Greater Milwaukee Foundation is at a crossroads

Ellen Gilligan became the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s third chef executive officer in September 2010, succeeding Doug Jansson, who retired after 17 years of service to the organization.

Gilligan formerly served as vice president of community investment at The Greater Cincinnati Foundation, an organization that is very similar to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.

“I have spent my entire career in the nonprofit sector,” Gilligan said. “I spent a lot of time managing national initiatives for the United Way in Washington D.C., as well as in Cincinnati before I came on board at the Greater Cincinnati Foundation.”

She spent 12 years at the Cincinnati job before being recruited to apply for the position in Milwaukee.

“I am honored to take the helm of such a respected community institution,” she said. “This foundation has a terrific reputation that was built by the board and staff that preceded me and so I am very honored to serve this well-positioned and reputable organization.”

Gilligan has had the chance to get acclimated with the Milwaukee philanthropic community. Her husband, Charles, recently accepted a position with Manpower Inc. and is traveling back and forth between Milwaukee and Cincinnati while their children, Luke, 18, and Carlo, 16, finish up the school year back in Cincinnati.

Gilligan recently discussed her new job with BizTimes Milwaukee reporter Alysha Schertz. The following are excerpts from that interview.

What about the position here in Milwaukee appealed to you most?

Gilligan: “I think that community foundations are really unique institutions in the sense they are very well-positioned to work with generous individuals and other funders to focus on long-term problems that affect communities. They can often be galvanizing forces to convene practitioners and nonprofits and funders to focus resources collectively on critical issues and I think they are unique in that role. Secondly, they have staying power. They are built to last and built for permanency. They have the ability to stay with an issue over longer periods of time than governmental agencies or other institutions can do. Some of the issues facing this community and communities across the country do require long term focus. They aren’t issues that are going to be solved in a short time. They are complex, inter-related and require a long-term view that a community foundation like The Greater Milwaukee Foundation can provide.”

What are the similarities and the differences between the Milwaukee community and Cincinnati?

Gilligan: “Well I think the two communities are very similar in many ways. They are both built on a strong German and Irish heritage and both, at one time, had a strong manufacturing base. They are both communities of neighborhoods, with strong neighborhood identities and there is tremendous community pride and willingness to pitch in when things need to get done. They are both extremely generous communities as evidenced by the local philanthropy and support for the local United Way and the variety of other things that really show people care about this community. Those are all of the ingredients that help to make a community a vibrant place to live and work, and I think that some of the issues that I worked on in Cincinnati are similar to the issues facing this community, so I felt very comfortable with the kinds of issues that were being talked about; education and educational outcomes for kids; issues about race, inclusion and economic opportunity for everyone. These are not issues unique to either Cincinnati or Milwaukee, but these are issues that are important and issues that these communities are going to have to face, deal with and make some progress on if the communities as a whole are going to prosper. This community foundation also decided, much like Cincinnati, that it wanted to play a community leadership role, and so from that perspective I felt comfortable that the roles that the community foundations had staked out for themselves were very similar. It was an opportunity for me to take what I learned and worked on in Cincinnati and provide that leadership here.”

BizTimes: What are your first impressions of our city?

Gilligan: “I think that the generosity of the community, not only in terms of its financial support but also the willingness of people to work on issues. The number of people and organizations that I have encountered just in my six months here that are clearly concerned about education and educational outcomes for kids is remarkable. It’s not only money, it’s time and resources as well that people are willing to devote and those are enormous things to build on. This is also an incredibly warm and welcoming community. Everyone has been so warm and welcoming and I’m not sure every city is as easy to break into. The kindness is across the board from the people who wait on you at a restaurant, to the people who deliver your furniture or take your dry cleaning. Everyone is friendly and it’s palpable. It’s wonderful and it gives the city a wonderful community-like feel that people are sort of in this together.”

What are you most looking forward to in your role at the foundation?

Gilligan: “Our focus will remain on working with donors and helping them fulfill their philanthropic interests and intent. We also have resources from donors who came before them who have left their resources for the benefit of this community. Our board has the challenge and the opportunity to focus those resources on things that are truly important for this community. It’s clear that education is a critical issue to helping this community move forward. The second is helping alleviate and reduce the issues of poverty. I think the challenge going forward is to perhaps come together as a community to focus on a couple of big goals and try to take what are perhaps disparate efforts that, while they are making good progress, we may need to focus resources so we have collective and greater impact than we are currently achieving.”

BizTimes: What are some of the key steps in making a greater impact?

Gilligan: “We have to move from funding individual programs to funding networks of efforts or strategies that are inter-related and together can have greater impact on what are some very difficult and complex problems. It will require more collaboration both at the nonprofit level and at the funder level.”

What effect will some of the sunsetting foundations have on the relationship the Greater Milwaukee Foundation has with them?

Gilligan: “Well, without a doubt we will miss our partners significantly. It will be a real loss in this community in philanthropic resources. We have had long and strong partnerships with those foundations, so it will be a real loss for the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. It will put significantly more pressure on us to meet the needs of the nonprofit community and the community as a whole, in order to fill the void that those foundations are going to leave. So I’m hoping there are some philanthropists out there that are going to announce the formation of new foundations or that new philanthropists begin to emerge in this community because there will be a significant void.”

BizTimes: Do you feel like that will happen? Are you optimistic about the future and the role this foundation plays in the community?

Gilligan: “We are in the unique position in that we see individual philanthropy every day. We work with very generous donors every day. It is our primary mission, and so I think there is tremendous opportunity, and I fully expect that that will continue and that there will be new opportunities for new philanthropists, that may not be well known, to emerge.”

BizTimes: What does the framework for the nonprofit sector in the future look like, in your opinion?

Gilligan: “We couldn’t have the same quality of life in this community without the nonprofit sector. All parts of the nonprofit community contribute to our quality of life. That being said, not every program requires a nonprofit to support it. So, as we move to hopefully a more collaborative approach to addressing some issues, there may be opportunities for some nonprofits to come together in new and different ways that we haven’t really explored fully that may actually help them achieve their missions, reduce their operating costs and help them sustain their efforts. I think that’s an important role for us and other funders to play over the next decade, to really help strengthen and stabilize the nonprofit sector in meaningful ways. That doesn’t necessarily mean we will have the same landscape ten years from now, but that remains to be seen.”

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