Dallas native Elizabeth Carlock Phillips got interested in philanthropy at an early age. She started a jewelry business in high school that became her full-time career for seven years and led her all over the world, including to Uganda, where she was Founding Designer of the Akola Project, a nonprofit social business that empowers marginalized women, and Peru, where she consulted for Peru Paper Company. Just a few months into her marriage to husband Kevin, and with a baby on the way, Elizabeth Carlock Phillips found herself at the helm of Phillips Foundation in Greensboro, North Carolina. Not surprisingly, the new executive director took to the position like the proverbial duck to water, coming up the learning curve quickly, thanks to vision, passion, and the inspiration of her peers.
Elizabeth has been involved with many nonprofits, including founding Echelon, a nationwide young professionals organization that is “Mobilizing the Next Generation” for The Salvation Army; starting Generation GPAC, a grassroots movement supporting the Greensboro Performing Arts Center project downtown; creating programs for Reconciliation Outreach, The Elisa Project and Council for Life; and chairing record-breaking fundraisers for New Friends New Life and the Greensboro Symphony. And even though Elizabeth is just 26 years old, she’s already thinking big. Here’s what she had to say about collaboration, ambition, and the road ahead.
1. WHAT CAUSE OR ISSUE IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU AND WHY?
Women’s empowerment and children’s welfare are the most important causes to me personally. I’ve learned through my involvement with various charities that when you empower a woman, you empower a community. This became even more real to me over the past five years that I’ve worked with the Akola Project, a nonprofit, social business that empowers over 250 Ugandan women through vocational training, education programs, employment opportunities, support groups, leadership development, and savings and loans associations. That impact positively affects over 1,400 children. And what’s more important than the next generation? On a professional level and with the Phillips Foundation, our focus is community development, so I’ve also become passionate about creating momentum around transformational projects that are game changers for Greensboro, NC.
2. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO LAUNCH OR BECOME INVOLVED WITH A PRIVATE FOUNDATION?
I became executive director of the Phillips Foundation when, upon the passing of my husband’s grandfather, there was a generational gap in the leadership of the family office. We were 24 years old and living in Dallas, TX, when we were called by his relatives to relocate to Greensboro, NC for Kevin to take over the business and I the foundation. We were just a few months into our marriage and had a baby on the way. Previously, I had been a fashion entrepreneur and Kevin a financial analyst for Goldman Sachs, so the move geographically and career-wise was a big transition.
3. WHAT DO YOU KNOW NOW ABOUT BEING A GRANTMAKER THAT YOU WISH YOU KNEW STARTING OUT?
Even perceived failures, or disappointing outcomes, yield valuable lessons both to the grantor and grantee. The great thing about philanthropy is that there are no mistakes. At the end of the day, you are funding worthy causes. Not to say there aren’t best practices! But you learn as you go.
4. WHAT IS THE MOST SIGNIFICANT CHALLENGE YOU FACE IN RUNNING A PRIVATE FOUNDATION?
As a family member running the family foundation, it is often a challenge to separate the personal from the professional. My husband is the president of my board, and the other trustees are his sister, father, and uncle. We just began meeting under my leadership in January 2013. It’s an interesting dynamic, but I see my role as uniting everyone under a common, strategic focus in a professional way but without sacrificing the intended family atmosphere of “we’re all in this together.” Also, learning to say “no” is an art, and still being a new foundation, it’s a challenge to introduce ourselves to the community we serve without seemingly grandstanding as the Phillips family. So many fine lines!
5. WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING?
In my work at the Foundation, I have the privilege to meet and work with very dynamic people, doing great things. It’s the best job in the world. The Phillips Foundation is still young, but we are already making a huge difference in the community, so of course that is rewarding. However, I always keep in mind that it is not my money, and making grants is my job, so that keeps me humble. My husband and I get great reward from giving of ourselves apart from the Foundation, both time and money. Ultimately, it’s about purpose, not dollars.
6. NAME ONE PHILANTHROPIST, PRESENT OR PAST, WHOM YOU WOULD LIKE TO HAVE COFFEE WITH, AND WHY?
I would love to know Laura and John Arnold, the youngest participants of the Giving Pledge. I also wouldn’t decline an invitation to learn from Warren Buffet or Bill Gates, but it’s really Melinda Gates whom I’d die to sit down with over tea.
7. WHAT IS A BURNING QUESTION THAT YOU HAVE FOR YOUR COMMUNITY OF PHILANTHROPIC PEERS?
Why don’t we collaborate more and stop working in silos? There is power in numbers! For example, there is a group of six foundations (all Greensboro-focused and mostly family foundations) who meet bi-monthly to discuss respective grants and opportunities to collectively fund initiatives that really “move the dial” for our community. Our foundation joined this group known as Action Greensboro, and it has helped me with my learning curve immensely, and the group has welcomed my fresh perspective while I’ve gained great, local mentors. I see a similar type of collaboration happening on a larger, national scale around homelessness and the Housing First model through Funders Together to End Homelessness, and that excites me. We need more of this kind of teamwork!
8. NAME ONE INDIVIDUAL OR ORGANIZATION THAT HAS PARTICULARLY IMPRESSED YOU. WHY?
I recently had the amazing opportunity to meet Helen LaKelly Hunt, a pioneer of women’s philanthropy, who prefers the term “donor activist” as opposed to “philanthropist.” I love that! She and her husband Dr. Harville Hendrix co-created Imago Therapy and have written several books between them. He has been on Oprah 19 times (the first author she ever had on the show!), and she founded Women Moving Millions with her sister Swanee, among many other accolades. Their resumes individually and together are awe-inspiring, but I am most inspired by their genuine humility and “join us” attitude. Together, they are now tackling the divorce epidemic in our country through a new organization, Relationships First, which will strive to eradicate poverty by preventing broken families. I’m 100% on board and love the big-picture thinking they’re using to address an underlying systemic flaw in our culture.
9. IF YOU CAN ACCOMPLISH ONE THING WITH YOUR PHILANTHROPY, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
I would really like to solve something—anything! And I would like to continue creating movements behind the dollars.
10. WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH WE HAD ASKED, AND WHAT IS THE ANSWER?
I’m a visionary, so I like questions such as, “Where do you see the Phillips Foundation in ten years?” My current answer to that would be that I’m striving, over the next several years, to lead my board toward a common passion around a particular issue or cause, and be leaders behind it on a national scale. Right now, we are Greensboro-focused, targeting a diverse but selective slate of mostly seven-figure grants to once-in-a-generation opportunities. It is not required in the trust documents, but I suggested this regionally concentrated focus to provide my board and myself with the initial parameters to zone in on learning philanthropy and really making an impact with the amount of money stewarded to us. With approximately a $60 million endowment, we can’t change the world, but as one of the largest foundations in town, we can change and lead in that community. My hope is that eventually we will move beyond Greensboro, sharing some of the successes and breakthroughs we’ve found in our local grantmaking and involvement with a particular issue to other regions, expanding our impact. The broad,10-year plan is to transition from a regional focus to a cause-related focus, but for now we are enjoying the learning process.
11. BONUS QUESTION: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE QUOTE OR SAYING?
There are two verses from Scripture that are constantly on my heart:
“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
-Luke 12:48, NRSV
“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.”
-I Timothy 4:12, NIV