Maria Pellegrini, W.M. Keck Foundation

TITLE: Executive Director of Programs

FUNDING AREAS: Medical and science and engineering research

CONTACT: Visit PeopleFinder for email and phone number (paid subscribers only)

IP TAKE: Pellegrini is a scientist first and a philanthropist second.  Get a firm grasp on the science behind your organization’s project and the impact it will have before having any conversations with Pellegrini or her associates.

PROFILE: Not all chemists sit in laboratories wearing white coats and pouring bubbling substances into test tubes. Maria Pellegrini, for instance, is putting her Ph.D. in chemistry to use in the world of philanthropy, and she’s making a huge impact doing so. She fit in right away at the W. M. Keck Foundation, which is one of the largest American charitable foundations supporting medical, engineering, and scientific research today.

Keck has a small and diverse staff, with several program directors, senior program officers, and program associates working under Pellegrini’s expert instruction. But before set out in grantmaking, her academic professional life started after she earned her Ph.D. in chemistry at Columbia University and culminated in serving as Dean of Research for USC's College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and as a professor of biological sciences and as an author of more 50 scientific journal articles.

It’s interesting that a foundation build on big oil money hired an environmentalist to hold the title of executive director of programs. Founder W. M. Keck created the Superior Oil Company and used the proceeds to develop one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the nations, to the tune of over $1 billion in assets. Pellegrini has served on the boards of the Santa Catalina Island Conservatory and the USC-Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. 

Environmental issues and climate change have always been important to Pellegrini, but so has teaching what she knows and paying knowledge forward. Before joining the Keck, Pellegrini put her training to work at the California Breast Cancer Research Program, the American Cancer Society, and Catalina Island Conservancy.  She also authored more than fifty scientific journal articles.

Although grant funds flow to other states around the country, most of Keck’s grantmaking is focused on organizations and institutions in the west. Keck recently awarded $1 million to the University of California in Los Angeles to develop the field of imaging science based on data scarcity. However, not all Keck grants are rooted in science. It also awarded $250,000 to the L.A. Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools and $200,000 to First Place for Youth to develop a supportive housing system for youth in Los Angeles County’s foster care system.

Pellegrini knows her science backward and forward, so you’d better have an advanced understanding of the environmental effects of your project before pitching an idea to her. And while Pellegrini will certainlylook at proposals from independent research facilities, the bulk of Keck’s giving goes to universities. The best way to catch her attention if you’re not working for a university is to play on her passions for climate change and other environmental causes.  Any inquiries about medical, science or engineering grant proposals should be directed to