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An Interview with Liz Dow and Chris Satullo

Liz Dow (LD) and Chris Satullo (CS)

Describe your first meeting and your first impression of the person who you have ended up partnering with.

LD:  I met Chris through his writing. I was intrigued by the thought-provoking editorials he wrote as the Inquirer’s Editorial page editor. His words were a call-to-action. Since my work is to mobilize people to serve, I was glad to see this activist perspective at the newspaper.

When I asked the editor to meet about a Pay It Forward program we were considering for the city, she included Chris in the meeting. He felt like “Lou grant” (seasoned and skeptical) to my Mary Tyler Moore (naïve and idealistic). Later that year, he wrote a piece asking, “Where’s the outrage about poor leadership in this town?” In response, I asked to talk to him about an idea I had about identifying the many good leaders in town who operated under the radar. Given my initial impression of his skepticism, I was honored when he liked the idea, and we’ve been working on it together ever since.

CS: Liz is right.   I thought the Pay It Forward idea was naïve and idealistic, and I wanted no part of it as an editorial page project.    I would like to point out, however, that I was (at least then) much thinner than Lou Grant.

My recollection is that Liz then came up to me after a lunch event at the National Constitution Center (a chat with Jack Bogle, as I recall, a hero of mine who is both idealistic and skeptical), wanting to talk about the leadership idea. And that one hit my sweet spot; I really liked how she talked and thought about leadership, because she put into words things that were at the heart of my perpetual dissatisfactions both with Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

She’s also the one who that day put me on to “The Tipping Point.”  It was, as they say at the end of “Casablanca,” the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Why did you end up partnering with this person the first time?

LD: Big Picture: Because we both believe in the power of connecting people to solve problems. Specifically: because both of us admire the kind of unsung hero leader who is more interested in getting things done than getting the credit for it. LEADERSHIP started the Connector Project, and Chris made it better by covering it at the Inquirer, helping to shape it, and doing an extraordinary job of showcasing, hosting, and encouraging the Creative Connectors through NewsWorks at WHYY. Adding his voice gave it credibility and broadened its reach.

CS: I think the most powerful thing in the world is skeptical idealism. In other words, a passionate belief that the world can be made better, in ways big and small, and that you have the power to help make those changes, both big and small. But linked to a thorough-going, practical understanding of how the world really works, how change really happens, and how hard it will be to make it happen. I think that Liz and I, as a team, embody skeptical idealism.

What subsequent partnerships have you undertaken?

LD: We have worked on three iterations of the Connector Project over the past seven years. We both worked on different aspects of LEADERSHIP’s partnership with WHYY to produce the This I Believe radio series. We provided the idea and early interviews while Chris ran neighborhood focus groups to create a community mural called This We Believe. We co-chair the program committee for the Sunday Breakfast Club, which means that we showcase fresh ideas and talent to a large group of established civic leaders.

CS: Yep, all that.  Plus Liz wrote a book about lessons learned from the Connectors projects – and I think I was able to give her some useful guidance on how to approach that and put it together.

Why this person as opposed to your other professional colleagues?

LD: Chris and I would have been best friends in high school – earnest achievers who quietly get things done while everyone else  complains that something should be done. I trust him. I can always count on him to do what he says he will do. His goodness, work ethic, and reliability make him easy to work with. Our egos don’t get in the way. We’re both committed to engaging people in making this a better city. He’s so smart that I know that if he thinks something is a good idea, it is. My corporate perspective is different from his view as a journalist, so we learn from one another. The bottom line is that together we get things done.

CS: Liz is wrong about one thing. In high school, I was hanging out with the freaks making fun of everyone who was earnest, while I’m sure she was doing all kinds of do-gooding projects. I didn’t get earnest until I grew up.

Here’s the thing about Liz and me: We’re both Midwesterners who feel a deep but baffled and impatient love for our adopted city. Philly has so much more grit, drama, history and greatness than the places where we grew up – but it also has way more neuroses. Change is hard, but it doesn’t have to be as hard as Philadelphians make it. We share a willingness to double down on our love of the city, but a desire at the same time to teach it some new ways of thinking.

We also both love “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as a parable about what it means to be American. Remember that IAWL is really a very dark tale through much of the movie; salvation for George Bailey only comes in the nick of time.

Also, Liz is always about the work, about the goal, not about petty stuff or her own ego. That’s who I love to work with – people who are about the work.

What makes this partnership work?

LD:  Mutual respect, a track record of making things happen, and shared Midwestern values. We have complementary skills and have no problem sharing the spotlight or staying in the background. While both of us chose different careers, I think that we are teachers at heart: we love helping younger professionals and bringing out the best in others.

CS:  Liz’ idealism and Midwestern levelness buck me up when I get discouraged, which is not infrequently. My somewhat profane and irreverent candor helps her loosen up. Her absolutely scary sense of organization and timetables repairs my tendency to be scattershot, but my ability to fling out ideas rapid fire helps her get off the dime.

What needs does this partnership fulfill for you?

LD: The need to reality test an idea before taking it public. The need to know that there are other people in key positions committed to serving the common good. The need to discuss civic affairs with someone else who is an insider but thinks like an outsider. The need to tell our stories better. He’s my editor. And his goodness is comforting.

CS: Wow, Liz is being too nice about me. Beyond what we do together publicly, she is an indispensable personal friend, who has helped me through more than one rough patch with her patient listening and calm feedback. And that kind of shared experience builds trust, which in turn enables a partnership to get things done in the civic sphere. Liz has taught me that multiple forms of leadership exist, and that the types of leadership that come naturally to me can be useful, even if the context that I’m in at that moment doesn’t really recognize that. Learning the ins and outs of Connectorship with and through her has been the single most useful form of professional development I’ve ever had.

What impact has your partnership had on Philadelphia?

LD:  We have recognized, connected, and empowered many civic leaders who otherwise may have remained anonymous or left town because they were unappreciated or unconnected. We’ve helped many emerging leaders to meet more established leaders and thus improved Philadelphia’s civic bench strength. We’ve opened the eyes of some of the more established leaders to different perspectives on Philadelphia.

CS:  Here’s where my skepticism comes in. I don’t know. But I will say what I hope: That the projects we’ve done may some day prove to have the same effect on the rising generation of young leaders in Philly that the Connectors projects had on me personally. I hope it helps them learn, ratify and build on the idea that it’s OK to exercise leadership in ways different from the tribal, transactional and self-aggrandizing norms of political Philadelphia. I hope it makes them feel understood, recognized and validated – and that it coaxes them into sticking with this crazy, wonderful, maddening town, instead of abandoning it in frustration.

