Fund Board Member Gillian Darlow Leads in the Nonprofit Industry by Listening
As CEO of the Polk Bros. Foundation, which typically provides more than $25 million in grants to nearly 400 Chicago nonprofits every year, Gillian Darlow believes that leadership in philanthropy must be built around one central skill: listening.
“When I first started at the foundation, one of the first things that I did was set up listening sessions with our grantees,” Darlow recalled. “I ended up hearing from about 250 of our grantees to really ask them: ‘What’s working in your field? What are the needs in your field?’”
Understanding and supporting the needs of these partner organizations—including The Fund—helps Darlow meet the Polk Bros. Foundation’s ultimate goal: strengthening Chicago communities and families, “especially those that have been most impacted by inequity.” The foundation approaches this mission holistically by funding nonprofits dealing with a range of issues, including housing, jobs, health care, gun violence prevention, arts and education.
“All of those are the components that make up a strong Chicago,” Darlow said.
Prior to her leadership at Polk Bros., Darlow had personal experience in many of these sectors. She previously worked at the Civic Consulting Alliance on projects such as workforce development and tourism, and even led former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first-term transition planning team.
As a nonprofit consultant, she later worked closely with Chicago Public Schools, helping create strategies for parent engagement and high school improvement, before transitioning to Polk Bros. Foundation in 2013.
Now, she uses those experiences and her expertise in the nonprofit sector to, among other things, support The Fund as a Board member.
About her time on the Board, Darlow reflected, “It’s a great experience because The Fund fits so well with what we are trying to accomplish at the foundation. We [at Polk Bros.] share the philosophy of The Fund, that principals are the core of where change and improvement can happen in a school.”
In fact, although Darlow joined the Board in 2016, the relationship with the Fund and Polk Bros. is so long-standing that Darlow doesn’t even remember when it started. She says that the relationship has lasted so long because of how mutually beneficial it is.
“The best board relationships are where the board members offer something to the organization, but they’re also getting something back. And I absolutely feel that through the work with The Fund,” she stated. “The Fund keeps me connected to what’s happening in CPS, which is helpful to my work.”
Reflecting about The Fund’s 20th anniversary, Darlow continued, “The Fund has evolved over time. It looks for the most impactful way that it can spend its resources and direct its time. I hope that it can continue to evolve, get stronger, and keep its good relationship with CPS.”
And the key to a good relationship, as Darlow knows, is listening.
That’s why she joined forces with some of her fellow funders to start discussion on what the city needed to respond to COVID-19. When lockdown began, Darlow and the Joyce Foundation’s Ellen Alberding started having weekly calls with other funders in order to gather information about new developments and to align grantmaking: “There were only around seven people in the beginning. But now we have 100-140 people on those calls every time. It just exploded.”
Darlow said that these calls were designed to leverage Polk Bros.’ communication network to “call attention to work that grantees are doing, issues that people should know about, or things that work well.
“Foundations have a pretty powerful voice, which is a real privilege, so we try to use it whenever possible.”
“We have been very intentional about bringing community voice into those calls,” Darlow also stressed. “We cycle through different topics such as health care, education, and economic development. After the death of George Floyd, there was a series of calls around racial justice.”
According to Darlow, this exchange of information was also essential for fostering innovation.
“The nonprofit sector is led by some of the most entrepreneurial people on the planet. The situations that people in nonprofits encounter cause them to have to be incredibly creative with few resources and innovating all the time.”
In response to higher needs resulting from COVID-19 pandemic, and more challenges faced from her nonprofit grantees, Polk Bros. Foundation increased their giving this year, authorizing more than $33 million dollars in grants. Darlow says she has been inspired by how organizations are using these funds to meet their communities’ needs: “Everyone’s had to reinvent all their programs. But it is really meaningful in terms of what the people that they serve actually need in the moment.”
Like these grantee partners, Darlow herself will also continue to adapt her work at Polk Bros. Foundation and The Fund to best serve Chicagoans.
She’ll do so by listening with open ears, and amplifying others’ voices.