A Farewell to our CMF Philanthropy Fellows

August 20, 2021

Beginning in 2019, the Foundation hosted our inaugural cohort of Philanthropy Fellows via the Council of Michigan Foundations. During their two years at the Foundation, Margaret Zimmer, Olivia Vaden, and Jesse Friedman made meaningful contributions to the Foundation, but also the larger nonprofit communities of Western New York and Southeast Michigan. We’re grateful for their work and look forward to witnessing their continued growth as emerging philanthropic leaders.

As their time at the Foundation comes to a close, we sat down with the Fellows to chat about their experience at RCWJRF and any advice they had for the incoming cohort of fellows.

What was the most memorable experience you had during your fellowship?

MARGARET: I enjoyed the opportunity to work alongside Pam Lewis and the New Economy Initiative staff as they embarked on an 8-month Small Business Survey and Ecosystem Scan in Detroit and Wayne County. This work garnered insights from small business owners facing challenges accessing Federal COVID-19 relief funds and their overall positive sentiments about business rebounding in the wake of the pandemic.

OLIVIA: The most memorable experience I had during my time as a fellow was the Buffalo faith leaders convening in March 2020, literally the day the world shutdown. The event was intended to bring together faith leaders in Buffalo to sort of gauge the need of caregivers, but also understand what faith leaders needed to better serve caregivers in their congregations. Great ideas and stories were shared that day and then we left, and everything changed. It was the last time I met with anyone in person until July 2021 and I hold it as the best experience because it was one of the few moments I have in philanthropy that really exposed me to the very real human aspect to grantmaking.

JESSE: Two things come to mind. First, navigating the pandemic. As the first set of fellows, our roles and responsibilities were already changing on the fly, but the pandemic really changed the trajectory of our time here with the Foundation. Working remotely while still supporting more frequent board meetings to get COVID-19 response funds out the door was amazing, and I am grateful to have been part of the effort.

I also want to mention Generator Z. I had several roles as the project evolved but being a copy editor was memorable for me. I have a youth development background, so I was already drawn to the initiative, but as a copyeditor I got to read about 500 generator stories, and it was incredibly inspiring. The young people who responded were so real, brought great ideas to the table, and I hope we see great impact from the grants we made in July. 

What is the most impactful thing you learned during your time at the Foundation? 

OLIVIA: The most impactful lesson I learned during my time at the Foundation was that this is all bigger than any one foundation, any one program area, or any one grant. The need, disparities, and injustices our communities face is bigger than philanthropy and what philanthropy can do, and the solution doesn’t lie with one initiative.

MARGARET: Learning the grantmaking process from the ground up has been such an exciting experience. Having taken the Fellowship with a non-philanthropy background, I feel this experience has shown me all facets of grantmaking, including research, due diligence, grant writing, and evaluation. The role provided exposure to so many aspects of philanthropy, and I know I’ll utilize those skills throughout my career.  

JESSE: I learned that philanthropy and equity go hand-in-hand, and that Foundations, including RCWJRF, are uniquely positioned to advance equity and disrupt inequitable systems. I am glad to see so many institutions centering equity in their work and I am excited to see how the Foundation continues to do through its grantmaking and strategy initiatives. 

What advice do you have for the incoming philanthropy fellows? 

JESSE: My advice to incoming Fellows would be to ask lots of questions and explore your interests in the context of philanthropy. You probably have a passion for one or more of RCWJRF’s program areas, so don’t be afraid to get yourself involved with projects pertaining to those topics. This is designed not only as a path into philanthropy, but a learning and development experience as well. So, please take advantage of that and learn as much as you can. The rest of the Wilson team only wants to help… so ask away! 

OLIVIA: Be open, be curious, and never stop asking questions. Philanthropy is going through an evolution and fellows are in a position to observe and report. If you feel something should be different, or maybe hasn’t been considered, SAY IT. You’re there for a reason. 

MARGARET:  I think a willingness to dig into any project goes a long way!