What advice would you give leaders about spotting and sustaining productive partnerships like this?

LD:  Go for it. Don’t be shy about reaching out to colleagues or fellow leaders to get things done. When you find people with your world view, complementary skills, and small egos, take time to get to know them and try to be helpful. Don’t be intimidated by their titles. This is something that you have to work for. Don’t worry about equal division of labor or who gets credit. It is helpful to know someone you trust who you can think and dream with. But don’t stop at that stage. Push each other to do more. This kind of partnership is empowering to the partners and it amplifies their messages.

CS:  Find people who share the notion I harped on a few answers back: Be about the work. Be about the joy of doing it and the satisfaction of seeing it get done, not about the credit or the rewards. Be honest with each other, radically but not brutally; there are ways to share hard truths that don’t wound, but inspire. Find someone whom you love to break bread or drink a beer with, but who still pushes you out of your comfort zone.  If you tend to the idealistic, find a skeptic.  If you tend to the cynical, find a dreamer. If you’re detail oriented, find a brainstormer. Or vice versa. And realize that a good complementary partner for you is sometimes going to annoy you, and the reverse, precisely because you are not the same and don’t work in precisely the same ways. That’s why you make a powerful team, because you are different.

It may seem counterintuitive, but economic slow-downs are known to spark entrepreneurial ventures. A Kauffman Foundation study showed that more than half the companies on the 2009 Fortune 500 list were launched during a recession or bear market, along with nearly half the firms on the 2008 Inc. list of America’s fastest-growing companies.Nonprofits manifest similar urges toward reinvention when times are tough, and the tumult of the past decade has accelerated their cooperative and collaborative efforts. Recent trends underlying accelerated collaboration in the nonprofit sector include:

  • Tremendous growth. Between 2000 and 2008, the total number of nonprofits in the five counties of southeastern Pennsylvania grew by 36% (from 11,000 to 15,000). At the national level, nonprofits also experienced similar growth across every subsector.
  • Squeezed balance sheets. The Nonprofit Finance Fund’s (NFF) 2011 State of the Sector Survey reported that roughly one-third of responding nonprofits had a deficit and 10 percent  had “no cash;” 41% of respondents believed 2011 would be harder than 2010. The Economy League of Greater Philadelphia reported similar findings for southeastern Pennsylvania.
  • Greater demand for services. With the nation struggling with high unemployment, home foreclosures, and other tough economic conditions, 41% of NFF’s survey respondents said demand for their services increased significantly in 2010, a trend evident since 2008.
  • Contracting budgets. Most states are dramatically cutting programs in order to cover budget gaps. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported that despite stronger-than-expected state revenues for 2011, 42 states and the District of Columbia had to plug $103 billion in budget gaps for fiscal year 2012.
  • Sector contraction. The IRS’s recent decision to revoke the tax-exempt status of approximately 275,000 nonprofits for failing to file legally required annual reports will undoubtedly result in many nonprofits merging together or even closing their doors.

The impact of these changes cannot be understated. If the federal government accorded the nonprofit sector the same status it does other economic sectors (e.g., manufacturing), it would qualify as this region’s third largest, with 242,000 employees earning more than $11 billion in wages.

Innovating Through Collaboration

The NFF 2010 State of the Sector Survey provides a valuable snapshot of how nonprofits have adjusted to these external pressures. Tellingly, a growing number reported partnering with another organization to improve or increase services offered – 47% followed this path  in 2010, and 51% were expecting to do so in 2011.

Similarly, 21% expect they will be collaborating with other nonprofits on reducing expenses in 2011, up from 14% in 2010.

Collaboration between nonprofits can take many forms, from coordinated programming to full-fledged mergers. No one model is right for all nonprofits, but experts agree that successful collaborations are driven by the organizations’ missions rather than by defensive reactions to external pressures. “Wise organizations choose strategic restructuring to further their missions,” concluded La Piana Consulting, a firm specializing in nonprofit collaborations. “Saving money can be a result of strategic alliances and corporate integrations, but it is rarely the sole or even the primary reason …. most often any ‘savings’ are plowed back into higher impact programs and services.”

As nonprofit collaborations grow in number, researchers have begun to mine the data and arrive at some interesting observations. These include:

  • Nonprofit collaboration does not necessarily mean mergers. La Piana conducted an analysis of the applicants to the Lodestar Foundation’s newly-created Collaboration Prize and found that of the 175 highest-ranking applications, 25% were actual mergers; 50% involved joint programming, administrative consolidation, or some combination of both.
  • No one subsector dominates nonprofit collaboration. La Piana’s analysis also found that applicants represented every subsector of the nonprofit world.
  • Certain subsectors are more favorable to merger activity than others. In a study of nonprofit merger filings made between 1996 and 2006 in four states (MA, FL, AZ, and NC), The Bridgespan Group was able to identify market characteristics of subsectors favorable to nonprofit mergers. Merger-friendly subsectors tend to be large areas of concern served by many small organizations in which funding sources are impersonal (i.e., government as opposed to individual donations) and which face major barriers to “organic growth,” such as government regulations. For example, the study cited “child and family services” as an example of a subsector humming with merger activity.
  • Nonprofits as a group are no more likely to merge than their for-profit counterparts; the exception is large organizations. Bridgespan’s study found that the “cumulative merger rate” for nonprofits was essentially the same as that of for-profits: 1.5% versus 1.7%. The vast majority of mergers – nonprofit and for-profit – are by organizations and companies small in size. However, the merger rate of large nonprofits (i.e., budgets of at least $50 million) is one-tenth that of large for-profits. Bridgespan attributes this disparity to the difference in incentives. For-profit mergers are driven by financial incentives, particularly payouts to individual parties and fees paid to third party “matchmakers.” Nonprofit mergers, in the best of circumstances, are strategic decisions driven by organizational missions; theoretically, it is the community as a whole, not individual parties, who benefit from nonprofit mergers.

Our understanding of nonprofit collaboration surely will expand in the coming years as organizations continue to explore new ways of operating in persistently difficult economic conditions and with increasing demand for their services. The entrance of new intermediaries such as the Lodestar Foundation’s Collaboration Prize and Boston’s Catalyst Fund is likely to help step up the pace of nonprofit collaboration.

Furthermore, research initiatives such as the AIM Alliance, a Lodestar-supported project involving universities in Arizona, Indiana and Michigan, will offer up new insight into nonprofit collaboration and identify effective models and best practices relevant to our own region’s nonprofits.

In the not-too-distant future, we may look back on this period and realize it was a time of entrepreneurial innovation among nonprofits as they collaborate in new and transformative ways.

