Member Week 2021: Foundation Leader Q&A with Anne Vela-Wagner
Anne Vela-Wagner, Mars Wrigley Foundation
Q: What drew you to the field of philanthropy?
A: The constant challenge to improve the state of our world and the lives of others is humbling, inspiring, complex and an ongoing education. It suits me well because I’m not happy if I’m not learning and challenging myself. It inspires me because there are so many amazing people and communities that work tirelessly amid circumstances that would discourage most people. They humble me and have allowed me to appreciate my humble upbringing, which was not economically advantaged, but rich in family, community and service to others.
Q: Collaboration is often the most effective way to tackle key issues and drive sustainable change in philanthropy. Share an example of a successful philanthropic collaboration or partnership that you have been a part of. What issue brought the organizations together? Why was a collaborative approach the right way to approach the issue? What were the results?
A: As terrible as the current pandemic is, it did enable new collaborations and partnerships to form – one of which was the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund. This rapid response fund was established in about a week at the start of the pandemic through the generosity of many foundations and corporations and with the foresight of the Chicago Community Trust and United Way of Metropolitan Chicago. With overwhelming need for food, housing, health and other basic supports increasing, the collective effort targeted the most vulnerable community members and leveraged the combined expertise of those already active in the community to effectively deploy funds and flex to meet evolving community needs.
Q: Reflecting on how COVID-19 and the movement for racial justice have impacted philanthropy, in what ways has the sector changed its approach to work since spring 2020? Share any examples of how your organization changed its operations or strategy.
A: The sector has had to pause and recognize its position of privilege just as many other institutions and individuals have. Racial justice was not always at the forefront of decision-making and it was uncomfortable to call it out. Instead, it was siloed as a specific focus area rather than recognizing how it underpins all work. The impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable was not a surprise for those in the philanthropic sector who work in these areas, but the sector had to respond quickly while navigating significant uncertainty. The environment required a rapid response and process simplification, which strengthened partnerships often encumbered by reporting and administrative requirements. As a result, we aimed to respond to COVID-19 emergency grant requests in 24 hours and if approved and feasible, funds were awarded within the subsequent 24 hours. Reporting requirements were also waived in most instances, and going forward, we are working to simplify the application and reporting requirements and will seek our grantees’ input on a new process.
Q: How do you think philanthropy can become a more trusted partner in advancing the greater good?
A: As in most trust-based relationships, transparency and collaboration are key. We have to openly share successes and failures and maintain long-term commitments to drive real change. We must work side by side with the community and be open to learning and growing in order to build true partnerships.
Q: Share one or more ways that your Council on Foundations membership has benefitted your organization.
A: We have been members for many years and always find great value in the resources you provide – from policy updates and advocacy to benchmarking reports and strategic legal counsel. We truly appreciate the work of the Council.