Ellen Gilligan, President + CEO of The Greater Milwaukee Foundation //
You’ve spent your career in the nonprofit sector. What brought you to this work?
It’s in my DNA. I grew up in a family that has a strong commitment to public and community service. My parents demonstrated their commitment through their words and their actions, and they passed on those values to me and my siblings. My Dad used to say, “Life is not put on for your viewing pleasure—it’s not a game you watch from the sidelines. You have an opportunity and responsibility to use the gifts, talents and opportunities that you’ve been given to make the world a better place.” Early on I had a wonderful opportunity to work in community development and I knew then that the nonprofit sector was a place where I could make a difference.
What accomplishments with the Greater Milwaukee Foundation are you proudest of?
In 2011, the Foundation organized and launched Milwaukee Succeeds, a community-wide education initiative focused on success for every child in every school, cradle to career. Recognizing that helping all children succeed requires a community-wide response, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation (GMF) convened key stakeholders and partners across all school sectors, government, nonprofits, business, philanthropy and civic organizations to introduce a new approach to improving education outcomes in Milwaukee. The foundation played a pivotal role when it launched Milwaukee Succeeds providing an organizing force and beginning to align needed resources. The Foundation committed the first $1 million and others soon joined. GMF has served as the backbone organization for Milwaukee Succeeds ever since, and the effort is standing tall and taking root thanks to the power of our partnership. The most inspiring part is that as we recruited our co-chairs, volunteer leadership and partners, not one person said “no.” There was urgency and agreement to work together to make a lasting difference for kids in our city. Because everyone was willing to come to the table, despite their different perspectives, we have a success story in the making.
Through Milwaukee Succeeds, hundreds of individuals and organizations are utilizing best practices, striving toward common goals and measuring progress. Together, we’ve help set a course to help all children succeed, from cradle to career.
Milwaukee Succeeds embodies the Foundation’s commitment to education, rooted in 100 years of history. We believe in ensuring all children in our community can reach their full potential. Where there are barriers, we must overcome them. Where there are resource needs, we must meet them. Where there are limited opportunities, we must expand them. This is not the work of one institution, one foundation, one sector, one school. It is our community’s work. At the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, we believe we are Greater Together.
How have you been able to keep these busy, important community leaders engaged in Milwaukee Succeeds?
Above all, community leaders involved with Milwaukee Succeeds care about the sustained success of our kids. They understand that today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders, and the success of our region will depend largely on how well we’ve prepared our kids to contribute to the workforce and their community. We have excellent volunteer leadership, including a broad-based executive committee, on which sits the superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, the President of the School Board, the Mayor, CEOs of the Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Milwaukee Committee, United Way, Chancellors of Universities, and philanthropic leaders. The effort is co-chaired by the CEO of Northwestern Mutual, the President of Marquette University, and a member of our Foundation’s Board. We also have a leadership council comprised of broader civic groups, including over three hundred nonprofit organizations. Their commitment to the Milwaukee Succeeds goals and process drives our progress. .
Who is your mentor?
I have had the benefit of many people who influenced and guided my career —many people who believed in me, gave me opportunities to learn and grow, and who supported me along the way. If I had to name one person, my sister Kathleen has been my biggest role model and mentor. She challenged me to take risks and showed me how to balance career and motherhood.
What is the role of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation in advancing the success of the City of Milwaukee and the surrounding region?
Philanthropy has an increasingly important role to play in shaping the future of our communities, ensuring their success, and providing opportunities for all residents to participate fully in civic life. As the role of government continues to change and evolve, and many corporations are focused regionally, nationally or globally, the nonprofit sector is being called upon to take on a greater and greater role in serving the common good. Anchor institutions—universities, hospitals, community and private foundations are stepping into critically important leadership roles, often as economic engines for the region. Cities and regions work best when all three sectors—corporate, government and nonprofit work together in positive and productive ways to advance a common agenda that provides shared opportunity and prosperity. The three-legged stool of shared community vision and progress is sometimes hard to achieve, but those communities that work effectively across sectors often see the greatest progress.
In your opinion, what are the top three issues that are most critical to Milwaukee’s success?
Communities are strongest when their economies are fair, inclusive and work for everyone, and when each person has the opportunity to reach his or her potential and participate fully in civic and cultural life. In my opinion the top three issues are education, jobs and racial equity. Milwaukee is experiencing a renaissance of development and investment downtown and throughout the region. With that, we have the extraordinary opportunity to come together to create a long-term roadmap to reduce poverty, improve educational outcomes for all children, prepare a ready workforce, foster entrepreneurship and business growth, and strengthen the neighborhoods that are the life force of every community. We can begin by recognizing that race matters – in Milwaukee and across the country. Individuals and entire communities of color continue to experience racism and barriers that marginalize, affect life outcomes and contribute to feelings of hopelessness.
Research and data confirms what our eyes and ears tell us every day: Some of the most profound disparities in our metro area affect people and communities of color. As a community and region we must face and address these stark realities if we are to become the economically competitive region we envision and leave a more just legacy for future generations.
This will not be the work of any one foundation, institution or municipality. Making measurable progress and sustaining success will require broad ownership of the issues in our community and their solutions. When we adopt a regional view, we open the door to partnerships capable of catalyzing transformational change. By working together, we can give rise to a vibrant future.
What’s your advice for the next generation of city change makers?
A few thoughts come to mind:
- I’ll go back to my Dad’s advice–Get involved—“Life is not put on for your viewing pleasure—it’s not a game to watch from the sidelines”
- Just do it! -There are so many ways to make a difference.
- Be inclusive of all voices – particularly those you aim to benefit.
- Understand the history of a place so that you understand what led to current conditions.
- Build on assets rather than deficits – -every individual and every community has wonderful assets on which to build.