Author Bios

Bill Hangley Jr. (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.
Annette B. Mattei (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) is a Philadelphia-based independent consultant of research and project management for government and non-profit organizations.

Describe your first meeting and your first impression of the person.

PG: Thirty-three years ago a young woman—she was 26 at the time, I was 33—walked into the campaign headquarters of former six-term congressman William J. Green, who was running for Mayor in 1979. I was director of communications and issues for the campaign. I had just left the editorial board of The Philadelphia Inquirer and was overwhelmed with my new responsibilities. It was on a dreary Saturday when Debra Amper (now Kahn) appeared in my office offering to volunteer in the campaign. I brusquely told her to bring me a writing sample the following weekend. A week later, she reappeared with several writing samples.  She seemed pleasant enough, certainly very bright, had governmental experience and could write clearly and concisely.

She could make my life a lot easier and make me look good in the process, I thought to myself, quickly offering her a job, a decision I benefited from for the next several decades of my life.

DK:  Of course I remember some of the details differently.  For starters, I was still 25. It was a Friday in March. And yes, Phil seemed overwhelmed, sitting behind a desk piled high and wide with papers.  (My own would come to look like that in short order.) He barely looked up as I stood in the doorway, directed by the campaign manager to introduce myself. “What do you know about healthcare?” he barked. “Everything,” I replied, by which I meant it was the only subject about which I knew anything, due to my job in the New Jersey Division of Medical Assistance. “Fix this,” he demanded, tossing a half-baked position paper about the city’s Family Medical Centers.  So fix it I did, and passed the first Goldsmith test.

I liked Phil immediately for his humor and his knowledge and how he would analyze an issue from angles different than anyone else.  I was also intimidated by his talent and intensity. But I took those qualities as challenges to understand him better and do better work than I ever thought possible. Mostly, I appreciated that he was a stand-up guy who kept his word, his values and his integrity. His acceptance of me meant that as a newcomer, I was accepted by others. Still, I could not possibly know then how lucky and life-defining that first encounter would be.

What subsequent partnerships have you undertaken?

PG: When Green was elected, I became Deputy Mayor for Policy and Planning and Debbie joined us in the mayor’s office.

I eventually joined PNC Bank, responsible for consumer banking as well as community, civic and government relations. I persuaded Debbie to join my staff. She did and among other things, helped   to lay the groundwork that today has made PNC a major civic and community partner in the Delaware Valley.

We both eventually left PNC but our friendship and partnership continued. I went into executive recruiting and one of my clients was Temple University.  Temple President Peter Liacouras was looking for a special assistant and I knew the perfect person. I sent Debbie to Liacouras for an interview; he saw what I had been seeing for years and hired her on the spot.

In 2000 our partnership took a new turn. She was Secretary of Education for the City of Philadelphia under Mayor John F. Street.  She called me up one day and said she wanted to talk to me about something. We met in Love Park and she told me the administration was looking for an interim chief executive officer for School District. Was I interested? I brushed her off. I was busy preparing for a trip to Cuba with a small group of music students to learn to play the conga drums and other percussion instruments.

A couple of weeks later I was in Havana, sitting in my sweltering hotel room practicing the triangle. I was the oldest one in my traveling party by at least 25 years and each of the others was musically talented. I had two left hands and was humiliated each day as some of the world’s greatest percussion teachers tried—unsuccessfully-- to work with me. As I sat in my hotel room struggling with the triangles my grandchildren could play with ease, I said to myself, “Is there anything I won’t try?”

The answer was no. When I returned to Philadelphia my first call was to Debbie. I told her I would consider the CEO position. Debbie and I were partners once again. But with the district being near bankruptcy, engaged in labor strife and soon to be at war with the state over privatization, I can’t say she actually made my life easier this time.

I eventually left the district but shortly returned to the administration, first as executive director of Fairmount Park and then as Managing Director. Debbie and I, both serving in the mayor’s cabinet, were partners once again.

When I left the Administration in 2005, I formed my own consulting firm. I quickly realized I needed help and she agreed to become my partner, but there was a catch. I could not do anything to embarrass her.

By this time she me well enough to know that I am quite capable of acting out and doing silly things. I wasn’t sure I could make the commitment, but desperate for her to sign on I acquiesced. I think the only time I came close to violating my pledge was when I put the theme song from Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm on my cell phone as my ringtone. Every time it rang, I could see Debbie’s face grow stern. She would say,” Do you have to?”  After the seventh “look” from her I finally removed it, much to her relief.
Debbie was offered a position as executive director of Delaware Valley Grantmakers and like all good things that must come to an end, so did our partnership but never our friendship.

I eventually restored my Curb Your Enthusiasm ringtone to my cell phone.

DK: Phil got this sequence right.  It’s true that the time we worked in our respective school roles was one of our most rewarding, important and memorable— but also the tensest.  He sent me flowers the first day on his job—and a sad letter on the last. We both grew as people because of that experience.

Our consulting gig was a real partnership—pretty much up to the two of us to make it work or not. We evolved into our roles, complementing one another (even to the extent that Phil was the early riser and I worked as a night owl) and emphasizing our strengths. Recognizing areas where neither of us had skills, we called in reinforcements! We managed to do some good for our clients, keep our reputations intact and even earn some money. 

The ringtone did make me cringe and it was great of Phil to remove it (especially when it took him so long to conquer the technology). I’m glad he has it back since it obviously amuses him.  And he has yet to name a single annoying behavior that I need to ditch.

What advice would you give leaders about spotting and sustaining productive partnerships like this?

PG: Find someone who is bright, shares your values, works hard and you can have fun and laugh with—and of course, make you look good. Liking Larry David is irrelevant.

DK: Prize the partnership. Trust is the key factor. Find a shared sense of purpose, be equal parts reliable cheerleader, constructive critic and constant communicator. As in any relationship, know when to give and when to get. Finally, don’t minimize the fun factor; it is the bond that endures and sustains through the rough patches and makes the good ones that much better.

For the record, I really do like Larry David; he acts so much like Phil!


After September 11, 2001, when the world watched the Twin Towers fall, many employees at SEI Investments Company located in Oaks, PA, began their own efforts to help. Many employees individually began raising money and needed supplies for the recovery efforts. The company recognized this, and in an effort to help, pulled together all the disparate efforts within the organization, and thus began the start of its employee-led, company-sponsored philanthropy effort called The SEI Cares Program. These employee-led efforts have expanded substantially through the years and have helped foster employee engagement, grow meaningful partnerships with local organizations about which employees are passionate, and support a core value of the company in the global community around social responsibility.

