10 Questions with Sarah Mann Willcox - Program Director, N.C. Network of Grantmakers

What does a typical day look like for you?

Like most nonprofit professionals, my days are always very different! I am the program director for the N.C. Network of Grantmakers. We work with 111 corporate, family, private, and community foundations all over the state (and a few beyond) to help them learn best practices and connect with one another. (Yes, it’s a very cool job.)

There are only three of us on the team, so I wear a lot of hats. On any given day you might find me meeting with members, organizing or staffing a convening of our members, managing lots of little (but important) logistics like meals and venues, or doing some higher-level planning and thinking about the sector at large.

I’m a super-nerd about philanthropy and nonprofits in North Carolina, so watching it all come together is what gets me the most jazzed!

What are you working on right now?

We have 14 events for funders coming up this fall, so I’m pretty wrapped up in identifying speakers and venues, marketing the events, and thinking through the program design. Our biggest event coming up is called the Grantmakers Education Summit. It’s part of a larger project to help foundations that fund in education connect with one another, and better understand their various place in the education funding pipeline, and work together more efficiently. A measure of success for me on this event can be as simple as “One foundation CEO called another one for advice.” It sounds simple, but it’s our job to create an environment that helps foundation leaders develop relationships that foster a collaborative spirit.

What was your path to get where you are today?

Jane Kendall at the NC Center for Nonprofits picked me out of obscurity and made me the Center’s first development associate. She initially interviewed me to be her assistant, but thought I’d be much better at fundraising. I had been a struggling professional violinist – her offer kind of came out of nowhere, but led to great places.

I learned so much from her and the other folks at the Center over the six or so years I was there. That role positioned me well to understand both nonprofits and philanthropy in a deep way. And, as much as I liked fundraising and grantwriting, programming and adult learning is where I get the most energy. NCNG was a fantastic fit and I got really lucky.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work?

Balancing a million different tasks is challenging for me. I’m not the world’s most organized person (I’m one of those wild, type B, creative types) so I have spent a lot of time developing systems that keep it all on track. We do a lot of different programming because our members are so different from one another – but at the same time, we want them to get together as a group as much as possible and try to break down silos. It’s like one giant puzzle all the time.

How do you effectively balance your time?

The truth is that I don’t always. I’m lucky that NCNG is a very family-friendly place to work, and the environment is flexible and encouraging. That said, I do have to work hard to keep it all going smoothly. I am a white-board crazy-person and keep a notebook full of tasks. One of the things I need to be better about is blocking off time for higher-level thinking and planning. I get interrupted by email too easily and need to be better about turning it off.

I took a class about time management and one thing really resonated with me about being responsive to people… “if you respond immediately, your members might think you’re not doing anything more important than just waiting around for them to contact you.” I don’t know if it’s true, but it makes me feel better about waiting a little while to respond!

What are five tools you use on a regular basis?

  1. White boards. It is so simple, but it’s true. I keep a big list up in my office and my colleagues can check in and see where any given task or event is standing. I like being able to see my (sometimes overwhelming) to do list at a glance.
  2. Evernote. I’m obsessed. I’m still not 100% electronic (see above) but I’m trying hard to not be quite so all over the place.
  3. Canva. I am not a graphic designer. But sometimes I have to figure it out. Canva helps.
  4. I started sorting my emails into folders. Is this a tool? Maybe not. But it was pretty life-changing for not-so-organized me. I have to force myself to file them after I deal with an email, but it’s cathartic.
  5. I love GrantCraft by Foundation Center. If you want to learn more about how foundations think about their work, that’s an interesting place to start.

What is the best career advice you have been given?

Sally Migliore at the N.C. Community Foundation told me once to think about what you want to do at work not only by the tasks at which you are proficient, but more by what gives you energy. When you really unpack the work you do (or want to do) what gets you excited?

I also read once that “you can’t win a fight with your boss.” This is also true. (I’ll note, though, that there plenty of times where it’s worth pushing back – but, the boss is the boss!)

Who or what inspires you?

My goodness, this is a huge question. We’ve got some remarkable foundation and nonprofit leaders that are amazing in our state. But I think my mom and sister are most inspiring to me. In my role, I’m pretty far removed from the work “on the ground” in the nonprofit sector. My mom was a teacher for many years, and the influence she had on so many kids (and continues to have as a Read to Achieve tutor) is incredible to me. I spend a lot of time thinking about how grantmaking dollars can be used effectively to impact the most kids – one good teacher can do a lot for our world. And following in her footsteps is my sister. She’s in her 5th year of teaching and she’s making so much difference in the world. It inspires me to work harder to encourage systems change and make both of their lives a little easier so they can do their good work.

Why do you do what you do?

It takes a little something extra to do support work. We’re the people who help the people who help the people who help the people. So sometimes, it’s hard to articulate the difference we’re making in the world. But, I know that what we do matters, even if it’s kind of meta. Philanthropy is a fascinating sector, and I like our birds-eye view and helping them connect and work together.

Who should we interview next?

Hudson Vaughn of the Marion Cheek Jackson Center in Chapel Hill, Joye Hodges at the NC Center for Nonprofits and Dan Gerlach of the Golden LEAF Foundation.

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