By Mike Unger
Photography by Mitro Hood and courtesy of the Weinberg Foundation
Perched above the bulletin board on the near wall of Rachel Garbow Monroe’s office is a wood-backed frame, on which two words advise, simply, “KINDNESS MATTERS.” Across the room in the far corner sits a large piece of art — a multicolored tree with winding limbs crafted from PVC pipe, wooden dowels, newspaper, masking tape, fabric and yarn. “Kindness is not weak” says one of several ornaments that dangle from its canopy. A quote from Mother Teresa, painted on a piece of driftwood, hangs above her computer monitors: “If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.”
For the president and CEO of one of the largest private philanthropic organizations in the nation, kindness is not merely an act to be perpetrated when convenient — it’s a daily goal and a bedrock of Monroe’s leadership philosophy.
“If we don’t genuinely care about people, then we really shouldn’t be working here,” she says.
The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation has distributed nearly $2 billion in grants to organizations in Baltimore and beyond since 1980. Monroe arrived in 2005 and has led a transformation of the foundation from a small, relatively informal operation to a professional-yet-lean one that’s universally hailed as vital to the most vulnerable populations in the city and the country, and to Jewish communities both at home and abroad. She’s done this using a clear-eyed vision, sharp business acumen and a work ethic that is second to none.
And she’s done it — usually — with a smile on her face.
“She is this great combination of warmth and hard-driving focus,” says Sonja Santelises, the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, which the Weinberg Foundation has partnered with for a paradigm-shifting library project. “She can be a tough cookie when she needs to, but she always backs it up.”
Monroe is fond of saying that her career has been a blessing of serendipity. To an extent that may be true, but there’s no denying that her smarts and talent have played at least as big a role as karma. As the chief shepherd of a foundation with $2.1 billion in assets, she understands the magnitude of her position, while not conceding that she has to sacrifice kindness to execute it effectively.
“I see kind as quite powerful,” she says. “You can’t, in my opinion, represent a foundation and go to a homeless shelter, or go to a food bank, or to a program for low-income older adults who are unable to help themselves, and demonstrate ego or arrogance. We don’t tolerate that here. This is not our money. This will never be our money.”
It is, however, her job to ensure that it’s spent wisely, a mission that she understands is both a privilege and a serious responsibility.
BUILDING THE LEGACY
Harry Weinberg was just four years old when he arrived in Baltimore from Eastern Europe in 1911. His was to be a true rags-to-riches story. Despite, according to the foundation, possessing at most a sixth-grade formal education, he became a wildly successful businessman and entrepreneur. By the 1950s and 1960s, he owned bus lines in New York, Scranton, Dallas and Honolulu, and later made even more money in real estate and the stock market. He and his wife created The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation in 1959, and he left the vast majority of his fortune to it when he died in 1990.
“He was, on the surface, somewhat rough and somewhat gravelly in his voice,” says his nephew, Donn Weinberg, a trustee and executive vice president of the foundation. “In some senses, his bark was worse than his bite. He had a really good heart for the poor, particularly the elderly poor, because he himself had been poor when he came here. He worked himself up from nothing. He did very well, but he had decided in his prime that he was making all this money so that ultimately it could be used for the benefit of the poor. Behind this rough exterior, this hard businessman approach, he was interested in people and very much dedicated to ultimately using it all for the benefit of the poor.”
In the first 15 years following Harry Weinberg’s death, the foundation’s five trustees managed the office, investigated all grant requests and made recommendations. There was only a handful of staff, essentially no website, and the financial portfolio was managed by an outside entity.
“Each trustee demonstrated a strong dedication and loyalty to the foundation, in large measure to honor Mr. Weinberg’s memory and ensure they were serving out his wishes as articulated in the foundation’s charter,” Monroe says. “But the foundation’s community engagement during this time was not at the levels it is today.”
Since joining the foundation, Monroe has overseen a growth in staff from a few to 50 (33 of whom work in Maryland), the movement of its asset management in-house, and the addition of a team to review and recommend grants. It’s another accomplishment, however, that some say might be her most impressive.
“She has truly brought incredible talent on board,” says Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America. “She’s been able to recruit top, top professionals. She has taken it up to a notch where I think it’s at a level of the top foundations in the country.”
Helping to establish a new culture for the foundation, not to mention creating the necessary operations for a typical office — HR, payroll, facilities, etc. — wasn’t always a smooth process.
“I feel like we are overly committed to making sure we have a talented team and the right personality fit for each of those team members,” Monroe says. “If we don’t, I will sit with you and say, ‘I’m really sorry, this is not the right fit.’ We will be very generous to you so you land on your feet, but you can’t stay here because it’s not working out. It hasn’t happened in the recent past because we’ve figured out who we are and what our culture is, but early on it happened a couple of times. There was a learning curve for us. I’m trying to find the hardest-working people who are smart and kind, and by kind, I do not mean weak.”