The Rise of Employee-Led Community Philanthropy at SEI

SEI is not a household name, but it has been a major player in the financial services industry since 1968. The company is also one of the larger employers in financial services in the Greater Philadelphia area, and encompasses over 2,300 people in the U.S. and several offices around the world.

If you have ever driven on Route 422 around the Oaks exit, you passed SEI’s unique campus. Set on 93 acres, the multi-colored and multi-material office buildings were designed to promote an advanced concept of an open environment: no walls or offices and furniture on wheels. Often named as one of the best places to work, SEI’s culture is strong and fosters autonomy, creativity and innovation. These same qualities went into creating and evolving The SEI Cares Program.

Senior executives within the company left the fine-tuning of a community philanthropy program in the hands of those who would sustain it: the employees. So when the initial fundraising and gifting for September 11th was finished, a group of employees set out to figure out how to maintain the momentum around philanthropy inside the company. They started by hosting town hall meetings to gather feedback from employees about the fundraising process, about where to focus resources, and about how to engage employees in philanthropic work. The result was the creation of a not-so-typical corporate philanthropy program. In fact, it is not referred to as a “corporate philanthropy” program; rather, it is a “community philanthropy” program. The difference goes beyond the word choice. The difference is pervasive in how the program is governed and sustained.

An employee board was created, as was an initial funding focus to help economically underprivileged children in the local communities. The board outlined an annual fundraising process, defined grantmaking criteria and determined a grantmaking calendar to be followed, all based on feedback from fellow employees. The board and company did not set up a separate private foundation; all money raised goes to The SEI Cares Fund, a donor-advised fund within the SEI Giving Fund (a program of the Renaissance Charitable Foundation).

The SEI Cares Program is company-sponsored and supported, which means that the company’s many resources and employee policies are aligned with the efforts. Charities must meet specific criteria, be nominated by employees, and be thoroughly evaluated by employees through a process that includes both proposal reviews and site visits. Employees take the evaluation of potential nonprofit grantees very seriously. Most employees were new to grantmaking in the beginning, but they drew upon skills they used in their daily work lives to analyze, think critically and make good decisions.

The program has evolved over the past 11 years. What stands out most is the many ways for employees to engage in philanthropic work and the alignment of the funding mission with the passions of employees. These two aspects have proven critical to the success of the program. Today, The SEI Cares Program supports the global communities in which SEI operates in five targeted areas:

  • Economically disadvantaged youth
  • Animal rights, welfare, and services
  • Community service
  • Environment
  • Health and health-related services

The Unique Aspects of The SEI Cares Program

The SEI Cares Program is entirely employee-driven and extremely flexible. Any employee can start a charitable effort on behalf of any charitable organization. As efforts grow internally (getting more employees involved, providing more service hours, raising more funds), the charitable organization they support can become a candidate for formalized support from The SEI Cares Fund on an annual basis if it fits within the five targeted areas.

All of the organizations supported by employees in The SEI Cares Program started as a result of the passion and drive of an individual employee or small group of employees.  As a result, every charity has an internal SEI volunteer champion to organize and work with the charity and to enlist help from other interested employees via service opportunities or fundraising events.  The effort and impact SEI has on each charity is meaningful to the charitable organization. Today, there are many ways for employees to get involved as a volunteer with The SEI Cares Program:

Global Volunteer Days (GVD): The GVD program gives volunteers in all SEI offices the opportunity to volunteer their time in service, working together to support those in need in the surrounding communities.

Martin Luther King Day of Service (MLK Day): Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Life's most persistent and urgent question is: 'What are you doing for others?'" The MLK Day of Service is a part of United We Serve, a national call to service initiative. SEI Cares has sponsored volunteer events on MLK Day since 2005.

SCOPE: The SEI Cares Outreach and Philanthropic Endeavors (SCOPE) program organizes two to four monthly volunteer days where employees from participating business units can spend a ½ day volunteering with one or more local nonprofits during business hours.

Rejuvenate: Since 2006, there have been eight Rejuvenate trips involving more than 200 employee volunteers, representing all divisions and many of the global locations of SEI. The team has worked with Habitat for Humanity building and rehabilitating homes in both the Gulf of Mexico region and the Charleston, South Carolina area.

Focused Charity Events: Throughout the year, the employee champions of the SEI Cares focused charities organize a variety of volunteer and awareness events.

SEI Cares Volunteers Around the World: Employees in SEI’s global offices participate in a variety of volunteer and fundraising events to support charities in the areas in which they work and live.

Employee Initiatives: The SEI Cares Employee Initiatives program encourages grassroots fundraising and participation efforts that benefit charitable organizations. Involved employees can join forces with fellow employees sharing common interests in order to get increased financial support.

The Impact of The SEI Cares Program

The SEI Cares Program continues to grow in volume and impact. Within SEI’s corporate intranet site sits a link to The SEI Cares Program. It is here that employees learn about The SEI Cares Program and identify ways to get involved.

With a volunteer SEI Employee Champion serving as the liaison between the nonprofit organization and the SEI community, grantmaking, volunteer opportunities and awareness events throughout the year can be coordinated. Today, many efforts are underway. In 2011, alone, SEI employees collectively contributed:

  • More than 7,300 hours of service in volunteer activities.
  • As part of the SEI Cares Rejuvenate program, 30 volunteers traveled to Johns Island, South Carolina, near Charleston, for five days of work, and a donation of $11,000 was made to Habitat for Humanity International and the Sea Island affiliate.
  • The SEI Cares Fund donated $91,900 to eight focused charities.
  • Through participation in the Pennsylvania EITC program, $175,000 was granted to eleven organizations focused on education.
  • SEI employees’ personal philanthropic efforts with qualified nonprofits resulted in $20,000 in employee initiative grants.
  • In total, SEI Cares in partnership with many SEI Employees combined to assist 85 organizations in 2011.

As the above shows, the impact of an employee-led, company sponsored philanthropy effort is far-reaching: engaging employees around their passion for giving back, supporting charitable organizations in the local community in a meaningful way, and supporting a corporate value of social responsibility. It is in this manner that corporate philanthropy can have the most impact—it comes from within the organization and is led by the employees passionate about giving.

Sue West is Director of SEI Private Wealth Management, which provides advice to bring clarity into the complex issues faced by wealthy individuals and families so they can make better decisions for themselves, their families, and their communities. SEI Private Wealth Management is an umbrella name for various life and wealth advisory services provided by SEI Investments Management Corporation (SIMC). SIMC is a subsidiary of SEI. For more information about SEI Private Wealth Management, visit

Describe your first meeting and your first impression of the person with whom you entered into a partnership.

