Working for Impact

By Diana Spencer
executive director
William G. McGowan Charitable Fund

Diana Spencer, executive director of the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund, was initially drawn to Exponent Philanthropy by the focus on foundations with few or no staff. “Exponent Philanthropy’s focus suited my early needs so well,” says Spencer, “and helped tremendously as I navigated my way through building the Fund’s infrastructure.”

Spencer joined the Chicago-based McGowan Charitable Fund in 2006 as the first full-time executive director, bringing with her expertise from a corporate career and volunteer roles at various community groups and on local nonprofit boards. She remains its sole staff person.

Over the years, Spencer has continued to find a home at Exponent Philanthropy. “The Exponent Philanthropy team always seems to be striving to help with important issues,” says Spencer, “and they (and the members) are not afraid to tackle the bigger questions, like why it’s important to think about grants as investments, or the impact they make.”

Walking the Talk

Spencer’s drive to tackle some of philanthropy’s complex issues led her to join Exponent Philanthropy’s Impact Working Group peer cohort.

Formed in fall 2011, the Impact Working Group is one of Exponent Philanthropy’s largest and most active volunteer groups. As part of Exponent Philanthropy’s Getting to Impact initiative, an ongoing effort to help foundations move toward greater impact over time, the Impact Working Group includes a dedicated group of more than 60 volunteers who champion the initiative, shape its curriculum, and mentor fellow Exponent Philanthropy members.

For Spencer, connecting with foundation peers facing similar issues is perhaps the most valuable part of being involved in the Impact Working Group.

“Searching for ways to create systemic change—or impact—is a passion of mine,” says Spencer, “so I enjoy the dialogue around this topic. It’s really great to bring several foundations leaders to the table, each at a different place but all who believe our funding should create impact. Our exchanges about impact—what it means and different ways to accomplish it—are some of the most thoughtful and meaningful conversations I have.”

Learning Through Doing

Spencer’s participation in the Impact Working Group has shaped the Fund’s ongoing conversations about how to deepen its impact. “I tend to pose the ‘so what’ question to my board when looking at grant applications,” says Spencer. “There are so many wonderful programs out there, but, at the end of the day, we need to make sure we are investing in organizations that have systemic change capability—and results.”

Currently, the Fund’s grantmaking revolves around three core programs: education, including efforts to increase high school graduation rates and the McGowan Fellows Program for second-year MBA students at top business schools; health care and medical research, with funds geared toward preventative programs and cutting edge research in cardiac health; and community based social services programs, including food banks, homeless shelters, and youth enrichment programs.

The Fund is also exploring ways to deepen its involvement in the area of childhood obesity.

Supporting Exponent Philanthropy Financially

In addition to Spencer’s personal volunteer leadership with Exponent Philanthropy, the McGowan Charitable Fund contributes to Exponent Philanthropy with grants above dues.

Says Spencer, “We feel that it is important to support work in the field of philanthropy, and Exponent Philanthropy is a natural choice. It’s hard to put a dollar value on the support we’ve received from Exponent Philanthropy, but we hope that giving back will show our commitment to the important work that you do.”