The Importance of Smart Philanthropy in Ending Poverty
When money is spent to address a global need, it is most assuredly done with the best of intentions. Yet the chasm is still wide between intent and impact for the actual people served. Intentions, like good guesswork, or “it’s what we’ve done in the past,” can be as malignant to a solution as any. There’s a science in translating intentions into something both impactful and sustainable, especially when trying to tackle one of the largest enigmas in the human race.
We know that poverty work right now is both urgent and important. And, we know it was just as urgent and important ten years ago. “Every day we don’t pause to do the work of research and planning for what could be ten years from now, we are only ensuring that those people we are helping remain in poverty,” says Heather Reynolds, Michael L. Smith Managing Director for the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO). “Every day we don’t do this right, we are impacting tomorrow’s poor.”
At LEO, and within our University of Notre Dame community, we’re at an exciting time where we’re seeing the changes in the landscape of titan philanthropists, providers, and partners in thinking and investing ‘smarter.’ As LEO’s tagline asserts, “outsmarting poverty starts with working smarter,” and investing smarter is an integral parallel to this premise. By investing in what works, organizations and individuals are no longer giving money to the problems; instead, they are giving money to the solutions themselves.
This concept of taking the time to figure out what works and maximizing it is what we call smart philanthropy.
“Every day we don’t pause to do the work of research and planning for what could be ten years from now, we are only ensuring that those people we are helping remain in poverty”
This is why LEO is magnetized to seek out like minded partners. Partners like the Hilton Foundation or the Porticus Foundation. Each in their own unique way supporting an on-the-ground workforce to brainstorm, ideate, and come up with solutions. They fund the research and then support the launch and sustainability of those efforts to actually effect change. These partners are championing projects and solutions that incorporate actual real-life lived experiences from those who are being impacted the most. They see and understand the need to invest in things that are perhaps more invisibly urgent—things you can’t see today but will change tomorrow. Things that will change the future.
Through all of my conversations with members of LEO (and there have been many in the makings of these intelligently-packed stories), it is obvious how incredibly humbled they are to have the support and trust of others committed to smart philanthropy. This coming together of academia, service providers, philanthropists, and more is what makes solving poverty possible.
Chief among the support is the University itself. “The University is undertaking a new strategic plan, with a healthy emphasis on outward impact,” says Ellen Kirol, Academic Advancement Director at the University of Notre Dame. “We’re looking at what we can do through Notre Dame. In many ways, LEO is Notre Dame at its best.”
In fact, LEO was born and backed on this very idea of smart philanthropy. It’s known as the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities for a reason, and the reason is Chris and Lorraine (Sheehan) Wilson. As the first major investor to endow the namesake projects of LEO, he has his own skin in the game. Wilson started the Wilson Sheehan Foundation in 2012, targeting the root causes of poverty. And when presented with a LEO investment opportunity, he knew he could learn a lot from the group about what works, which would make him a better and (smarter) philanthropist.
“At the start of LEO, Bill Evans and Jim Sullivan realized program providers and academics weren’t talking to each other. Academics aren’t in the real world, and those on the ground were not sharing what they saw with research teams. Yet bringing disparate things together to learn from one another is the whole nature of intelligence,” says Chris. “Even what works has nuances. Some programs may work modestly in broad populations, but tremendously for a small subset. The dosage, timing, and strategy matter.”
And so do the people, which is why he stays close to the projects.
When I asked about his foundation’s naming rights at LEO, he said that his foundation benefits from the credibility and reliance on evidence that the LEO name brings. In other words, not only is LEO abundantly grateful for the skills and knowledge he brings to enhance the projects at hand, Wilson is really proud to be associated with the group.
“Endowments and investments are incredibly good for Notre Dame,” says Chris. “We as a University want to do good for the world. We want to be out there, involved, collaborating with other institutions and attracting faculty and students with these kinds of research opportunities.”
As the current board chairman of LEO, his vantage point teaches him that you don’t only want to do good, you need to know what good actually works. And you need to know who to invest in.
Speaking of investing in people, the latest naming rights are a big honor for LEO. Just this past January, Michael Smith, Partner and Co-Head of the Ares Global Credit Group and current LEO board member, formally endowed the Managing Director role for LEO.
