October 20, 2020

Six Reflections with Ellen Rossi

Board Member: Janet Q. Lawson Foundation 

What life experiences shaped where, how and why you give? 

I come from a long line of philanthropists. My world-view is shaped by those who came before me and how they chose to interact with their communities. These views have become enhanced through the experiences of my own life. 

When I was 19, I interned at The Nature Conservancy’s newly opened Moab Project Office. This experience marked a huge turning point in my life. I went down there to do whatever needed to be done - digging ditches, dismantling beaver dams, and learning to manage an organic peach orchard. And while I was there,  I learned how incredibly fragile ecosystems are, and how we all play a part in the actions and reactions that affect our world. 

When I arrived in Moab, I felt a disgruntled, unempowered youth. But by the end, I learned to reframe the conversation and recognize that I not only had the capacity to implement change myself but also that I had a civic obligation to do so.  Ever since, I have come to believe that you have to get in the middle of things and get dirty to encourage systemic change. 

Forge ahead; everything counts.

"I have come to believe that you have to get in the middle of things and get dirty to implement systemic change."

Who do you admire most in philanthropy?

This is a hard question to answer! I have great admiration for everyone we work with through the Foundations I serve on.  

I would have to say my family both past and present. They set the bar so high, especially the women. They were often ahead of their time and leaned into the communities that lacked a voice. My Aunt Em started the first Kindergarten in Utah!  I look to how those women led in their communities for my own inspiration.

What book or other educational resource would you recommend to donors wanting to dive deeper into philanthropy?

Well as a mom of 2, time is scarce! But 21/64 is a great resource to think about philanthropy from a different lens and get to the root of why you give. Your financial manager can also serve as a great resource. And Utah Grantmakers Alliance is an excellent resource to engage with peers. Every Foundation and Donor Advised Fund is unique, and we can never listen to too many perspectives.

Do you believe there is a high enough tolerance for risk in philanthropy?   

I can only speak to my own experience, and not for the discipline as a whole. I will say that through one of our Foundations we have supported a number of pilot programs, all of which have been largely successful. We work in a hyper-relational way and invest in people and their ideas. 

If we have a long-term relationship with a nonprofit leader with a track-record of success, and they propose a new idea, we will likely go with them on that journey. Why? Because we believe in that leader and that organization. 

If we don’t have that relationship, taking on risk is difficult. Our existing relationships need so much support as it is, and we have historical investments that require that support.

"Why? Because we believe in that leader and that organization."

Do you ever give collectively with other donors?

I serve on the board of several family foundations, and we often cross-collaborate, especially when there is crossover between interest areas and/or applicants have larger funding asks. This can be an effective way to deploy larger-scale funding when needed.

How do you define success when it comes to your giving? 

Success is often in the eye of the beholder. I think everyone defines success a bit differently. Regarding the Foundations I help to steward, even though we focus a lot on deliverables and metrics, we operate via a very hyper-relational experience.  

Personally, I love it when success goes beyond the specific deliverables and the project spins into something bigger and helps an organization get to the next level. I love when something very small affects the organization more broadly and they can leverage a small investment to get to the next stage. 

"I love when something very small affects the organization more broadly and they can leverage a small investment to get to the next stage."