THT: Nick Torres and I first connected through the Eisenhower Fellows Network. I am a 2005 Fellow, and Nick is a 2008 Fellow. In 2008, Fellows in Brazil and Eisenhower Fellowships hosted a conference in Ouro Preto, Brazil that focused on health and education. They wanted both of us to go, given our diverse interests; I work in the healthcare sector and Nick is an educator at heart. This was my first trip to Latin America, so I was happy to know that I was traveling with someone who could converse in Spanish (although Brazilians speak Portuguese). 

NT: I should have known better when Tine insisted (to the point of harassment) that I needed to get all my shots before I traveled to Brazil. We weren’t going into the Amazon! Nevertheless, after two long international flights and an amazing conference, we found, despite our seemingly opposite styles, that we connected on spirit of having an impact on the world and our entrepreneurial spirit. We also were somewhat in awe of each other because it seemed that of our respective weaknesses were made up for by the other person’s strengths. We became the perfect storm.

Why did you end up partnering with this person the first time?

THT: To this day, I am still a little puzzled why Nick wants to partner at all. At the time we met, he had recently made an employment decision (at his previous job) to hire an external person versus an internal candidate. I knew the talented internal candidate, and told him, “You’re an idiot and will lose this person.” (By the way, I was right: that employee did leave, but the good news is the three of us are all still friends today.) His reaction was an expected “who are you” to tell me this, but then we started a conversation about ideas and what we wanted to accomplish, and that  conversation is still going on to this day, except we’ve made many of the conversations reality through the social ventures we’ve created and partnered on, with many more to come.

NT: Partnering is the only way to get anything of significance accomplished. Tine is an unusual partner in that she views our professional life almost exclusively via a political and policy lens, whereas I tend to shy away from politics and policy and focus on the business and impact. To be successful in the social sector, we need both. Honestly, I probably will never be a politician or create major policy changes, but I’ve learned to appreciate its importance through Tine. In retrospect I might have partnered with Tine simply because she is more persistent than a pit bull.  Once she focused on me, I didn’t have much of a choice.

What subsequent partnerships have you undertaken – and what has been their impact on the region so far?

THT and NT: Our first endeavor was to bring publicity to Eisenhower Fellowships for all the amazing work the fellows do in the Philadelphia region and beyond. We were fortunate to persuade the Business Journal to do a piece on the fellowship program.

The first major undertaking was the creation of the Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal (PSIJ). The idea started when we both pulled out the Stanford Social Innovation Review on the plane to Brazil – and started one of our many ideas conversations about how great it would be to have a journal that would focus more locally on socially innovative leaders and organizations. We read about agencies such as Teach for America (Nick was in the 3rd cohort of TFA), the Harlem’s Children’s Zone, etc., but there is innovation in nooks and crannies everywhere, including our region, and we thought it would be interesting to reveal those. The outline of the regional Journal idea was crafted on the way back from the Brazil conference. We began to meet with the local foundation community to garner support for the idea in fall of 2008, and officially launched it in September 2009. To date it has a readership of 50,000 people, regionally, nationally and internationally. Hundreds of articles have been written by notable area leaders and innovators of all generations, specializing in education, healthcare, community/civic engagement, arts and culture, etc. Over 130 volunteers work with the journal, including a wonderful writing team. To date, more than 1000 unduplicated people have come to the Journal launch events. The idea was for the community to see the Journal as its own, and that is happening. Along the way, the Journal has become known as a national knowledge lab and thought leader for innovations, creating a common understanding of how to incubate social innovation and challenge social sector systems through dissemination of local best practices/solutions. Through the writing of articles, individuals/organizations striving to create social change are challenged to incorporate an understanding of their product (social innovation), double bottom line impact (social and financial), and policy implications. As such, PSIJ is creating a new standard for generating social impact within the social sector.

With most of the work we have done so far, one thing leads to another. Readers of PSIJ with support from our local advisory board (made up of regional funders) asked us to take the Journal to the next level with the creation of the Philadelphia Social Innovations Lab. This January, we launched the Philadelphia Social Innovations Lab, (, committed to promoting and nurturing innovation for social impact. The lab is a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania and is a response to demands for new social enterprise models that are cost effective, financially self-sustainable, adaptive to feedback and metrics, with clear outcome accountability measures, and the potential for large-scale impact. Philadelphia is on the rise with the influx of many young people aged 24-35. Our challenge as a city will be to keep these young people engaged in the community, so they are more likely to become permanent residents. The Philadelphia Social Innovations Lab is a model that will develop the spirit of social enterprise within Philadelphia and will engage this younger generation to become part of our city’s fabric.

Other endeavors include the planning and funding of the Congreso Health Center, a partnership between Congreso (which Nick previously ran), and my employer, Public Health Management Corporation and the National Nursing Centers Consortium. In 2008, we introduced our teams to each other – which resulted in a national planning grant from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Bureau of Primary Healthcare to plan for a health center with the community around Congreso in North Philadelphia – and culminated in the funding of a new health center in the Summer of 2011, which opened in early 2012. 

Also in 2009, we connected with some local funders interested in supporting school health. Since fall of 2010, in partnership with two charter schools, Pan American Academy and Belmont, we have operated school health clinics staffed by nurse practitioners providing both school nursing and primary care services. Patterned after the retail clinic model, which I am involved in through the Convenient Care Association, the nurse practitioner school health model has been a game-changer for the schools. Children with chronic illness are being treated in school, preventing them from missing the school day and pulling their parents away from their jobs. Results have shown an increase in school attendance, overall readiness and improved test scores, to name a few.

Since 2010, we have taught Social Innovation and Leading Nonprofits at the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. We enjoy teaching and working with the students who help write for PSIJ.

One important project to date has been the creation of a statewide K-12 Cyber Charter School focusing on children with learning disabilities, Education-Plus Academy Cyber Charter School. The school idea came about in 2009, when my then 9-year-old was struggling with reading and writing in school. The schools simply could not support Nikolaj (my son), and my husband and I as parents were at a loss of how to help him. Nick put me in touch with his mom in Idaho, who is a special education and reading specialist, and the conversation led to us having Nikolaj tested and ultimately placed in a private school for children with dyslexia, AIM, which has been great for him. Nick’s mother assists by tutoring Nikolaj on Skype weekly. What we learned through this process is that there is a complete lack of support for kids with learning disabilities, in particular dyslexia (basic reading, writing and math disabilities). It is upsetting to think that we build prisons based on those who do not exceed a third grade reading level. It would make preventative sense to instead funnel  resources into our schools to better educate the 17 percent of the school population with learning disabilities in an effort to prevent them dropping out of school and ultimately, unnecessarily, finding themselves entangled in the criminal justice system. Well, we asked the usual question – why can’t we offer what private schools offer children with special needs? We began the research and planning in 2010 of a public school that would focus on children with learning disabilities and provide evidence-based programming. In the summer of 2012, the school was chartered by the state and it opened in September with 250 students.

