A heart full of gratitude, a future full of promise

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Ellen Gilligan

Throughout my career, I have tended to be a risk-taker when it comes to growth and opportunity. I raise my hand. I put my hat in the ring. I view the future through a lens of possibility rather than limitation. 

Fourteen years ago, that predisposition led me to a new state, a new city and the opportunity to lead an organization that has become my second family, embodying all the values I hold most dear. As I approach my final days as president and CEO of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, I feel incredibly grateful that one leap of faith led to a journey more rewarding than I could have ever imagined. 

From my very first day in Milwaukee, I could relate to how much people love this community. The through-line of my work has always been bringing resources to underserved neighborhoods and populations both rural and urban. And although my experiences at LISC and the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, among others, helped prepare me to lead, I continue to this day to learn most from the community we serve.

Community will always be at the center

A small sign on my office door reads “Change happens at the speed of trust.” In philanthropy, how you do the work is as important as what you do, and there is absolutely no substitute for being consistently present, listening to what the community needs in true partnership, and then delivering on it. The notion that anyone working behind closed doors would have the answers is fictitious. Our role isn’t to fix; it’s to empower by investing in and advocating for the priorities of the community.

Like many places in our country, Milwaukee faces complex issues, and taking bold stances may not always be universally embraced. I’m thankful that my parents – both public and community servants – instilled in me the value of courageous community service because the commitments this Foundation has made to build a Milwaukee for all will require fidelity and perseverance long after I’ve said my good-byes. 

I did not reinvent the Greater Milwaukee Foundation when I arrived. I tapped into something already budding: The recognition that systemic racism is incompatible with a thriving region. The desire to discard the tether of the status quo. The potential for a venerable philanthropic institution to adopt a new mantle of community leadership. Mine was the opportunity to accelerate that vision.

I hope I’m leaving a Foundation that has learned to work differently and view change through the eyes of the community. I see plenty of evidence in the pillars of our work today – reimagining philanthropy, catalyzing systems change, convening and following community voice, building inclusive culture. These are not the ambitions of an organization that is satisfied with a passive role in Milwaukee’s future. 

That makes me proud.

Impact will only grow

I plan to conclude my tenure just as I started it. With immense gratitude for this opportunity to serve. Not everyone is afforded the same chance to live and work with a purpose that reflects their values. I am privileged for this experience and to be surrounded by so many talented people who share the same motivations and resolve.

Every donor who has sought to make a difference and chosen us as their partner in philanthropy has left a lasting impression on me. Every nonprofit that works tirelessly to improve the quality of life for people in our community has my deepest admiration. Every resident who has led us toward impactful solutions is an inspiration. I will never be able to thank all our partners and volunteer leaders enough, let alone our dedicated staff. 

One of the most gratifying aspects of the last 14 years has been building a team that both represents and is committed to an inclusive Milwaukee and its limitless promise. Together, we’ve demonstrated that the Greater Milwaukee Foundation is everyone’s community foundation. Whatever challenge or opportunity may arise, the Foundation’s staff and Board remain ready for what’s next, to help the region reach new heights.

Is this the end of an era for me? Only in terms of the C-suite. This marks the beginning of an exciting personal chapter for me and a new era of leadership for the Foundation. The work we’ve begun together is just getting started. There is no bridge back from the partnerships we’ve built, the progress we’ve made or the vision of a Milwaukee for all that we share. Forward is the only direction. Onward!


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