Interviews

The Best of Grantmaking: an interview with Shelley Davis

Welcome back to our interview series in celebration of Black History Month and Women’s History Month. We are highlighting and celebrating the contributions of leaders in the nonprofit sector. Tune in with us this February and March to meet the incredible leaders we got to speak with. 

This week, we spoke to Shelley Davis, President and CEO of The Coleman Foundation.

Tell us about your current role at the The Coleman Foundation.

I’m in month 3 as President and CEO. Coleman is a local private foundation focused on entrepreneurship and health. We had a long-term, beloved CEO that stepped down last year, so the board brought me on to think about the future, to develop new partnerships, and deepen existing partnerships.

We have a long history of supporting entrepreneurship, which has evolved from academic based giving to now being focused on local neighborhood level. I have been thinking about how we can take the body of work we know well from the academic setting and applying it into a neighborhood support system.

On the healthcare side, we support oncology care for cancer patients, survivors and families. And we support youth and adults with developmental disabilities. As we move to the future, I am asking how we can address inequities in health outcomes. How can we support low income communities who don’t have access to medical care. I hope we can solve some preventable issues. 

We are getting ready to start a strategic planning process. This process will push us to put everything on the table with the goal of questioning our assumptions and determining how we can be better and grow into our future. 

You recently shared in another interview that you were going to spend much of your first 100 days in this role on a listening tour. Can you share some of the biggest things you learned through that experience?

I just wrapped that up. I’ve seen over 200 people across 100 organizations and there were a couple of things that really came out of it. 

One is that Coleman has a long, rich history of partnerships – and being really good partners to grantees. The comments I heard were truly genuine. Organizations were able to take risks and Coleman was right by their side. In many cases we were the first funder in the door and we still support them to this day. 

Another is that Coleman staff is accessible and staff members serve as important thought partners. To me, that shows the best of grant making. 

Finally, it is clear to me that people know us. We have a strong legacy in the areas we support, so what does that mean going forward? I’d like to explore that more.

How has your identity as a Black woman impacted the work you have chosen to do in and outside the office?

In terms of this precious seat of being in philanthropy, what was really telling to me early on in my career is that there were many nonprofit leaders of color who didn’t know how to increase their fundraising, because they didn’t have access to foundation staff.

It became clear to me that I bring a unique perspective, not to me but to the community. I can go to these privileged spaces and move resources out the door and still come home to my community in Bronzeville and know what it’s like not to have access to a full-service grocery store. We do have one now, but there were years where we didn’t have one. Folks didn’t realize that all of our pharmacies were closed during the civil unrest last summer. That was really difficult for me and my family.

Few of us leaders live the day-to-day reality of some of the grantees that we support. To go between both environments is an interesting dance that I’ve become quite comfortable with, but is a reality that is unique.

Outside of work, I sit on 3 boards that are all very different. I am the chair of a board of a private foundation so I have to be in that governance role. I have to know the demarcation of being a strategic partner and not act like grantmaking staff.

I was appointed to the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commision three governors ago. In that group, I am one of the few non content experts. But as a policy advocate, I understand the issues and bring a different set of skills. We have a responsibility to distribute resources that come from the state, so I have hard skills in terms of strategic grantmaking while also coming from a place of questioning a system that young people shouldn’t even be in.

And I am a Trustee of Lawrence University as an alumna. I recognize how important the experience was to live in a small town as one of few Black folks for 4 years. I felt very supported, included, and isolated at the same time. Most of my family’s giving is directed towards students who identify as Black. I want them to have a joyful experience on campus and to feel connected as proud alumni after graduation.

How do you think the nonprofit sector can become more equitable and inclusive? And how can foundations be part of that solution?

Donors – individuals and foundations – can do a better job in supporting nonprofit leaders of color. There is a discounting of leaders of color in terms of dollars and cents; they raise less money to no fault of their own. There are implicit and explicit biases against them. I have experienced this myself. 

I am inspired by the bold giving of MacKenzie Scott and Laurene Powell Jobs whose giving are  statements to address inequalities in low income communities and communities of color. To me, they are broadcasting to the world that the widening gap of the haves and have nots is not okay and those with privilege have a responsibility to show compassion for others through their giving.

Foundations have the power to use their resources to take risks, to demonstrate results, and to shine a light on leaders doing good work. We also have a voice to call out inequities and influence each other and the donor community to invest in experiments and solutions. Ideally our resources can be counterweights to the inequities we see in our communities.