What makes this partnership work?

THT: It is much easier to make change and challenge the status quo when you have a business partner, someone who can always watch your back. In fact, no one should ever do it alone. We both came into the partnership with the belief that everyone (including ourselves) has to win for any partnership to work out. We bring this philosophy to all our partnerships and endeavors. It is pretty simple. We still live in two worlds – Nick’s passion is education and mine is healthcare – although over time, our interests have begun to overlap. Had it not been for Eisenhower Fellowships, which foster this kind of connection, we’d probably still be working in our two worlds. Nick and I partner with lots of amazing people and colleagues. We are both connected in our worlds and now we are bringing those worlds together along with the folks we want to work with. We may have been the instigators of new ideas, but none of them have been created in isolation, we have so many people to thank for joining us and believing in them – this is shared team-work beyond us. 

NT: What a political answer – Tine will always be the politician. The truth is the partnership almost fell apart in the beginning because we hadn’t learned to trust each other yet. We had our fights and almost walked away a few times. However, over time we realized that we were both in it for the right reasons. The partnership now works because we have developed trust and honesty. When things get rough, we just introduce a little humor into the conversation to relieve the stress and then we get the work done.

What need does this partnership fulfill for you?

THT: It is through the connections of people from different worlds and spheres of interests that innovation happens. We both love the pursuit of new ideas and seeing them through to fruition in partnerships with our colleagues in the community. Nick’s got a brilliant ability to focus and hone in on crystalizing the idea – and I am more of the sales person, I suppose. But the combo seems to work.

NT: I’m a serial entrepreneur. I love to design and build things and then find good managers to continue the vision. Tine is more than a serial entrepreneur as she has a new idea every hour.   The partnership fulfills me because my intellect is stimulated, and then together we bring these ideas to life. Most people dream. I get to dream and then participate in the process of making the dream come true because I have this unique partnership with this unique, if slightly overzealous, person.

What advice would you give to leaders about spotting and sustaining productive partnerships like this?

NT & THT: Go with your instinct when you connect with a new colleague – and don’t get too comfortable in your own professional circle. While we are different in many ways, we have key attributes in common and similar interests. We are serial entrepreneurs, have endless streams of ideas, and work to execute them. We both fundamentally believe change can happen if you are persistent, strategic and focused in your pursuit. We are not afraid to take risks, excel in the pursuit of creating new social ventures and we have fun doing it. When the outcome is bad or unsuccessful, we both own it, which makes it easier to move on. Consequently, when we are successful, you have someone to share the success with. We also bring different skills to the table. And last but not least, mutual trust is critical to our partnership. It is the covenant that ties any partnership together, in personal or professional life.

Bottom line, in a partnership like this, you need to commit for the long haul. Once you find that person, hang on! In the end you will find professional happiness.

Describe your first meeting and your first impression of the person who you have ended up partnering with.

Barbara:  I was just leaving the University of Pennsylvania, where I was director of news and public affairs, to work at Pew as a public affairs officer. Sharon called to welcome me and invite me to a meeting. I was used to working in places where you were lucky if someone acknowledged you at the water cooler or that awkward meeting at the ladies’ room. So this call took me by surprise. Who is this nice woman? I was skeptical, but impressed.

Sharon:  Our first meeting was at Pew. She was very assertive and opinionated but clearly very smart and would shake it up at the very reserved Pew. She also tried to one-up me, which started our highly competitive relationship. It was good for the foundation because we always competed to be “the best.” It was a tie.

Why did you end up partnering with this person the first time?

Barbara:  She is 10 years younger than I am. She fills up any room she enters. She is so strategic that she even devises a plan for a regular old shopping trip. And finally, I never met anyone who cares as much about the work of nonprofits and issues that matter to those who have little power. Now who’s the smartest partner?

Sharon: We partnered because we are night and day. Frick and Frack. Abbott and Costello. Oscar and Felix. We had a very different set of skills and knew the combination of our dissimilar personalities and skills would be a big plus for the organizations we would represent. Sure enough, that “unique value proposition” has been a home run for Sage.

What subsequent partnerships have you undertaken?

Barbara:  Seriously, most times, one is enough. But part of our model is to partner with other organizations, firms and individuals with different skill sets whose work will only enhance ours, and we will continue to do that to give our clients the best possible advice and counsel.

Sharon:  We have a strategic alliance with Fairmount Ventures, a firm that specializes in development, fundraising, strategic plans, organizational growth and board building. We also partner with a social media firm, ChatterBlast, and several web and design firms. Since we want to offer our clients a full menu of services that should be integrated into the communications strategies, partnering with other niche firms makes great sense for us.

Why this person as opposed to your other professional colleagues?

Barbara:  Who doesn’t want to hang out with someone who is smart and thinks that I am (on occasion) funny? I knew I could learn a lot from Sharon, so I decided to take the chance. John D. Rockefeller once said that “a friendship founded on business is a good deal better than a business founded on friendship.”  I decided to prove him wrong. Impasses in the business can open up a chasm between the partners that will put an overwhelming strain on the friendship. But we have both hung in there with each other because, in the end, it is those people we work with who make the business work for both of us.

Sharon: Again, back to the very different skills sets. Barbara is a journalist at her core and knows many media professionals. I knew that was a huge asset to our firm—in fact, it’s the cornerstone. She’s also a great writer and editor because of that background. She did not want to handle a lot of the “business aspect” and I did. I had those skills from years at ad/PR agencies. I knew how to handle clients and market.  I think most of the clients we’ve worked with over the last 10 years would tell you that’s what makes Sage valuable. The yin and yang. While we sometimes drive each other nuts because of our huge differences, we also recognize that it makes Sage tick.

What makes this partnership work?

Barbara: The marriage analogy is never far away in discussions about relationships between business partners. Like in a marriage, there are ups and downs in a business partnership. But the bottom line is that Sage is successful because we share the same values and view of the world. There are always going to be temperamental quirks, and those are often manageable with the right sense of humor. She lets me be who I want to be and I’m allowed to make mistakes. (Well, not too many.) And most important, we have complementary skills. We look at the same project in two different ways; our clients like that because it’s not the same old template stuff that you get from similar companies.

