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Erinn Corbett-Wright on transitioning into corporate philanthropy

July 30, 2019 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose


Correction: The first paragraph was updated to properly credit the Pew Charitable Trusts. (7/31/19 at 9:35 a.m.)
In May of this year, Erinn Corbett-Wright left the Pew Charitable Trusts to become part of TD Bank’s Charitable Foundation.

Generocity asked Corbett-Wright to outline some of the differences between independent nonprofit foundations, like Pew, and the corporate philanthropy of for-profits like TD Bank.

Here are her responses, along with her advice for others considering making a similar transition to work with corporate philanthropy portfolios and corporate social responsibility.

Generocity: Tell us about your role at Pew and your new role at TD.

Corbett-Wright: Working at Pew, I wore multiple hats as an associate in the Philadelphia Program — I supported grantmaking, specifically in civic initiatives, aka institutional investments around Philadelphia, culture and national religious tolerance grantmaking. I would provide preliminary review of grant requests, draft recommendations to Pew’s board of directors and work with grantees to ensure that their reports were submitted in a timely fashion.

It was my first experience understanding the grantmaking process end-to-end and the experience that contributed to my leadership style as a philanthropist in my new role.

In addition to supporting grantmaking, I worked within the Philadelphia Policy Exchange to develop stakeholder engagement strategy, legislative tracking mechanisms and large-and-small-scale events to amplify Pew’s research and national policymakers with solutions to issues Philadelphia also faces. It was in this role, I learned the value of project management and toggling between messaging for internal and external audiences.

I now work at TD Bank as a vice president, Charitable Foundation Program Manager where I lead the national portfolio of Financial Security grants for the bank.

Within our Financial Security driver, I focus on early learning to improve reading and math proficiency for children grades kindergarten through sixth grade; income stability to provide support for small business development and retooling and re-skilling for mid-career professionals vulnerable to job loss from automation; financial literacy to develop proficiency with monetary and credit management in addition to digital financial tools; and affordable housing to encourage the refurbishing and creation of affordable housing supply as well as the development of human service resources necessary to help those in transition remain permanently in affordable housing when it is available.

From our Partners

I also work alongside our executive director and senior manager of strategy to develop resources to maximize impact data collection and efficiency across governance functions for the TD Charitable Foundation.

Generocity: When did you make the change, and what prompted it? What are you most looking forward to?

Corbett-Wright: I transitioned to TD in May 2019 after realizing that while I loved working on policy, my heart really was in philanthropy. I had intentionally shifted from one of my past lives working in state and local government to be in the philanthropic sector, and I had to be true to myself in order to be fully present as a professional. I loved my time at Pew and feel that I could not do my work at TD presently without the foundation I gained.

I am excited about our national competition Housing for Everyone this fall (my first BIG project), and especially excited to enter the conversation around automation of work and personal finance. Additionally, being in this position at TD allows me to be a responsive philanthropist and out in the community connecting with partners to keep the work moving forward.

Generocity: What are the greatest differences in philanthropy and corporate social responsibility? Philosophy? Impacts? Your own approach to the work?

Corbett-Wright: In terms of differences, philanthropy is entirely driven by ethos and change is much more intentional and iterative. Sometimes the desire to get it right the first time can impede responsiveness and showing up where there is a true need.

Corporate social responsibility is driven by ethos AND agility — there is always an opportunity to act when need arises and a willingness to be first at bat when emerging needs present themselves. The love of data and sound investments doesn’t preclude corporate social responsibility from showing up as a community partner.

In joining TD, I had to learn to speed my own work pace and be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Having worked exclusively in the public and philanthropic sectors, I discounted how much nuance our industry has!

My challenge, outside of developing subject matter expertise, is bringing my corporate-minded colleagues to the center of philanthropy and business, while my growth opportunity is seeing more from the business vantage point.

Generocity: What aspect of your experience at a nonprofit do you think will serve you best at your new job?

Corbett-Wright: My ability to ask second-level questions around impact is probably my greatest asset in my new position. It is not enough to say that we simply reached X amount of people, how many lives were changed? How many trajectories altered? How has access been expanded?

My guiding principle working in this space is that I leave no community worse off for having become dependent on an unsustainable intervention. It is important that we leverage philanthropic dollars as a hand up and not a hand down — those hard questions are critical if you are managing large sums of money for our communities, particularly communities of color.

Generocity: What will you be able to do in this new role that you wouldn’t be able to do in your previous role?

Corbett-Wright: In my previous role, I worked in invitation-only grantmaking whereas this new role encompasses competitive grantmaking. With that shift comes the opportunity to review emerging trends and innovative practice from the perspective of those working closest in the community.

Rather than prescribing what solutions are, working in my current portfolio allows my thinking around best-practice to be partner-led. In this new role, I feel better able to balance the power dynamic between funder and grantee that just isn’t possible in a non-competitive situation.

Additionally, my portfolio encompasses issues facing many families and communities today — financial security. I feel like there is an opportunity to create access and facilitate opportunity for everyone, from children to adults, with this new focus.

Generocity: If someone were considering transitioning from nonprofit to for-profit, what would your advice be?

Corbett-Wright: If moving out of the nonprofit sector and into the for-profit sector, I would say remember your personal mission and be unafraid to bring others along your path of mission-based professionalism as you try to understand their perspective.

Additionally, take the time (while it’s acceptable) to observe and understand the differences in culture and process before it is no longer acceptable to be in observation mode.

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