BY Tere Figueras Negrete, TFN Director of Communications


A force of nature. A bright star. A tornado in a bottle.  

By all accounts, Arlene Rodriguez embodied a fierce devotion to the causes and people she cared for.  

It’s with tremendous sadness that The Funders Network and our community of members, partners and staff mourn the passing of Arlene, who died earlier this month. 

Arlene served on TFN’s Board of Directors from 2004 to 2011 — including a two-year term as board chair — and played an instrumental role in the creation of the network’s Smart Growth California initiative, which brings together funders from across the state to advance sustainable and equitable reforms that benefit all Californians and the communities in which they live. 

“Arlene left an indelible impact on The Funders Network, not only by helping lead our organization as a board member and board chair, but through the advocacy and support that helped create Smart Growth California,” said TFN President and CEO Pat Smith. “Arlene understood the critical role philanthropy could play in driving social change and advancing environmental justice in the state, and she recognized the need for funders to come together to learn, collaborate and strategize together. We continue to be inspired by her legacy.” 

Arlene’s pivotal role in helping found Smart Growth California came during her time as a senior program director at the San Francisco Foundation, where she designed and implemented the foundation’s environment program.  

That role was one of many she held in the philanthropic and non-profit sector across decades of service and advocacy. She previously served as senior director of programs and external relations for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. She served as director of partnerships and external affairs at Living Cities, a collaborative of 19 of the world’s largest foundations and financial institutions working to close racial income and wealth gaps in American cities. Arlene also served as the Bay Area urban program director for The Trust for Public Land, was the founding director of the Crissy Field Environmental Center during her time with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and was a senior program officer for the environment at The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. 

Arlene also served as a board member of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, which makes grants to grassroots groups advancing racial justice and gender justice. She most recently was a board member of the Center for Environmental Health, which aims to protect people from toxic chemicals by working with communities, government, the private sector and others to demand and support practices that are safe for public health and the environment. (You can read CEH’s touching tribute to Arlene here.)  

Arlene is survived by her wife, Ansje Miller, executive director of the Health and Environmental Funders Network, as well as her daughter, Gabriella. 

Since Arlene’s passing, we’ve received many messages from past and present TFN and Smart Growth California members. We’re honored to share them with you below. 

Remembering Arlene


Nina Bohlen and Arlene Rodriguez.

Arlene was a wonder, a deeply loving person, who was passionate about fighting for justice and making the world a better place for all.  She was also a smart, strategic, and committed advocate for change, who knew how to bring people together to create new initiatives and achieve results. To me, she was also a wonderful friend, colleague, and mentor. She played an instrumental role in founding Smart Growth California while she was at the San Francisco Foundation. I will be forever grateful to her for her wise counsel, guidance, and support in launching the network.  Perhaps most of all, I will remember and treasure her love of life and fun-loving spirit.  She was a bright star, an inspiration, and I am very grateful to have known her.

 Nina Bohlenformer director of TFN’s Smart Growth California 


Arlene was a major part of Smart Growth California from its earliest days. She always had great insights as to what would work and what was fair. She had a huge heart and cared passionately for the work and advancing opportunities for all.  I will always remember — and miss — her beautiful laugh and sense of humor.  

Corey Brown, Resources Legacy Fund, member of Smart Growth California’s Statewide Steering Committee 


I only met Arlene a few times, but every time, she left a lasting impression. I was fortunate to cross paths with her at the TFN conference in Miami where I asked her to share some of the founding stories of Smart Growth California, which she happily and energetically did. She struck me as a warm-hearted, passionate visionary who knew how to bring people together and get things done!

Ron Milam, director, Smart Growth California


Capturing the spirit of Arlene Rodriguez is like trying to put a tornado in a bottle.  She was, simply put, a force of nature. Arlene was a ferocious defender of the environment a relentless advocate for social justice.  But there has never been a happier warrior. Her love of mankind was eclipsed only by her love for Ansje and Gabriella. I succeeded Arlene as board chair at TFN. She and I were about evenly matched in the “bullheadedness” department, but our disagreements always ended with hugs and kisses (and martinis).

Shortly before she left us, she said “I plan to haunt you.” Technically, I suggested, she meant continue to haunt me, which drew a laugh.  We should all hope to be haunted by a spirit like Arlene. We’ll be better for it. 

Kevin MurphyBerks County Community Foundation, former chair, TFN Board of Directors 


Arlene lived. Arlene lived in leadership when she chaired The Funders Network board. She lived in co-parenting Gabriella to the wonderful and loving person she is. Arlene lived in love when she met Ansje Miller and flourished in that love. She also lived when she was diagnosed with cancer. Witnessing her strength, her bravery, her faith and her determination to live in the moment offered a magnificent lesson for those of us who were fortunate enough to get to know her, spend time with her and hug and love on her. I’ll miss my friend, but will be forever grateful because Arlene lived. 

Scot SpencerThe Annie E. Casey Foundation, former chair and current member, TFN Board of Directors 


Arlene was deeply and widely loved. And that’s a testament to a life well-lived. 

In my interactions with Arlene over the two decades that our paths crossed, all I can add is that she was passionate, fearless, irreverent and deeply committed to putting community first and getting the work done. Toward the end of her life, she was also increasingly reflective. To that end, I wanted to share an excerpt from a note she sent me: 

Life  you go along thinking you are rather invincible and then bam!  wake up call.  Nothing is permanent, things change in an instant, presence becomes your best friend and the art of letting go comes to smack you in the face. Here I had been practicing my spiritual practice and sitting on that cushion. But dang. Now I REALLY sit on that cushion and practice letting go. Lesson. This is the moment.  Take it for what really matters. Let go of the rest😉’ 

Words to live by. 

Arlene will be missed but her legacy of good works, colleagues mentored, and friends and family inspired will live on. And that’s a legacy to be celebrated. 

Mark Valentine, ReFrame It Consulting, member of Smart Growth California’s Statewide Steering Committee 


One of the most memorable meeting experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of sharing was our 20th anniversary dinner with past TFN board members. That event was my last interaction with Arlene. Seeing her then, vibrant and engaged, and wonderfully acerbic and fun, is a great way to remember her. She was a great friend, to TFN and to all of us. 

Tom WoiwodeCommunity Foundation for Southeast Michigan, former chair, TFN Board of Directors 

Former chairs of TFN’s Board of Directors gathered in 2019 at our 20th anniversary conference in Miami. From left: Hooper Brooks, Jon Jensen, Arlene Rodriguez, Kevin Murphy, Scot Spencer, Nancy Van Milligen, John Mitterholzer and Tom Woiwode.


 It was such a punch in the gut to hear of her passing. She was larger than life. Arlene was a real mentor to me when I started at the San Diego Foundation years ago. She also recruited me to serve on Smart Growth California’s steering committee, which proved to be such a rewarding collaboration of funders across the state. She was a beautiful, passionate, and dedicated champion for a better world. May her memory be a blessing. 

Emily YoungThe Nonprofit Institute at the University of San Diego, formerly of The San Diego Foundation and Smart Growth California’s Statewide Steering Committee 

If you’d like to contribute additional memories of Arlene Rodriguez, please reach out to TFN Communications Director Tere Figueras Negrete at