Paul Belsito admits he’s struggling somewhat with Zoom and conference calls — not the technology, but the nature of those forms of communication.
He’s a people person, and he likes meeting them face to face — and not on screen or over the phone.
“I enjoy going to events and networking — that’s how I meet people,” he said, noting that there haven’t been any opportunities like that since he’s arrived, and he’s looking to the day when they return. “Zoom is OK, and I’m getting good at it, but it’s not the same.”
But it is reality in the summer of 2020, and this is how Belsito, chosen late this spring to fill the rather large shoes of Mary Walachy as executive director of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, has been going about what will remain his primary assignment for the foreseeable future.
And that is to ‘meet’ as many people as possible and come to fully understand the many issues and challenges facing the Western Mass. community.
“This is a world built on relationships, and you have to understand people’s perspectives and listen actively so you can help build on the foundation that’s been laid,” he explained, adding that, since arriving in early June, he’s been doing a lot of listening, with the intention of acting — and collaborating with others — on what he’s hearing.
It’s an assignment he accepts with considerable enthusiasm, and one to which he brings an intriguing background, blending work in financial services, government (he was district director for state Sen. Edward Augustus), higher education (he was executive assistant to the president at Assumption College in Worcester, his alma mater), and philanthropy; most recently he served as president of the Hanover Insurance Group Foundation in Worcester and assistant vice president for Community Relations.
And he intends to draw on all that experience in a role that involves everything from community outreach to regional problem solving, but mostly comes down to what Belsito calls “impact philanthropy.”
“A lot of my work has been grounded in community work,” he said, using that phrase to describe many of his career stops. “Getting involved and influencing has always been part of my DNA, and it’s generational in many ways — my family was very involved in the community in Worcester.”
This devotion to community work, as well as an opportunity to continue and build on Davis Foundation initiatives in literacy, early-childhood education, improving the Springfield Public Schools, and other endeavors, drew him to the Davis Foundation, created by George Davis, founder of American Saw & Manufacturing, and his wife Irene, and the opportunity to succeed Walachy, whose work he has admired from Worcester.
“The work that Davis has done in literacy and specifically early education is well-known throughout the Commonwealth,” he noted. “I had known them from that lens of an active member in a peer community trying to work on the same issues; Mary is a household name in the early-education space throughout the Commonwealth, and her name is often brought up as someone to model in her guidance on how to pull these programs together.”
Coming to Springfield from Worcester, Belsito said there are many similarities between the state’s second- and third-largest cities (with Worcester being the former), and common challenges. These include everything from education to economic development and job creation. But they are different and unique communities with their own “personalities,” as he called them.
“This is a world built on relationships, and you have to understand people’s perspectives and listen actively so you can help build on the foundation that’s been laid.”
“Worcester and Springfield are not the same, although they do have similar traits,” he noted. “It’s my job to listen and maybe take some of my experiences from Worcester and share those with folks in Springfield. Maybe one in 20 will catch and improve the lives of children and families.”
Meanwhile, recent events have brought other priorities to the fore, including the plight of the region’s nonprofits, many of which have been severely impacted by the pandemic from the standpoints of revenue and sustainability, and the broad issue of racial justice, which the foundation has helped address through creation of the Healing Racism Institute, now a separate 501(c)(3), but still very much affiliated with the Davis Foundation.
And these emerging issues are dominating many of those discussions he’s been having as he goes about listening and building relationships.
For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Belsito about his new role, but especially about the challenges facing Springfield, the region, and its large core of nonprofits — all of which have looked to the Davis Foundation over the years for not simply financial support, but also direction and leadership.
Moving forward, he said the foundation will be continuing in those roles and constantly looking for new ways in which to make an impact and move the needle.
Tracing the steps that brought him to the Davis Foundation’s suite of offices in Monarch Place, Belsito said his professional career started at Flagship Bank and Trust Co. in Worcester, where he served as a trust administrator, working with families to help manage their assets and trusts.
While in that role, he started doing volunteer work within the community, and before long, his career aspirations changed.
“All of a sudden, everything flipped, and the volunteer work became a career,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, in 2005, he started working for Augustus, now the city manager in Worcester. After a stint as a private consultant, he became executive assistant to the president at Assumption, which was, in many ways, a continuation of the work he did at the State House.
“I worked for a state senator who was very driven by policy, not politics,” he explained. “His mindset was, while we were in that building, how could we improve the lives of people not only in that district, but across the Commonwealth? The policy piece was very important to me, and it carried over to the higher-education piece.”
