Passing the Board Chair torch | A conversation with Sandra Guthman and Nancy Lewis
From Polk Bros. Foundation’s earliest days, Sandra Guthman’s generative approach to leadership, her astute observations and her incisive questions have guided the Foundation staff in its work to ensure all Chicagoans have the opportunity to reach their full potential.
At the Board’s annual meeting in November, Sandy will make her planned transition into the role of Chair Emeritus and pass the Board Chair torch to her fellow Board member and cousin, Nancy Lewis.
Sandy and Nancy sat down together earlier this month in Polk Bros. Foundation’s Board room to reflect on Sandy’s legacy with the Foundation and to share insights about the road ahead.
N [Nancy] Good morning, Sandy, and thanks for making time to talk today. As I prepare to step into the role of Chair, I wonder if you could tell me about one of Chicago’s most pressing issues when you first became Chair of the Foundation’s Board? What was something that really weighed on you, and weighed on the Foundation?
S [Sandy]Well, as I think back, two of our big concerns were education and the accessibility of social services. Many who could benefit from social services were not being connected to these services, and others encountered obstacles on the way such as lack of childcare or reliable public transportation.
So we started researching and learned about the community schools model. And that became one of the first big proactive initiatives we worked on. The bet was, if several services could be housed in the same building, they could be delivered more effectively and the staff offering these services could eventually work together in new ways. We realized the best place to do that was a school building, because there was one in every neighborhood and it was usually a safe zone or neutral territory.
We started with three community schools. We wanted to start with six and the Board wisely said, “Do three and let’s see what we can learn.” We did that, and then expanded to six. And then I went to see Paul Vallas, who was CEO of CPS at the time, along with a parent to talk about how important the community school model was to them and that it made the school theirs and not just their child’s.
We then worked to make the community school model sustainable and helped to launch the Campaign to Expand Community Schools in Chicago. And actually we found this model reduced mobility rates in schools. People were less likely to move just because they could get a slightly better apartment somewhere else. Community schools evolved over time to become neighborhood hubs that combined solid academics with family and community engagement and support navigating social services, so few families wanted to give that up.
So that was our first proactive initiative put into place to address what we saw as a big challenge.
N So, the Foundation’s community schools initiative was a significant first step in defining a focus. How did you get to the second step? Did the Foundation’s grantmaking guidelines just evolve by people finding out about the Foundation and then sending in grant proposals?
S Well, yes. When we first started out in 1988, we took good advice from Board members to take in grant proposals and see what interested us. And we were less worried about getting proposals we weren’t interested in than missing ones we would be interested in. So we hired a public relations firm to publicize the Foundation’s existence and the fact that we were accepting grant proposals.
After about two years, we started to identify a focus on education, particularly community schools. We were interested in the arts, but the arts as education -- arts in the schools. And that’s how our early grantmaking evolved. It was just seeing what came in, talking about it, and finding the ones we were interested in over and over again.
That was how we honed the Foundation’s guidelines.
N So that’s how it evolved! That’s so helpful to hear and understand. Is there something that stands out from your time as Chair? Any favorite experience, any grant that just really hit home?
S One of my favorites has been the University of Chicago program helping Chicago public school math teachers strengthen their knowledge of math enough to teach middle school math. Too often, teachers in sixth, seventh and eighth grades were teaching fourth- and fifth-grade math over again. And students were heading off to high school without the pre-algebra they needed to be successful. And so, this funding -- and the Foundation has been supporting this program now for over 20 years -- established what they call the University of Chicago Polk Bros. Foundation Program for the Improvement of CPS Mathematics Teaching. Professor Fefferman, who runs the program, is one of the finest mathematicians in the world, and he teaches Chicago Public School teachers every summer. One professor teaches the open-ended method, which shows that there are any number of ways to solve a math problem and they’re all valid. And Professor Fefferman teaches the math itself -- taking teachers into calculus, differential equations, sometimes geometry. The idea is they come out of that grounded enough in upper math to teach pre-algebra and things like that. So that’s a favorite.
But my other favorite was always site visits. Getting to go out on site visits and to actually see the impact of the grantmaking and the work we’re supporting, it makes it all a lot more real and a lot more present. That’s always been fun.
N Yes, I would imagine that’s true. You have so much experience in this work. What is one thing you’ve learned during your tenure that continues to serve you and the rest of the Board well?
S That’s a fun question.