Sharon: We worked our butts off. We both maintain an incredible work ethic. Simply put, we bust our tails (and for not enough money because of the sector). So many people we know tell us we work too hard but, to make this partnership and business work in a challenging economy, you have to be willing to pound out the work while being creative and strategic. This partnership is “the package.”

What need does this partnership fulfill for you?

Barbara:  We run a successful business that is helping others make an impact in people’s lives. How many of us can say that? As a young newspaper reporter, I believed I was doing very important work that mattered. As a co-founding partner of Sage, I still do.

Sharon:  Wow. That’s a loaded question. Beck is my spouse. And, sometimes, she tries to be my mom. It annoys me in a big way—and I let her know. But seriously, she fulfills the need of friendship and fun.

What impact has your partnership had on Philadelphia?

Barbara:  Look at the list of those we’ve worked with over the last 10 years. That will tell you all that you need to know about impact. 

Sharon: As the only firm in Philadelphia that truly specializes in communications about issues, causes, social justice, philanthropy, ideas and solutions that have made Philadelphia a more vibrant, safer and a cleaner place to live and work, we believe we have had a significant impact over the last ten years.

What advice would you give leaders about spotting and sustaining productive partnerships like this?

Barbara:  Form partnerships that make sense. Avoid partnerships just for the sake of joining together. It doesn’t always work. Make sure you have a strategy and always maintain a unified front. Don’t be afraid to compromise on the little stuff. See, it’s just like being married.

Sharon:  Respect and care a lot about the person with whom you will spend a large percentage of your time/life. Being a small business owner is really hard—it’s not for sissies or slackers. Make sure you don’t go into business with a slacker or you’ll be exhausted and frustrated. And most important—be sure you find that “spouse” who runs at a similar pace AND is strong enough to carry you when you’re too tired or sick to run.


There are so many nonprofit organizations and social entrepreneurs with great ideas. The difficult part seems to be scaling and expanding these great ideas. Jill Vialet, founder of Playworks, and her colleague Marjorie Nightingale, Director of Playworks Philadelphia, write about their experience scaling Playworks nationally, setting up shop in Philadelphia, and growing their network of supporters, including funders, schools, volunteers, and parents.


Ask any parent or teacher and they will tell you: the way children feel at school, the way they are treated by both adults and peers, and the degree to which they are accepted have a combined, direct and measurable impact on achievement. America’s children deserve public schools where they feel inspired, safe, and cared for—a reasonable expectation by any account. Yet many schools have lost the ability to create such environments for their students.

Thankfully, the national conversation about how to improve America’s public schools is broadening beyond test scores and teacher accountability to consider the role that school climate plays in children’s ability to learn in school. Philadelphia children deserve this kind of broad attention to their education. And that is why Playworks came to Philadelphia in 2010.

Getting Started

Playworks, founded in 1996, is a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that has grown from initially serving two public elementary schools in Berkeley, California, to now reaching more than 170,000 children in 375 schools in 23 urban cities across the country. The organization is the only one of its kind, providing play and physical activities to low-income urban schools throughout the school day and during non-school hours. To support broad adoption of its innovation, Playworks also provides training to schools of all income levels and located in rural, suburban, and exurban communities.

Playworks’ key focus is on recess, but its impact is felt throughout the school day. Outcomes include decreased bullying, increased attention in the classroom, and increased physical activity.

Playworks had been growing steadily in the Bay Area up until 2005, when Jill Vialet, Playworks’ founder, was awarded the Ashoka Fellowship. Ashoka provided an important foundation for thinking more deeply about scale and helped Jill to articulate her vision that one day every child in America would get to play every day. Ashoka also introduced Playworks to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

RWJF embraced the vision that play was fundamental to children’s physical and emotional health and development. An initial investment was made through the foundation’s Vulnerable Populations portfolio to replicate Playworks’ model in three cities outside of California. The partnership with RWJF has been critical to Playworks’ success in achieving scale.  The foundation’s willingness to work through the challenges of growth alongside Playworks’ leadership created a unique opportunity to talk openly about mistakes. This was critical as Playworks purposefully developed a culture that encourages experimentation as a means of ultimately achieving success.

Why Recess and How Does It Work?

Recess can either contribute to the learning environment or detract from it. In too many public elementary schools, recess has become the most concentrated time of conflicts, discipline issues, bullying, and teasing. As a result, many students return to class frustrated, angry, and therefore unable to learn. Some students even end up missing hours of valuable learning time because they are in the principal’s office or suspended.

Playworks supports learning and expands social and emotional skills by stopping the chaos at recess, shifting behavior from negative activity to positive engagement, and teaching teamwork, conflict resolution, and leadership to all students at each school. These focused activities, delivered by one full-time employee in each of Playworks’ direct service schools, contribute to children’s individual development, ultimately increasing student focus in the classroom and allowing teachers more time to teach instead of resolving playground issues.

A 2012 evaluation brief released by Mathematica Policy Research and Stanford University concludes that Playworks has statistically significant impact in several areas of school climate and classroom behavior. The brief shares results from the first cohort of a two-year randomized control trial evaluation (Bleeker 2012).

Key findings in Playworks schools include:

  • Decreased bullying and exclusionary behavior on the playground.
  • Decreased transition time from recess to instruction.
  • Improved behavior and attention in class.

These findings confirm what Playworks’ customers (principals and teachers) say about the program: it has a clear and significant impact for students, teachers, and the learning environment.

Playworks’ Regional Growth
The magnitude of the RWJF investment has not lessened the importance of other investors. The Jenesis Group has been instrumental as a partner in working with RWJF to help Playworks solve working capital needs. Securing a line of credit to help manage the cash flow challenges of billing urban public school systems represented a real obstacle to achieving sustainability. Jenesis’ willingness to offer a line of credit in addition to contributing to national expansion was critical to overcoming this hurdle.

Playworks also intentionally designed the RWJF investment to encourage matching investments from local foundations to help pave a path to sustainability. The Philadelphia Eagles played a critical role in bringing Playworks to Philadelphia, and nationally, funding from corporations and foundations—including New Balance, Mattel, Colorado Health Foundation, The Boston Foundation, and Kaiser Permanente—have propelled both national and regional growth.

Playworks in Philadelphia

While Playworks had achieved significant success over several years of operations in cities such as Baltimore, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Jose, Playworks has only been in Philadelphia since 2010. Playworks chose to come to Philadelphia for two primary reasons: first, there was, and continues to be, a critical need in the urban elementary schools here; and second, Philadelphia offers Playworks an important proof point for districts across the country. If school climate can be successfully impacted here, other school leaders will certainly take notice.

