Longtime Foundation President and CEO leaves legacy of growth, collaboration

ellen-web.jpgMilwaukee, Wis., Oct. 11, 2023 - Ellen M. Gilligan, longtime President and CEO of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, has announced her summer 2024 retirement.

Throughout her tenure, Gilligan has led an impassioned charge for transformative change through deep investment in community priorities, cultivating innovative partnerships and aligning philanthropic impact so all of greater Milwaukee can thrive. She has propelled the Foundation to the forefront of civic and community leadership in the region over the last 13 years while influencing the community foundation field nationally to recognize the imperative of addressing racial equity and inclusion and to assume broader roles in advancing community change. 

“Ellen’s impact on the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, and our community, is visible in every aspect of our work,” said Paul Jones, Chair of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Board of Directors. “Her vision for the Foundation has transformed how and who we serve, and our vigorous strategic plan ensures the organization is strongly positioned for continued growth, innovation and impact that fulfills our promise to the community.” 

Enhancing the quality of life in Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha counties and beyond since 1915, the Foundation is Wisconsin’s largest community foundation and among the largest and oldest in the nation. Under Gilligan’s leadership, the philanthropic assets stewarded by the Foundation have doubled to more than $1 billion. Annual grant support for community organizations and initiatives has more than tripled since she joined the Foundation in 2010, with the Foundation and its donors investing more than $81 million through grantmaking last year and providing access to $18 million in additional capital over the last six years through the impact investing program she sponsored. With Gilligan at the helm, the Foundation cumulatively has awarded approximately $689 million in grants and raised nearly $900 million in new gifts and promises, including the largest single gift in the Foundation’s history in 2014.

Gilligan has increasingly elevated the Foundation’s role as a community leader, convener and catalyst, bringing diverse stakeholders together around a shared vision for a vibrant region. This has included leveraging local research and data, centering community voice and lived experience, and introducing innovative philanthropic tools and approaches to ensure the Foundation’s effectiveness, integrity and relevance to everyone it serves.

True to the community’s needs and values, she has advanced a new era at the Foundation where racial equity and inclusion is the North Star that guides decision-making, investment and action across the organization. In 2020, Gilligan led the launch of the Foundation’s new strategic vision of A Milwaukee for All to focus philanthropy on mending the fault line of systemic racism that prevents individuals, families and the region from reaching their full potential. 

Advancing how Milwaukee works together 

Gilligan’s emphasis on collective impact was demonstrated in the earliest years of her presidency as she spearheaded the launch of Milwaukee Succeeds in 2011. Powered by the Foundation, this communitywide partnership has grown to become a leader in collaborative educational systems change, now focused on expanding access to early childhood education for Black and Brown families and improving the high school success trajectory for Black male youth.

She has provided visionary leadership for the ThriveOn Collaboration of the Foundation, the Medical College of Wisconsin and Royal Capital. Guided by community priorities and data, the collaboration is making catalytic investments in housing, early childhood education, health & wellness, economic opportunity and social cohesion, particularly in the Milwaukee neighborhoods of Halyard Park, Harambee and Brewers Hill. This includes the historic redevelopment of the former Gimbels-Schuster’s department store in the heart of Bronzeville into a vibrant community hub named ThriveOn King, where the Foundation will move all operations in 2024.

She also is leading the most ambitious fundraising initiative in the Foundation’s 108-year history, the $700 million priority-focused Greater Together Campaign, one of the first of its kind in the country. Through this comprehensive campaign, donors are joining together with the Foundation to commit the resources needed to enhance the long-term vitality of the region with an added focus on five key priorities for community impact: 

  • ThriveOn Collaboration – a new model to address interrelated health, economic, social and racial inequities together through historic, place-based investments;
  • Early childhood care and education – a generational investment in creating an accessible, affordable, high-quality early childhood care and education system for all;
  • Housing – bringing dignified, affordable housing within everyone’s reach;
  • Impact investing – an innovative use of capital for social and economic impact; and
  • Flexible funding – the means to address emerging issues, pressing needs and important opportunities as they arise.

Strong background, stronger legacy

Much of Gilligan’s career has been dedicated to the community foundation field. Before coming to Milwaukee, she spent 12 years at the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, most recently as its vice president of community investment and president of the HealthPath Foundation.

Beyond her work with the Foundation, Gilligan is immediate past board chair of CFLeads, a national network of community foundations leading change. She serves on the national board of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). Locally, she is a member of the Milwaukee Succeeds Leadership Table and co-chair of the MKE United Downtown Action Agenda. She is a board member of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, has co-chaired its Creative Placemaking Committee, and serves on its Racial Equity & Inclusion Committee. Gilligan is a mayoral appointment to the City of Milwaukee’s Black Male Achievement Advisory Council and is a past board member of the United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County. 

She has received many honors for her work including TEMPO’s Mentor Award, the Greater Milwaukee Committee’s Mary Ellen Stanek Award, Milwaukee Business Journal’s Women of Influence and Milwaukee-area Power Brokers recognitions and BizTimes’ Wisconsin 275 for the Most Influential Business Leaders.

“The impact of a community foundation is everlasting and incredibly unique in how the organization reflects the hopes and needs and potential of the people and places it serves,” Gilligan said. “No other institution is so positioned to advance generational change as we support donors’ generous philanthropy and engage stakeholders across all sectors to address the community’s most pressing challenges and most promising opportunities. It has been my honor to lead such a historic foundation and work in genuine partnership with the community I love to build a Milwaukee for all.”

In accordance with its succession plan, the Foundation’s next steps include formation of an executive search committee of the Board of Directors and a forthcoming national search. 

About the Greater Milwaukee Foundation 

The Greater Milwaukee Foundation is Wisconsin’s largest community foundation and was among the first established in the world. For more than a century, the Foundation has been at the heart of the civic community, helping donors achieve the greatest philanthropic impact, elevating the work of changemakers across neighborhoods, and bringing people and organizations together to help our region thrive. Racial equity is the Foundation’s North Star, guiding its investments and strategies for social and economic change. Leveraging generations of community knowledge, cross-sector partnerships and more than $1 billion in financial assets, the Foundation is committed to reimagining philanthropy, recentering communities and remaking systems to transform our region into a Milwaukee for all. 

For media inquiries

Please contact: Jeremy PodolskiMarketing and Communications Manager