I’ve learned that the only due diligence is the due diligence you do yourself. I was reviewing a grant proposal that had three audits: the main part of the organization, the foundation and the research. And so I was trying to figure out how to put them all together. When I did that, I discovered that the foundation, which should be all revenue and no expense, had very high expenses. So I called the development person I was working with, and he said, “Well nobody has ever asked us that question before. Let me go check it out.” And he called me back about four days later and said, “Thank you for pointing this out. We’ve discovered that the foundation has been paying all the rent on the research facility and that’s in the wrong part of the books.”
I think due diligence has become one of the hallmarks of the Polk Bros. Foundation. When we make a grant, I think the entire community knows that we have dug into an organization’s financials, talked to them and probably done a site visit. Our approach has become a little bit of a gold standard. We find colleagues calling and asking for write ups or more information on why we’ve done something, or what we think of an organization. So I’m very proud of our program officers. None came into the role with an accounting background, but they’ve all learned to read financial statements. One told me they read the notes first, which I was gleeful about because that’s where all the really good information is often found.
So taking due diligence seriously is a lesson that continues to serve me well in all parts of my life, and I think that’s true for the foundation, too.
N Absolutely. So I have another question that’s fun. Just out of curiosity, do you have a vision for what you’d like to see for the Foundation going forward? You have thirty-plus years here, and are very knowledgeable and know so many people in this space. Do you have a vision?
S I think it’s very important to be a continuous learning organization, and I’ve always pushed for that.
I love an intellectual debate. When I was here full-time [as CEO], I used to engage the program officers in conversations and, you know, I’d take a contrarian view just to find out what they were thinking and learning. I think it’s important to keep learning because as you learn, you sharpen your focus. And so my vision for the Foundation is that it continues to be a learning community and that, from learning, it gets better and sharper and more focused and more valuable to what’s going on in the city.
S Now I’d love to ask you a few questions. Are you excited about stepping into the Chair role?
N I am very excited. I am honored and proud to be part of this Foundation. Every time I sit in a meeting and I listen to the program officers, I am awed by their knowledge. You can ask them any question, they have an answer, an understanding. And they’re very passionate. That’s the word I always come back to. They are so incredibly passionate about what they do. So, while I know it will be a learning curve and I will be listening and asking a lot of questions, it’s also such a privilege to be able to carry the family name and intentions forward as a Board member.
S And the Polk family legacy is in good hands with you. So, as part of the Polk family, you’re a long-time Chicagoan. What do you love most about Chicago?
N Oh, I have a whole list of things! I’ve lived in Chicago since I graduated college, and Chicago will always be my home. Chicago is a culturally and racially diverse city, and I find it to be vibrant, with so much to offer. Theatre, dining, parks, hiking, neighborhoods with a variety of cultural experiences, and people who care so much about each other. I think there’s always a place to reach out for help if you need it. It’s a gorgeous city, all around.
S Indeed, it is. And so, I know many of our partners will be curious to know, what’s your perspective on the road ahead for the Foundation?
N That’s a good question! As I step into this role, I have to say it’s challenging to fill your shoes. You’re brilliant, smart, intuitive, and I’ve learned from you. I want to continue the path that you, the rest of the Board and the staff have developed. I’m here to learn and to be a sort of foundation for the Foundation, as the Chair. I’m excited to see where the Foundation’s racial equity work will take us, and how it will help us grow and adapt. Stepping into this role, and being a part of an organization that’s helping Chicago, is such an honor and privilege. And it’s heartwarming as well, knowing this is part of our family’s legacy. That matters so much to me.
S And so is family part of what inspires you, as you step into the Chair role? Are there other things?
N The family part is absolutely inspiring, that’s just a given. I think what the Foundation does is incredible, and the work of its many grantee partners is so powerful. As I read more and listen more and learn more, it’s clear to me the impact being made, on people’s lives and social service agencies and the arts and healthcare and education. I think this all makes Chicago stronger. It’s an inspiration just to be part of it.
I just look around the table every time I’m in this Board room and am awed by all the work and passion. I know the program officers live this, it’s part of who they are. It’s not like they shut the door at the end of the day and go home and forget it all. I have a feeling they’re always thinking about these issues or seeing ways to help. So I find that valuable and important.
S Yes, clearly it’s the staff that pretty much makes this place. Our job is to help them and not get in their way.
N Absolutely, and when I try to explain what I’m doing to other people who are not involved in this world, I’m always talking about the program officers. They live this, and they know it deeply. And you know they sleep and dream this. I am always fascinated with the level of passion they have for what they do. That’s inspirational. They’re inspirational to me. They’re the ones that keep me saying, “Wow, this is really amazing.”