In an effort to help EPIP members gain value from the experience of professionals in the field, EPIP is starting a new interview series. Blog readers will be able to learn valuable lessons from leaders in the field.
The first interview in this series is with Laura Tomasko. Laura, a D.C. EPIP member, is a network developer at the Council on Foundations. As a network developer, she spends her time exploring the landscape of social good finance. This includes helping COF members learn about current trends and opportunities within the field.
1. Could you provide a brief professional description of who you are and what you do?
I work as a network developer at the Council on Foundations, a membership organization that advances the role of philanthropy in society. As a network developer, I spend my time exploring the evolving landscape of financing social good, which includes tools, platforms, and approaches like impact investing, crowdfunding, venture philanthropy, and more. By connecting with people involved in this work, I am able to identify trends and structure opportunities for our members to learn and share experiences with leaders from across sectors. Most recently, I spearheaded a project with Mission Investors Exchange to publish a Community Foundation Field Guide to Impact Investing and co-authored an issue brief on social impact bonds with the Center for American Progress.
2. What drew you to this kind of work and how did you get your start in philanthropy?
I got my start in philanthropy when I served as the Vernon Snow Fellow on the Grants and Community Initiatives team at the Central New York Community Foundation. After three years working at a social service agency developing a youth development program with strong emphasis on evaluation, I wanted to learn more about how philanthropic resources get to the best programs. Working at the community foundation was a perfect bridge from my program development experience to philanthropy because I had the opportunity to coordinate a leadership training program for local residents, reminiscent of my previous work, and assess grant applications, which introduced me to the grantmaking process. After my time at the community foundation, I was fortunate to work at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), where I started to learn about the important role that philanthropic infrastructure groups play. Now, I have been at the Council for three and a half years and have had a great time exploring public-philanthropic partnerships and the evolving landscape of financing social good.
3. In your opinion, what do you think the future of philanthropy will be? What do philanthropy professionals and foundations need to do now to ensure its future success?
There is no doubt that philanthropy will continue to play a vital and unique role in our society. Individuals and institutions express their own philanthropy in different ways, and I believe this diversity will continue to thrive and make the sector strong. Although it does not match the scale and scope of government, philanthropy can operate at a faster speed and with more flexibility, which will continue to be a key asset. Looking forward, I think we will see the rise of interest in social enterprise, hybrid organizations, and impact investing, all of which speak to a desire to blend social and economic value creation, and to apply a philanthropic mindset throughout, rather than at the end of, one’s life. As networks, convenings, and institutions around these areas grow, it will be important that philanthropy professionals and foundations engage in these discussions, demonstrating how philanthropy and traditional nonprofits can support and complement, rather than stand in contrast to, these products and services also advancing social good. Just as those engaged in philanthropy often collaborate with public agencies to achieve common goals, people in philanthropy will increasingly have opportunities to collaborate with those in the private sector who have not traditionally focused on social outcomes.
4. What are four important lessons you have learned from your career in philanthropy that could help early career professionals improve their work going forward?
1) Don’t get stuck thinking that one of the countless approaches to philanthropy (venture, strategic, tactical, catalytic, etc.), must be the answer. They all offer valuable contributions.
2) Know how sectors outside of philanthropy are also working to achieve your philanthropic goals. These insights will help you do your job better.
3) Pay attention to the dynamics at play between government and philanthropy, two sectors that often count on one another for support. There are differing thoughts on the most appropriate relationship between the two, and it can be helpful to give that some thought.
4) Approach people who have career paths or jobs that you want and find out how they got where they are. People are usually more willing to share advice than you would think.
5. What networks have you found to be the most valuable in your career?
In addition to EPIP, I have found a tremendous value from the StartingBloc Fellowship, the World Economic Forum Global Shapers community, the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, and Maxwell MPA graduates.
6. What EPIP resources or events would you suggest to other members to take advantage of? How have the resources you recommended helped you move forward with your career?
I have had great experiences at EPIP conferences, which are structured with lots of time to meet attendees. On the local level, I really enjoy the breakfast series put on by the EPIP DC chapter that offer opportunities to meet with people on a regular basis to tackle important topics that relate to my work and career. Whether at a local or national event, I would suggest finding a chance to share your work with the EPIP community, because it’s a great way to practice your public speaking skills. A couple years ago, I had the chance to present on public-philanthropic partnerships with colleagues from GEO and HUD, and really valued that opportunity.
7. When it comes to your work, what thought leaders do you regularly follow?
1) Clara Miller, president of the F.B. Heron Foundation, who is drastically restructuring the foundation to deploy all types of capital to any type of enterprise that helps meet the foundation’s mission. The foundation’s strategy starts with the phrase, “the world has changed and so must we.”
2) Lucy Bernholz, a philanthropy wonk and visiting scholar at The David and Lucile Packard Foundation and at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. She is well known for her blog and the annual philanthropy and social economy blueprint that she writes.
3) Robert Egger, a nonprofit leader, activist, and dynamic speaker. He is a big supporter of the next generation, and I’m always amazed by the time he takes to inspire and connect with emerging leaders.
8. In closing, what is some advice you would like to give to fellow EPIP members?
1) Many of us aspire to solve complex challenges, and it’s important to remember that some aspects of social change will take more than our lifetime to realize. Don’t let the fact that you don’t see progress on a daily basis discourage you from the sector.
2) Always keep in mind that the work you do ultimately serves a population or community that does not always have access to the decision-making table. Do what you can to bring their voice and perspective to the room on a regular basis.
3) Despite all the wonderful opportunities out there, try not to overcommit and take on more than you can handle. Make sure to take time for yourself and those in your life who mean most to you. You will be most effective at your job when you are happy and healthy.
This interview was conducted by EPIP Social Media Fellow, Sophia Guevara.