Interview: Marianne Philbin, Executive Director, Pierce Family Foundation
Ask any experienced grantmaker in the Chicago area; the Grantmakers Institute (GMI) was part of their orientation to the field of philanthropy. What began as the Institute for New Staff and Trustees in 1996, the Grantmakers Institute is now a multi-day, multi-subject professional development series, one that features up to a dozen faculty members and panelists. With the start of the 23rd Grantmakers Institue around the corner, we sat down with Marianne Philbin, Executive Director of the Pierce Family Foundation and current lead faculty of the Grantmakers Institute, to delve into her experience with the Institute, and the unique opportunity it presents grantmakers.
Forefront: Why is the Grantmakers Institute important?
Marinne: I think one of the important contributions the Institute makes is that it reminds participants and presenters of how many ways there are to tackle a problem, and how much our particular missions, values, and grantmaking personalities end up defining what we do.
In any field, but especially one which has a surprising number of ‘dos and don’ts’, it is easy to get locked into a perspective on your own work that is highly specific to the realities of your own institution or giving program. New grantmakers are, understandably, often anxious about doing it “right” or doing it “best”. It’s really important to remember that getting better at grantmaking is not about getting better at the mechanics of grantmaking, but about staying tuned in to the real needs of the community and current conversations in the field, and staying open enough to learn and grow as professionals.
Forefront: How has the Institute evolved to help grantmakers do that?
Marianne: When we first started, there was a sense that new grantmakers needed practical tools and ‘how-to’ skills, given that grantmaking is such a unique art. But as the Institute evolved, more resources were created by more grantmaking support organizations, and more tools-of-the-trade tended to be more easily accessible.
What we increasingly found was that new grantmakers wanted a chance to be introduced to the field locally and gain insight into the challenges and opportunities their own roles might present, to hear from colleagues about what they had experienced or were thinking about. We began to structure the Institute a little bit away from “instruction” and more and more towards facilitated conversations— conversations through which we would always reinforce core principles about effective grantmaking, but which would allow for variation year to year, depending on guest faculty and current issues.
Forefront: What have you learned by being part of the Institute faculty?
Marianne: Despite the frustration we can all sometimes feel about how slowly change comes, being a part of the Institute over time certainly has allowed me to see the many ways in which the sector has evolved, and the impact that individual staff leaders, philanthropists and organizations have had. I love having witnessed and been part of the arc of various careers here in Chicago, seeing how we mentor each other, and encourage new leadership, how we hand off programs and projects, and continue to build the sector as a kind of extended family. You can see innovation and progress in our field in the arc of individual careers, and it’s very reassuring to know that individuals indeed can make a difference.
Forefront: What lessons get reinforced for you, as a grantmaker and someone who cares about the sector, each year?
Marianne: So many! But here are the first two that come to mind: Attention to justice – racial justice, gender justice – equity, and inclusion must be a priority, and a constant in all aspects of our work. And there is great passion for solving problems and enriching communities via innovative programs, but still not enough attention to investing in the nuts-and-bolts ‘real costs’ of nonprofits, to understanding their day to day operating realities, and building the capacity of nonprofits to do the work we all want to see done.
Marianne and other grantmaker faculty will share their experience during the 2019 Institute, which kicks off on February 7. Early registration discounts are in effect until January 11th.