Cross-sector Philanthropic Leadership: A Roundtable Discussion

Roundtable blog graphicPosted by Amber Hu

Since our founding as a collaborative effort between Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice and alumni of the Wharton School of Business, we’ve benefitted from team members who bring cross-sector perspectives. I recently sat down with three senior team members – Carra Cote-Ackah, Paul Heller, and Anne Ferola – to discuss their recent professional transitions, their work with the Center, and why they’ve committed to both personal and professional roles in social impact.


Amber Hu (AH): Carra, after five years as the Center’s Director for Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives, you are transitioning this month to a Senior Fellow with us in order to serve in a newly created role within Vanguard. What excited you about this new role at Vanguard and how will that change your involvement with the Center’s work?

Carra Cote-Ackah: In this new role, I will help guide Vanguard’s community and philanthropic activities into an exciting new phase. Vanguard’s leadership and crew are committed to being a partner in their communities, and we have an incredible opportunity to harness existing enthusiasm and decades of good work to address our regions’ greatest needs, with both funding and volunteering.

At the same time, I am thrilled to be able to continue my involvement with CHIP (Center for High Impact Philanthropy), now as a Senior Fellow. I will continue as faculty in the Center’s educational programs and as an advisor for work in impact investing, family philanthropy, environmental issues, and special projects.

AH: Paul, you and Carra seem to be doing a do-si-do: as she leaves to lead Vanguard’s community impact initiatives, you recently retired from Vanguard’s senior management team to join CHIP’s team. What attracted you to the Center’s work and how does it connect to your experience at Vanguard?

Paul Heller: Vanguard was first attracted to the Center because we were looking to focus our own philanthropic efforts. We have a history of being connected to Penn (President Amy Gutmann serves on Vanguard’s board), and so I reached out to Kat to see if she would be willing to help. One core attribute that the Center and Vanguard share is a very strong mission-driven focus. Vanguard has a unique structure (being owned by its clients) that enables them to focus exclusively on helping their clients achieve higher returns, much as the Center has a singular focus on helping funders achieve the greatest social impact.

AH: Can you both speak a little bit more about the collaborative relationship between CHIP and Vanguard?

Paul: Vanguard initially chose three areas to focus on: early childhood, K-12 education, and financial literacy. After six months of working with the Center, including workshops facilitated by the CHIP team, we selected early childhood to be our focus. We’ve since become large funders in the sector in the Philadelphia area. With Carra’s leadership, it is very likely that Vanguard continues to collaborate with CHIP on social issues, especially early childhood. 

Carra: Yes, and the Center’s depth of resources on early childhood are great for any donor looking to support what works, so as Vanguard further builds out its early childhood-focused portfolio, this collaboration will remain important to our achieving greater social impact.

AH: Anne, you are the first alumna of the School of Social Policy & Practice and of the Center’s strategy course to join the team. But with more than fifteen years of professional experience in philanthropy and nonprofit leadership, you’re not exactly the typical recent grad! What attracted you to the Center’s work and what’s your role?

Anne Ferola: CHIP’s analysis is known for its rigor, but I also appreciate that it is actionable. As both a nonprofit leader and a funder, I appreciate tools and guidance that are practical and can be put to use immediately to maximize the impact of philanthropy. To that end, my efforts at the Center focus on making sure that our work reaches the largest possible audience through strategic collaborations and educational programming. And our celebration of CHIP’s 10th Anniversary in 2017 will be a great chance to broaden our reach even further, telling the story of the great work that has been done and letting everyone know what’s in store for the future.

AH: Anne, Paul mentioned workshops that helped the Vanguard team get smart quickly on early childhood issues. Are there other opportunities for funders to learn from the Center’s team?

Anne: That’s the goal – to help others leverage what CHIP has learned.

Since 70-80% of philanthropic decisions are small gifts, made by individual donors, we have a big commitment to making much of our guidance free and publicly available via our website and other partnerships.

Our Funder Executive Education Program is aimed at teaching philanthropists and foundation professionals how to achieve greater social impact. The faculty are recognized thought leaders in the philanthropic and social impact sectors, and their diverse experiences and training integrate knowledge for real-world social change.

In select situations, CHIP’s team works directly with a family or corporate foundation, or a funding consortium as part of a custom consulting project. These funders are often referred to us by an advisor or peer. We are not a one-stop shop for every philanthropic question. But when a funder is serious about leveraging the latest knowledge to get to results sooner, we can help.

AH: In addition to your work at the Center, each of you is deeply committed to other efforts to create positive social impact. Can you tell me more about those efforts?

Carra: I am passionate about issues facing vulnerable children and disadvantaged communities. As a leader within two of Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) global networks, I foster collaboration and smarter practice between more than 4,000 global leaders focused on social issues affecting the world’s most vulnerable communities. I also serve as a Trustee of The Surdna Foundation, which grants more than $38 million annually to foster sustainable communities in the U.S.

Paul: I’ve been connected within the mental health and addiction space for many years. Addictions have become an epidemic, and almost one out of four people in the U.S. is diagnosed with a mental health issue. I’ve also had family and personal experiences that have made this space particularly important to me. I’ve been honored to serve on the board of the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, Philadelphia’s largest provider of mental health services to low-income individuals.

Anne: I have been involved in the education and social service sectors for a number of years. Previously, I was a Trustee of FLITE, an educational foundation serving students in Pre-K through 12th grade, and I currently serve on the board of T&E Care, which provides grants in the broader social services arena.

AH: Final question . . . What word or phrase best captures your experience contributing to the Center’s work?

Carra: “Creating actionable insights for donors.”

Paul: “Moving donors from good intentions to high impact.”

Anne: “Practical, accessible, and collaborative.”