, was created by former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Kent P. Scribner, as well as an array of business and civic leaders.
Education is key to her background. Brands has been a teacher, funder, and program provider. As a teacher, she learned firsthand the challenges educators face, she said. As a foundation program officer, she evaluated and funded agencies, and partnered on area-wide systemic improvements.
Brands grew up in Portland, Oregon, and she admits that moving to Tulsa to begin her career was quite a shock, but she fell in love with teaching and education.
“My teaching experience in west Tulsa really showed me that education is a great equalizer for kids that are born with the cards stacked against them in their deck,” she said.
Brands recalled one student that exemplified how education and support from social organizations can change a life.
“She had been born with a lot of barriers against her that were of no fault of her own. Her parents were out of the picture. She lived with her grandparents, and she persisted,” Brands said.
The student worked hard and got support for her basic and social needs. She went on to get a scholarship to a private high school and eventually graduated from Oklahoma State University.
“She really embodied for me what an excellent education system with support around a kid can really do,” she said. “I want to make sure we create more stories like that in any community that we live in.”
Brands noted the student had teachers who stayed after school to give her tutoring support, an assistant principal who found her scholarship opportunities, and a grandmother who was a strong advocate and champion.
“I never think it’s like one thing you can point to,” she said. “It always is a series of circumstances and opportunities and kind of all those pieces lining up. That’s kind of the teaching experience that I had that really showed me that education can be a great equalizer for kids.”
Brands eventually moved into school administration and wrote grants for schools before moving on to the Tulsa Community Foundation for a number of years before becoming executive director of Reading Partners in Oklahoma, There she worked to help at-risk youth master grade-level reading skills.
She came to Fort Worth and The Morris Foundation in 2016 as head of education giving, then added executive director of Read Fort Worth to her responsibilities. The Morris Foundation and Read Fort Worth have a formal collaborative agreement.
Linda and Jack Morris formed the foundation with a clear vision of who the beneficiaries were to be: Fort Worth’s most vulnerable people.
Morris’ company, MPI Industries, made primarily carpet padding and various products and materials associated with it. When he sold his company to Carthage, Missouri-based Leggett & Platt in 1986, he held about 90 patents for different products in the market.
The foundation began in 1986, with an initial $20 million in assets. Assets have grown over time, reaching $90 million after Morris’ death in 2004. In 2018, assets were valued at $179 million.
“Elizabeth is a leader who listens, evaluates, and then acts,” Laura Anne Liles and Michelle Piotrowski, trustees for the Foundation and daughters of Linda and Jack Morris, said in a joint statement. “She exemplifies the empathy and respect Linda and Jack Morris had for the lives we serve while also being an exceptionally thoughtful leader with the professional experience and education to bring big ideas forward in the community and then see them through to the benefit of children and their families.”
Former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who worked with Brands through Read Fort Worth, said Brands leadership style is very inclusive.
“I’m impressed with that leadership capacity, that she comes always prepared and always has done her homework on things,” she said. “She’s very, very thorough.”
With health care as one the foundation’s focus areas, the pandemic required some changes to respond to the crisis and provide funding as quickly as possible.
“We expedited the internal processes on our end. We tried to make some of the pieces of the process shorter and quicker for agencies who were applying,” she said.
Sometimes they got hands-on with the process.
“When we needed to, we drove the checks to agencies to make sure that they physically had that check in hand faster,” she said.
While that was a special circumstance, Brands said, she and others are the foundation know those dollars are important.
“We never underestimate the importance of those dollars that we send out through our grant checks, because they literally pay for the people and the programs at the 100 nonprofit agencies that we give money to on an annual basis,” she said. “We really try to make sure that our processes enable those agencies, those nonprofit agencies to do more of their work better rather than hindering them in paperwork and processes that distract and take away from them living out their missions.”
Brands said listening is key to her leadership style. .
“I was asked to give advice to a college graduate,” she said. “I said that I have never gone wrong by asking two more questions in any situation, because inevitably, there will be something that I didn’t know that I will learn.”
She believes great leaders lift up those around them to be exceptional so the leaders can step in the background.
“I aspire to be that kind of leader that lifts up those around me to be better than they thought that they could be,” she said. “And so that kind of guides my leadership style.”
Name: Elizabeth R. Brands
Birthplace: Portland, Oregon
Family: husband, Matt
Work history: She started at The Morris Foundation as head of
Education Giving on July 17, 2017.
Brands worked in a small school where she was the PE teacher and the computer teacher. She was also the girls’ basketball, volleyball and track coach.
Best advice you ever received:
“The best leaders that I have worked for or witnessed, they really empower those around them to be better than they thought they could be. And that’s the kind of leader I aspire to be, to empower those around me to be better than they thought they could be. And so I tried to lead in that way, but I think we’re all better when that happens too.