From Assumption, he went to Hanover Insurance, which, like MassMutual in this market, has historically been deeply involved in the community, often serving as a “catalyst for change,” as he put it.
He started in community relations and eventually became president of the Hanover Insurance Group Foundation.
“As we began to pivot on how to not only make the company a world-class company but also the city in which it was headquartered, I did a lot of work with the Worcester Public Schools, with the Hanover Theater, and various organizations within the community that really helped to round out the experience for children and families so that they would be successful out in the community,” he said, noting that perhaps the most significant initiative launched by the Hanover Foundation is the Advancement Via Individualized Determination (AVID) college-readiness program in the Worcester Public Schools.
“It was an honor to work for a company that was so committed to impact philanthropy,” he went on, “which is trying to move the needle and have outcomes and data that support the investment that you’re making.”
Slicing through his job description at Davis, he said it’s to generate this type of needle-moving philanthropy — or more of it, because the foundation has been involved in a number of potentially game-changing initiatives, including Cherish Every Child, a nationally recognized Reading Success by 4th Grade program, the advocacy group Springfield Business Leaders for Education, and, most recently, the effort to establish the innovative Educare Springfield early-education center, which opened last fall near the campus of Springfield College.
“One of the things that struck me about the Davis family was the humility with which they do their work. They want to be sure they’re supporting things that generate outcomes and improve the quality of education and quality of life for children and families in the region.”
The desire to continue such initiatives and create more of them brought Belsito to Springfield (via Zoom) to interview for the Davis job, a job posting that came about as he was looking for a new challenge after spending a short stint working for the city of Worcester on its COVID-19 response.
“I had known of Davis for a long time — and we actually used Davis and the work that Springfield was doing as one of the models as we were developing a reading-for-success program what would work best for our community.”
Looking ahead, Belsito said that, as the Davis Foundation continues its mission of service to the community, the specific direction of its initiatives will be determined by recognized needs within area cities and towns.
But he’s certain that education and a hard focus on young people will be at the heart of those discussions.
“One of the things that struck me about the Davis family was the humility with which they do their work,” he explained. “They want to be sure they’re supporting things that generate outcomes and improve the quality of education and quality of life for children and families in the region.
“And if you look at the legacy of the family, that’s been a consistent theme,” he went on. “And as we look to the next phase of where the Davis family’s impact will be, I believe that it will consistently be in education and literacy, but we also have a new generation of family members who are getting more active within the community, so how do we integrate some of their perspectives in making sure that we have a consistent, shared goal of improving the lives of children and families in Hampden County?”
Beyond this shared goal, there are new and emerging needs within the community, he said, noting, as one example, the mounting challenges facing the region’s large core of nonprofit organizations, many of which were struggling with finances before COVID-19.
“Many nonprofits are in a vulnerable state from a financial perspective,” he noted. “And this experience from the past few months has only exacerbated that. So we want to look at how Davis and organizations like the Community Foundation of Western Mass. can come together to help ensure that the mission-driven organizations that are needed for the community to be successful can thrive and be able to provide the services they need.
“Even from the start of my interview process at Davis to today, a lot has changed,” Belsito went on, referring not only to the pandemic and its repercussions, but also George Floyd’s death and the resulting focus on racial justice. “Perspectives have changed, and priorities have changed, and so we need to convene people at the local level and ask, ‘what does this community need to be successful?’”
What hasn’t changed are the many social determinants of health — from housing and transportation to food insecurity and job losses — that are impacting quality of life in the region, he continued, adding that COVID-19 has helped shine a light on inequities in the system and the need to initiate steps to address them.
And when it comes to such efforts and other initiatives, the key is listening to members of the community and creating a dialogue about to address these problems, he said, adding that the Davis Foundation has historically been a leader in such discussions, and it will continue to play that role into the future.
“I’m a believer that, when you pull people together, there’s usually a solution that can be found,” he said, using that phrase to refer to everything from the sustainability of nonprofits to improving public education.
‘Meeting’ the Challenge
Left with what he says is little choice, Belsito has become quite savvy with Zoom and other virtual methods for meeting and getting to know people.
It’s not as he would want it, but it is indeed reality. And so are the many challenges confronting Springfield and the region, many of them amplified or accelerated by a pandemic that has been relentless.
Belsito said his first assignment is to understand what makes Springfield Springfield, and it is ongoing. From there, his job is to pull people together — something the Davis Foundation has always been good at it — and, when possible, move the needle.
He’s made it a career to take on such work, and he’s more than excited about what the next chapter might bring.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]