Michael is one of those people you talk to whose forcefield of energy and passion for the University of Notre Dame is felt far and wide. As a third generation Notre Dame graduate who has fourth generation kids both currently enrolled in and graduated from the school, Michael is no newcomer to the magic of Notre Dame. In fact, he is a 1993 classmate of Jim Sullivan’s, hanging out and growing up together in the same circles.
Michael worked in finance on Wall Street right out of school and eventually went on to build the successful Fortune 500 Company ARES Capital.
Always big on philanthropy, he was meaningfully looking for a way to reconnect with the University. After catching up with Jim five or so years ago, he started following what LEO was doing. Test pilots, published research, national advocacy, and more were things that built on the story LEO was creating; it was a story Michael wanted to be a part of. He learned all about Jim and Bill’s vision for the program, and supported their need for an outside hire who understood the partner organizations better and could connect dots across industries.
“Michael himself built something from scratch and understood the importance of bringing the right people on board in order to position the company for success,” says Jim Sullivan, LEO Co-Founder and Professor of Economics. “He understood that if LEO were to be successful, we need to bring in key talent.”
This is the part where Jim told Michael, “We have to hire Heather Reynolds.”
Reynolds, whose career started off with the best of intentions herself, was indeed the perfect fit. She had seen it all on the provider side, from starting right out of college at Catholic Charities Fort Worth with a social work degree as a therapist. She had grown restless by the growing list of people who needed help and whose lives were not necessarily getting better. She moved on to fundraising and eventually worked her way up to CEO of what would become a 40M, 40+ program operation under her watch.
As someone who entered the field caring about poverty and wanting to serve, she found herself able to effect community change and scale. Not by numbers served, but by scaling solutions. Her lens for identifying patterns and scrapping ways of being that were not garnering results served as the perfect launch site for a partnership with LEO. As an even bigger field with the potential to impact more in the space of poverty, Heather accepted the job as the first managing director LEO ever hired.
“Where Bill and Jim cornered the market as leaders in their industry, Heather was able to bring an intimate knowledge of what they were doing as well as the ability to communicate that to the people who were actually on the ground running programs,” says Michael.
“Her empathy, passion, and expert sociability perfectly complemented the pair. She embodies everything LEO and Notre Dame stand for.”
Jim tells me, “The particular position of managing director—that was the single most transformative hire that we’ve made at LEO. Prior to that, we had two academics running a bunch of projects, and now we are a full-scale research center with tremendous support staff, strategic plans, and the ability to leverage evidence to effect change in the form of how providers implement programs and policymakers advocate resources. This positions LEO as a premier center to attract some of the most talented researchers in the industry.”
Michael’s support not only enables that new position for success, but also sends a very clear message that the University is 100% behind what LEO is trying to do. “It has an energetic effect in that leaders at all levels of the University have noticed the importance of this gift and are excited for what it means for the University,” says Ellen.
Heather, who’s never been in an endowed position before, says “it forms a commitment, not just ‘here is a gift’. To have someone so vested in a cause that they put their name on it is one of the greatest honors the position-holder can have.” She goes on to say that sharing one’s name is a personal and meaningful offer—one that reflects LEO’s belief in programs prioritizing the voices of those who are not often only nameless, but entirely unrepresented.
With the managing director role as assured as the millions of lives to be touched by LEO’s work, Michael excitedly tells me more about the ten-year plan. “It’s really proving the thesis that you can use data to find cause and effect, you can find economic benefits and outcomes that change people’s lives, and then replicate it. I know we will continue to find causality and things that work, we will find the economies of scale. Then we can take that to the government and private institutions, and we can show them that what we’ve found works.”
And by doing just as he said, LEO will continue to attract smart philanthropists who care about the marriage of those in the practice and those behind the data. Because the philanthropic mentality is just as important as the work being done. And the power of that synthesis cannot be overstated, especially when people are willing to put their name behind it.
When asked how it feels to have his name indelibly connected to such an important role at the University, Michael doesn’t hesitate to tell me, “I think it’s in good hands with Heather.”
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