Raised on the small Hawaiian island of Kauai, Ruby Takanishi, PhD, quickly learned the importance of helping her neighbors from her service-oriented mother, Misae. Takanishi spent more than three years as a Girl Scout growing up, and served as a candy striper during high school. In college, she even snubbed a spring break trip to Florida so that she could help with clean-up at the Round Valley Indian Reservation in Covello, Calif.
"The whole idea of going to Orlando was totally out of my mind," says Takanishi, now president of the New-York based Foundation for Child Development (FCD), one of the oldest philanthropic groups devoted to low-income children and their families. "I just considered [service] to be part of who I was."
Today, Takanishi combines this upbringing with a passion for science and research, dedicating herself to policy work that improves the lives of disadvantaged children.
Her need to give back led her to the top ranks of a number of organizations. After nearly 10 successful years researching and teaching child development at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Yale University, Takanishi declined tenure and found her calling in nonprofit and philanthropy work. She spent four years at APA, two as director of the Office of Scientific Affairs. In 1986, she became executive director of the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, a policy shop within the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a grant-making organization. There, Takanishi worked with a multidisciplinary group of experts to develop landmark reports on the challenges adolescents face. One 1992 report, for example, advocated for schools, families and community organizations toprovide safe after-school settings for children.
"This was the first time attention was paid to the potential for after-school programs to prevent crime," she recalls.
After joining FCD, she led efforts to gauge the effects of welfare reform. While other foundations scrambled to patch funding holes left by the reform, FCD developed a national Index of Child Well-Being (CWI), which documents the quality of life of America's children since 1975. FCD's 2007 CWI report, released in April, shows a sharp decline in children's health, driven mainly by a dramatic increase in obesity.
FCD also funded advocacy, policy and research to promote universal access to prekindergarten programs, which continue to grow in number today, thanks in part to FCD's efforts. Takanishi credits such successes to her focus on areas of greatest need that may be invisible or neglected.
"We don't run after every new trend that comes over the horizon," she says. "In the foundation world at least, that's seen as leadership."
For her ongoing work helping people in her neighborhood and beyond, Takanishi received the 2004 Fred Rogers Leadership Award in Philanthropy for Children, Youth and Families from Grantmakers for Children, Youth and Families, an organization representing more than 500 private, corporate, community and family foundations committed to funding youth and family-friendly programs and policies. Not one to take much credit for her achievements, during her acceptance speech, she thanked those who assisted in her efforts. Even today, Takanishi says that despite her success, she still doesn't really consider herself a leader.
"I just tend to think about what I can contribute and how I can make a situation better," she says. "There's still so much to do."