On Investing in Programs, Policy, and Power to Create Change: An Interview with Lisa Hamilton

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week and Black Woman to Watch in Philanthropy is Lisa Hamilton, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Jocelyn: How do you define philanthropy?

Lisa: At its best, philanthropy directs resources toward doing good and improving people’s lives.  At the Annie E. Casey Foundation, we take on tough and persistent issues and challenges to improve outcomes for kids, families, and communities.  One of the benefits of philanthropy and philanthropic giving is the freedom to take risks and to innovate.  Philanthropy is a type of risk capital for the field.

Jocelyn: Can you say more about that?  What do you mean by “risk capital”?

Lisa: Philanthropy doesn’t assume that everything we support and invest in will work.  Also, we believe that in addition to learning about what does work, there is virtue in learning about interventions that fail.  Our approach involves piloting, testing, and evaluating programs and then accelerating what works.

Jocelyn: You oversee assets of $2.7B.  That’s an enormous sum of money.  How do you think about that?

Lisa: It doesn’t feel like nearly enough.  I am a steward of a lot of money, but when you put it into context –there are 74 million children in the United States and about half are in low-income families – you see that this is not nearly enough money to effect change on the scale needed.  We need much more investment to change the systems, programs, and policies that oppress so many children, families, and communities.

It’s important to note that while our endowment is $2.7B, our grantmaking budget is $150M annually.  So while we fund many things that are closely aligned with our mission, it’s frustrating that we have to say no to a lot of other things that are good.

Another way to think about this is that our total foundation assets couldn’t fund the entire New York City Public School system for one month.

Jocelyn: What is your philanthropic strategy and what advice do you give to other philanthropists?

Lisa: Part of what guides the Annie E. Casey Foundation is that we value social innovation.  We use our financial resources, skills, partners, and staff to address child well-being, keep families together, help parents and young people get jobs and turn around disinvested communities.  And we do all of this to find new ways of ensuring that millions of kids and families aren’t left behind. We also value and look to partner with policymakers and practitioners to take what works to scale.  Finally, we share our lessons with others.  Our approach is to take risks and make bets to learn more.

I advise other philanthropists to invest and operate with an eye on three levers of change – programs, policy, and power. Most philanthropists invest in programs or specific interventions to achieve a desired change. I urge my colleagues to also fund policy advocacy.  Don’t be afraid to support advocacy.  Changing the rules of the game is an important lever that philanthropists can and should be attentive to. Finally, we have to work on helping the people most harmed by systems, who don’t have a voice at decision-making tables, build power.  We can do this by funding and supporting grassroots organizing and movements.

Jocelyn: What are you hopeful about?  What are some bright spots you see in philanthropy?

Lisa: I’m excited about the vision that young people have for the world.  I’m meeting young people who are so smart and creative.  They are creating change together in ways that we haven’t seen before.  Many of these young people have been hurt.  They are using their voices and organizing to turn that pain into progress.  They are not waiting for the adults or sitting on the sidelines.  And they have a vision for the world that is inclusive.

Jocelyn: How did you get into philanthropy?

Lisa: It was a circuitous path.  In college, I realized that there was this thing called a foundation where folks gave away money.  It seemed like a good gig.  So, I wrote letters to several foundation leaders to ask how to prepare for the field.  About four people wrote me back.  One said, “you have to be an expert in a field.” Another said, “you have to start in fundraising.”  I can’t remember the other advice, but it definitely didn’t sound like a straight line.  And I am a person who likes a plan.  So, I decided to become a tax lawyer!

After law school and a stint at a private firm, I went to UPS and learned about its corporate foundation. It took me about six years to build relationships and join the foundation team.  During that time, I became a trustee of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Casey needed someone to run a unit in the foundation that focused on policy and communications.  I thought, I can do that.  So, I went from trustee to employee.  I joined Casey eight years ago and became president of the foundation in January 2019.

Jocelyn: Congratulations! Who are your philanthropic sheroes?

Lisa: Oseola McCarty is a Black woman who used her life savings to create a scholarship at the University of Southern Mississippi.  She was a regular person who created opportunity for others.  Her story makes philanthropy accessible to everyone.  And she’s like so many others who give to their churches, food pantries, etc.  I’m inspired by her simple act of generosity.

I also admire Tonya Allen, president and CEO at the Skillman Foundation, Helene Gayle, president and CEO at the Chicago Community Trust, Sherece West Scantlebury, president and CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and Angela Glover Blackwell, founder-in-residence at PolicyLink.  Finally, I admire Oprah.  I think she is a powerful philanthropist.

Jocelyn: Do Black women do philanthropy differently?

Lisa: First, Black women have a spirit of inclusivity because we have the experience of holding families and communities together.  We approach our work with a sense of openness and inclusivity.  Second, we are especially attuned to the idea of legacy. What are we creating that will exist beyond us?  How are we building other leaders?

Jocelyn: Is there anything else you want to add?

Lisa: I’m excited about a project which is centering Black women in philanthropy. Black women are amazing agents of change in the world.  We hold families and communities together and make so many positive contributions to the world.





To meet other amazing Black women to watch in philanthropy, read The Black Woman’s Guide to Philanthropy!



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