Interview with Emily Kessler, Interim Director of EPIP

We recently had the opportunity to interview Emily Kessler, the interim director of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy.  In this interview, Emily shares how she got her start in philanthropy and what she is hoping to do to help emerging professionals and increase the value of an EPIP membership.

ERKessler_portrait_croppedWho are you as a professional?

I consider myself, foremost and first, a strategist and coach who operates at the intersection of organizational effectiveness, leadership development and social change. In a nutshell, that means I’m passionate about supporting and uplifting the individuals and organizations that help to make significant change for the better in our communities. Today, I am serving as the Interim Executive Director of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, a role I am both honored and humbled to play for the next 5-6 months. In a previous life, I was the Executive Director of a family foundation here in NYC, which afforded me the opportunity to learn and grow in the field of philanthropy. I am also currently pursuing a M.S. in Organizational Change Management at Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy which is providing me with a more complete set of tools to help facilitate change within individuals, organizations and our greater society.

How did you get your start in philanthropy?

I stumbled upon my career in philanthropy by sheer happenstance. After graduating from college, I took a job with a small business focused on international finance. After a couple of years, and with no room for growth, I decided to leave and go back to school to study design. Since I still needed a part-time job to support my expenses, I accepted an offer to work for my boss’s wife as an assistant while she took over the management of her parent’s family foundation. The rest, as they say, is history. I stayed for 17 years, serving as the Executive Director for much of that time. As a young ED in the 1990s, there were little to no resources available to me for professional development. I taught myself what I needed to know, turning to tax specialists and attorneys to teach me about codes and regulations. The Council on Foundations felt intimidating, and it always seemed like I was the youngest person in the room whom no one took seriously. There was a vacuum in terms of leadership development that EPIP was ready to fill in 2001.  

How did you get involved with EPIP and what is your motivation to help emerging professionals?

I first joined EPIP as a member in 2010 when I was well into my career in philanthropy, but looking to expand my network. Almost immediately, I joined the planning committee for EPIP’s 2011 conference in Philadelphia. It was such a great and rewarding experience to be involved with EPIP that I sought out a position on the Steering Committee of the EPIP NY chapter and volunteered with them for two years. In 2013, I began consulting with EPIP, offering my expertise as both a member and former grantmaker in a variety of areas related to programming, partnerships and communications. I absolutely love the EPIP National Conference, and it’s been deeply rewarding to work behind the scenes on this event. Looking back on my career as a grantmaker, I realize that I didn’t seek out a role model or mentor on whom I could depend for advice and guidance. My career lacked direction. Although I was intentional about my work, I felt alone and isolated. I learned more about leadership development by making mistakes than by doing it perfectly. That said, I feel very strongly about sharing my experiences with emerging professionals and being a resource to them as they navigate philanthropy and the social sector.  

As the interim director of EPIP, how are you planning to increase the value of EPIP membership?

As someone who has come up through the ranks of EPIP, first as a member, then as a chapter leader, I understand and prioritize the needs of EPIP members. When I began consulting with EPIP in 2013, I helped systematize the Wednesday Webinars series, supporting Rahsaan and Michael in their efforts to create a regularly recurring curriculum available to EPIP members nationwide. In 2014, we offered 18 webinars on such diverse topics as social impact bonds to advocacy to crowdfunding. Nearly all of the webinars have been archived on our site at: where they will continue to serve as a resource for current and future members. Our 2015 calendar is equally diverse, and many upcoming webinars are listed now on our site at: Additionally, we are excited to be bringing the 2015 EPIP National Conference to New Orleans in May. This is the first year that EPIP is convening in the South, and we are planning an energetic, interactive and entertaining program that really honors the New Orleans community and surrounding region. As with all EPIP conferences, the content is delivered by EPIP members for EPIP members. It is a dynamic example of true peer-to-peer learning and exchange, and should not be missed. I have attended every conference since 2011 in Philadelphia, and it has always been one of my favorite events in the field. The EPIP National Conference is a space where everyone is supported and honored, where folks are free to share feelings, thoughts and ideas, and learn from one another. I remember sitting at dinner for the closing ceremony of the 2014 JAG Unity Summit (where EPIP held it’s 2014 conference in partnership with the Joint Affinity Groups) and truly felt a strong sense of love and compassion in that room. That is what the EPIP network brings to its members. The true value of the EPIP network is the connections we are all able to make with one another, and the support we all give to one another in our work and our conjoined efforts to ensure a more just and equitable world. Of course, EPIP provides a space in which members can engage in stretch assignments outside their places of work, and really develop valuable skills and expertise. But, it the friendships we all remember and hold on to for the rest of our professional lives. I hope to honor that notion throughout my tenure as EPIP’s Interim Executive Director.

In the past, you led a webinar that helped EPIP professionals learn more about board service.  In your opinion, why do you think organizations should make space for emerging professionals at the board table?

Many nonprofit organizations are in need of talented professionals who can offer their expertise in a variety or areas, such as finance, governance and communications, to name a few. Today’s emerging professionals are well-educated in global affairs, well-versed in technology, passionate about lifting up their communities, and experienced in working collaboratively. There is no reason why they shouldn’t be offered a seat on a board. Unfortunately, the gap lies in training. That is where EPIP comes in. By serving on a local chapter steering committee, you can practice your skills at volunteering on a committee and gain the experience that will help prepare you for a larger role as a board member. We discussed many other resources during our webinar, which can be found at:  

Anything else you would like to add?

I’d really like to encourage our members to stretch themselves to get out of their comfort zone and take on projects or assignments that help them get to the place where they want to land professionally. EPIP provides a space where all members are invited to facilitate webinars or workshops, write blog posts, design and facilitate local programming through their chapters, and present at the national conference. I remember the very first webinar I facilitated for EPIP back in early 2013. I was scared out of my wits, worried that something would go wrong, or folks would be bored, or it just wouldn’t be perfect. Well, Rahsaan helped me to get over my need for perfection very quickly! He (more than) gently nudged me to take on more challenging assignments and now here I am sitting in the Interim ED chair! I owe a huge debt of gratitude to both Rahsaan and EPIP’s founder, Rusty Stahl, for being such great role models and for their support of my work. And I hope to be that role model for all our members and chapter leaders over the next several months.

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