Polk Bros. Foundation Senior Program Officer Deborah Bennett to retire next month
Polk Bros. Foundation Senior Program Officer Deborah Bennett — who designs and leads grantmaking in the Foundation’s Strong Communities program area — has announced she will retire at the end of December 2023 after almost four decades working toward racial equity and justice in Chicago. Deborah first joined the Foundation in 2002 and, since that time, has become a leading voice and respected grantmaker amongst foundation, government, nonprofit and community leaders throughout Chicago, across Illinois and beyond.
“Working alongside Deborah all these years has been an honor. She brings so much heart, curiosity and vision to her work – and her unwavering commitment to a more equitable Chicago is contagious,” said Polk Bros. Foundation CEO Gillian Darlow. “Our Foundation won’t be the same without Deborah, but I know she will continue to inspire us for years to come.”
In addition to overseeing ongoing grantmaking to nearly 100 organizations each year in affordable housing, community economic development, safe communities, and workforce development Deborah worked to identify and develop new grantmaking initiatives focused on helping Chicago recover and rebuild from the COVID pandemic in a way that addresses persistent and significant racial inequities. She has also been instrumental in championing and helping develop the foundation’s current work to incorporate a more intentional racial equity focus. Her work has been guided by the belief that policies and practices should be informed and shaped by the experiences of people closest to the issues, historically disinvested communities of color are full of untapped talent and resources, and that an inclusive economy benefits all.
Deborah’s advice and participation in a number of collaborations and networks has informed and shaped work across nonprofit, philanthropic and government sectors.
Deborah’s collaborative leadership roles have included:
- Her leadership in the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities (PSPC) — a coalition of more than 50 foundations and funders working to identify and support community-led, evidence-based solutions to address gun violence — has been especially influential. She co-led the design of PSPC’s Chicago Fund for Safe and Peaceful Communities, a rapid-response grantmaking effort to support grassroots organizations working to create community cohesion in 24 communities experiencing high levels of violence. And she has encouraged PSPC’s funding members to further understand and address the root causes of gun violence in Chicago.
- Participation on the oversight committee of the Fund for Equitable Business Growth, which works to improve the small business development ecosystem
- Work with Illinois Justice Project taskforce to address issue of re-entry housing
- Participation on the oversight committee of the Chicago Racial Justice Pooled Fund
- Work to advance more effective strategies to alleviate poverty, including guaranteed basic income
- Participation on the City of Chicago’s 5-Year Housing Plan Steering Committee
- Work to advance shared economic prosperity strategies including participation on the City of Chicago’s Community Wealth-Building Advisory Committee
- Participation in the founding management committee of the Chicagoland Workforce Funders Alliance
- Co-chair for the 2020 Count Me In collaborative that helped ensure all Illinoisians were counted in the census
- Chair of the LISC Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards Jury
- Board service for Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund (Vice Chair and board member for more than 15 years) and National Public Housing Museum, among many others over the years.
- Co-Chair of Chicago African Americans in Philanthropy
- Deborah also participates in city- and sector-wide conversations about racial equity in philanthropy and participated in the inaugural Racial Equity in Philanthropy Group, a community of practice of local foundations committed to operationalizing racial equity in their institutions.
Deborah was named a 2009-2010 ABFE Connecting Leaders Fellow, received the 2016 Chicago African Americans in Philanthropy Champion of Diversity Award, and was recently honored with the 2023 Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Professional Grantor Award for her professionalism and support to the nonprofit community.
Prior to joining the Foundation, Deborah held several positions at Shorebank Corporation including senior consultant for Shorebank Advisory Services where she crafted housing, labor force and commercial development strategies for a variety of community development entities around the country. She has also worked as an economic development planner at the UIC Center for Urban Economic Development and as director of an employment initiative for women living on low incomes.
“I am profoundly grateful to everyone who has joined me on this remarkable journey with a shared vision for a racially equitable and just Chicago,” said Bennett. “As I begin my next chapter, my commitment to this vision remains unchanged. I plan to travel, cultivate my creativity, and stay engaged in the issues I care about. And I have every confidence that Chicago’s future leaders will continue the work to make our city a place where everyone thrives.”
Polk Bros. Foundation expects to begin a search for a new program officer in spring. In the meantime, the Foundation continues its deep dive to identify how learnings from its increased Equitable Recovery Initiative grantmaking and a focus on racial equity can be more fully and more intentionally infused into the Foundation’s overall grantmaking. Grantees who have recently worked with Deborah will hear from the Foundation prior to the end of their current grant period, and can reach out to email@example.com in the meantime as needed.