Power Player: A Look at CCT's Interesting Choice for a New CEO

a housing project in chicago: photo: Henryk Sadura/shutterstock

a housing project in chicago: photo: Henryk Sadura/shutterstock

The Chicago Community Trust (CCT) has named its first female CEO, who's also the second-ever executive of color in its 102-year history. As longtime CEO Terry Mazany steps down, Helene Gayle will take control of the top spot at this prominent citywide foundation. Chicago continues to struggle with gun violence and economic disparity. But at least Mazany left her with $2.5 billion in assets and a new development team to work with. Mazany also orchestrated an important, widely praised shift in CCT's funding strategy in recent years, placing a new emphasis on general support grants and streamlining the foundation's application process. And under his leadership, CCT has collaborated closely with other funders on a range of initiatives. 

So, who is Helene Gayle, and what can Chicago nonprofits expect from this leadership change?

Gayle is clearly a power player with star qualities—but also an unlikely choice to lead CCT. A doctor by training, she's spent much of her career working in the fields of global development and public health. After many years at the Centers for Disease Control, she became an executive at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, working on global health issues; she then led CARE, the global humanitarian group, for 11 years. She's also no stranger to the boardrooms of top nonprofits and corporations, serving on the boards of the Rockefeller Foundation, the Center for International Strategic Studies and the New America Foundation, as well as Coca-Cola and Colgate-Palmolive. Most recently, she's headed up the McKinsey Social Initiative. 

But Gayle is new to Chicago, and there's little in her blue chip resume to suggest she has a deep familiarity with U.S. urban issues or the kind of community-level social change efforts that CCT tends to favor. At a moment when there are a lot of calls for philanthropy to be more knowledgeable about and responsive to local stakeholders, CCT is betting on a leader from outside the community with an elite profile. Gayle is sure to face a steep learning curve to catch up with how things work in Chicago, a city well known for its complex political fabric and that has a philanthropic scene dominated by a number of long-established foundations.

On the other hand, Gayle's national connections are likely to be a major asset in her position atop CCT. As we've been reporting, Chicago's challenges have lately drawn attention from funders outside the city, including the Emerson Collective, which is backing an initiative led by Arne Duncan to create more opportunity and hope for young men. And just this week, JPMorgan Chase announced a $40 million effort to boost work skills and community economic development in Chicago. This is a good moment for CCT to have a leader who can navigate through national funding circles and make new collaborations happen. Like Detroit, Chicago is increasingly seen as a test case of whether philanthropy, working with other sectors, can move the needle on entrenched urban problems. There's a lot of room for big ideas and initiatives right now to make that happen. 

For these same reasons, Gayle's strong connections to the business community are another major plus. These types of connections may prove useful in establishing the public-private partnerships that are increasingly important in ambitious urban philanthropy efforts. CCT has a lot of giving power, but that power could be multiplied through stronger alliances with business.  

Finally, it's quite significant that CCT has chosen an African-American woman as its leader at this moment. Racial equity issues have been in the spotlight in Chicago lately, as they have been nationally, yet most of the foundation leaders in the city are white—a reflection of a broader lack of diversity at the very highest levels of philanthropy that's drawn criticism. MacArthur is one Chicago funder that's taken some heat in recent years for supposedly being out of sync with the needs of a majority non-white city. That foundation has made a big effort to show its responsiveness to such concerns, and CCT is also showing that it's listening with the selection of a person of color as its next leader. 

CEOs at CCT tend to stick with the foundation for the long haul. Mazany served as the foundation leader for 13 years. Gayle is only the seventh CEO at the foundation since 1915. She was chosen from a search led by former Leo Burnett Worldwide Chairman and CEO Linda Wolf, and executive search firm Spencer Stuart.

Gayle was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, and got her education at Barnard College, University of Pennsylvania, and Johns Hopkins University. She also has faculty appointments at the University of Washington and Emory University.

Since CCT’s founding, the foundation has awarded approximately $2 billion in grants to more than 11,000 local nonprofit organizations. Last year, the funder awarded more than $236 million in grants. Competitive grants for general operating support and responsive grants to address specific community needs are part of CCT’s current strategic plan.

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