Since launching in 2010, Playworks Philadelphia has directly impacted the lives of over 9,000 Philadelphia school children. In the 2012–13 school year, Playworks is serving 15 schools and 7,100 students daily.

Philadelphia wasn’t an easy launch for Playworks. It was, at first, difficult to persuade principals and others that focusing on recess could result in greater changes. Yet the timing seemed just right, as educators and families alike have come to the conclusion that innovative solutions are necessary to give Philadelphia’s children what they deserve.

It is, indeed, a challenging time for public education in Philadelphia. The looming fiscal crisis and uncertainty about how public education will be delivered make even the most dedicated public service programs uncertain of their viability. Yet, in this environment, Playworks Philadelphia is thriving and expanding.

It is important to note that parents are driving Playworks’ expansion across Philadelphia. They see how positive social and emotional learning create positive school climates where bullying and violence decrease dramatically, ultimately improving learning. Parents tell us that their children’s need for quality education can’t be put on hold while the district’s problems are sorted out. Their children deserve to be in safe environments now. As school budgets continue to shrink, and funds for even basic services diminish, these parents are looking to the broader community to fill in the funding gaps. Whether it is running bake sales or reaching out to corporate partners, parents have taken the lead in ensuring that Playworks expands to serve more schools and more children.

Impact in Philadelphia

While Playworks focuses its program on the playground, the overall school climate and student behavior both on and off the playground are being transformed. According to a 2011 survey of over 2,500 teachers and principals in Playworks schools, negative behaviors decreased and positive behaviors increased in both playground and classroom. The impact of Playworks was dramatic during the first year of programming. One school reported that incidents of students being sent to the principal’s office had dropped by 75 percent in the first year of Playworks.

Principal Huie Douglas at Charles Drew Elementary School reported that referrals for violent incidents dropped from 40 the previous year to 4 after one year of Playworks, thus enabling the school to be removed from the list of “persistently most dangerous” elementary schools. In Playworks’ most recent survey of Philadelphia teachers and principals, 87 percent of respondents reported a decrease in disciplinary referrals to the principal’s office, and 97 percent of respondents reported a positive impact on overall school climate.

How Is Playworks Innovative?

First, no other program focuses on play and physical activity throughout the school day. Incorporating the tenets of play and positive, social behavior in this way ensures that it sticks. Children receive repeated reinforcement from the Playworks coach at recess, in the classroom from their teachers, and even through interactions with other staff during activities that take place before and after school.

Second, Playworks coaches reach every child in the school, not just those students who  struggle the most with behavior issues or those who are least active. This approach makes it possible to shift the climate for everyone at the school, creating a ripple effect far beyond the actual play and physical activities. And it is a virtuous cycle. As individual children have more fun, feel safer, and get in trouble less often, the experience for all students at recess improves. Soon students begin using Rock-Paper-Scissors when there is a disagreement in the classroom about who was first in line. High-fives and words of encouragement take over where insults and teasing used to happen. Teachers feel more pride as they watch their students solve their own conflicts, and as a result they become more at ease with their students. Stronger teacher-student relationships form, and the cycle continues.

Third, while principals invite Playworks into their schools to specifically address chaos at recess, Playworks ultimately has much larger impact. Educational indicators improve, including a reduction in discipline issues and suspensions and increased focus in the classroom. And physical and mental health indicators improve, including participation in physical activity, safety, and feelings of being cared for.

Finally, Playworks has created a powerful role for young adults in improving the well-being of children in their communities. Playworks coaches are typically in their 20s, have worked with children before, and desire to have meaning and create change through their work. By offering a full-time employment opportunity with significant professional development and high expectations, Playworks is developing a workforce that has much to offer both the education and health sectors when they leave their role as recess coach.

Lessons Learned

Bigger is different: Getting to scale has not meant that Playworks can do more of the same. To the contrary, the leadership team quickly learned they needed to do things very differently, including hiring people with significant functional expertise in finance, IT, human resources, and most notably (and painfully) management. One of the hardest lessons was that the very approach that contributed to initial success—the scrappy willingness to do whatever it took—was at odds with what Playworks needed to scale, namely disciplined systems.

People, people, people: Growth made it more clear than ever that the single most important resource Playworks has is its people. The greatest determinant of Playworks’ ability to achieve local sustainability is the Executive Director of each city, and that person’s ability to generate social capital that can be translated into effective staffing, development, and visibility. Active local funding partners are essential to this equation, and in Playworks’ most successful cities, funders have gone far beyond simply writing checks to being advocates for the ideas behind the organization. A great example of this is the Open Society Institute in Baltimore, where the foundation has complemented their grants with support for a local conference and funder breakfasts to encourage greater local traction.

Communications is part of every solution. In conjunction with their first investment in Playworks, RWJF also funded a three-year contract with Fenton Communications. While this was a significant departure from how Playworks had operated before, since 2005 communications has become an essential element of Playworks’ strategic approach. The goal is to change the national conversation about the importance of play for promoting learning and physical activity in schools so that Playworks’ solution makes sense within the larger discussion of school reform. With this support, RWJF compelled Playworks to integrate a communications plan into every aspect of operations, both internal and external.

Jill Vialet has worked for more than 25 years in the nonprofit sector, focusing her entrepreneurial skills on creating and developing two successful nonprofit organizations. Now CEO, she founded Playworks in 1996, seeding the organization in two Berkeley, CA schools. This year, Playworks will serve more than 170,000 students daily in around 380 schools in 23 cities around the country. Jill is graduate of Harvard University. In 2004 she was selected as an Ashoka Fellow.In 2009, Jill and Playworks were selected as a member of the Clinton Global Initiative. She was recently named to the Forbes Impact 30 as one of the 30 leading social entrepreneurs worldwide.

Marjorie Nightingale is the founding executive director of Playworks Philadelphia, launched the Playworks Philadelphia office in 2010 with 12 schools and in less than three years has grown the organization to 16 schools. She spent over fourteen years as a child welfare attorney in Baltimore, representing kids in a variety of difficult circumstances and advocating for positive change on their behalf.   Marjorie transitioned into the nonprofit management by successfully launching the Philadelphia office of Dress for Success and winning a national service award for her work there.


Bleeker, M., S. James-Burdumy, N. Beyler, A.H. Dodd, R. London, L. Westrich, K. Stokes-Guinan and S. Castrechini. (2012, February). Findings from a Randomized Experiment of Playworks: Results from Cohort 1. Report submitted to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research.

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