Today, Monroe says she knows every person who works in the foundation’s Owings Mills headquarters. She knows whose parent is sick, whose dog just died, who just got back from vacation. Still, she’s quick to point out that the foundation’s workforce is small relative to the amount of money it distributes. Its headquarters, a 20-year-old building in a run-of-the-mill office park, isn’t much to look at, and while the interior is comfortable and stylish, it’s anything but opulent. This streamlined footprint is intentional, says Monroe, who wants as much of the foundation’s funds to go to organizations providing direct services to low-income populations as possible.
“Harry would be very proud of her,” Donn Weinberg says. “His whole life was spent working, and he was very proud of the fact that he worked a lot. I remember one email that Rachel sent us that had a list of things that she had just completed and meetings that were scheduled during the coming week. One of our newest trustees sent her an email saying, ‘When do you sleep?’ That’s just the way [Harry] was too. He was always thinking about work. When it comes to that work ethic and also her ability to have things move forward, he would have been extremely proud.”
FINDING ITS STRIDE
In 2005, the foundation established six areas of giving: older adults, workforce development, education, general community support, disabilities, and basic human needs and health. Earlier this year, a seventh category, veterans, was added.
One of Monroe’s most important innovations was making the foundation’s grant process more “competitive, comparative and compassionate.” It’s not easy to get a grant from the Weinberg Foundation. While it approves roughly 190 per year to the tune of about $100 million, it receives more than 1,000 requests, totaling more than $1 billion.
“We’re not solving all the problems that are put on our desk,” Monroe says. “I spend a lot of time saying no to really smart people doing really good work, because either we don’t have the capacity to support the work, or it’s not directly aligned with areas in which we are trying to focus.”
Grant making is both an art and a science, and applying for a grant is a multi-step process. The first step is submitting a three-page letter of inquiry. If an applicant makes it past that phase, it must complete a detailed full grant application. Forty percent of applicants receive funding, although often not to the level they seek. In addition, each grant has a quantifiable result requirement attached to it.
Monroe “has really stayed true to the Weinberg mission of what the foundation stands for, but at the same time refined it in a way that it’s really focused,” Silverman says. “She’s taken a very professional approach to measuring impact and output of the foundation’s investments.”
The foundation doesn’t just respond to grant requests — it also conducts proactive and emergency grant making. In two times of crisis, it acted nimbly to disperse funds to communities in need. In 2012, it donated $500,000 to support 17 of its active grantees that provided social services to people affected by missile attacks on cities in Israel. Three years later, when violence hit closer to home, it donated $400,000 in emergency grants to 10 nonprofits following the unrest in Baltimore.
“Those were important grants,” Monroe says. “Getting medicine to older adults who had to stay in their apartments and didn’t feel comfortable coming out, getting transportation for individuals who are disabled to their doctors. Those were two very challenging moments, and very different, but our response was the same.”
During a more peaceful time, Monroe conceived of an idea to help kids in Baltimore’s beleaguered public school system, and assembled 40 partners to implement it. It was a massive undertaking, but one that the city’s school chief says is improving children’s lives in very tangible ways.
A NEW PARADIGM
It takes but a moment to feel the impact a new, vibrant learning space — one built with care, forethought and love — has on the individuals destined to benefit from it.
In the 2015 Library Project Reveals video posted to the Weinberg Foundation’s YouTube channel, the faces of the students at Westport Academy and Commodore John Rodgers Elementary/Middle School are precious and priceless, their pride evident to anyone with eyes.
The Baltimore Elementary and Middle School Library Project began in 2011 with a simple premise — well-equipped, well-staffed libraries result in greater academic achievement.
“There are 61 evidence-based studies in the U.S. today that show good libraries, including books, technology and an excellent librarian, result in stronger schools in every way, not just literacy,” Monroe says. “Absenteeism goes down, suspension goes down, attendance goes up, behavior improves. You pick a marker, it improves.”
The foundation has pledged $10 million to design, build, staff and equip up to 24 libraries in the city where public funds can be leveraged. To date, 11 have already been built. To receive funds, a school must go through a rigorous application process that includes a memo of understanding with a post-completion four-year clock of commitments, one of which is keeping a full-time, committed librarian on staff.
While the list of partners involved includes other foundations, such as Annie E. Casey and Abell, and heavy hitters from both the private sector — Wells Fargo, Barnes & Noble — and the public sector — Enoch Pratt Free Library, Maryland State Department of Education — Baltimore schools CEO Santelises credits Monroe for much of the project’s success.
“What struck me when I was chief academic officer [of Baltimore City Public Schools] is just how passionate she is. My staff can sometimes feel like the Weinberg folks are pushing — and sometimes that might be true — but Rachel’s very reasonable. What’s most impressive is that she works for the highest standards of quality on behalf of the students. I’ve been around enough CEOs in a variety of fields who are smart and can be hard hitting when they need to be, but the fact that Rachel maintains that standard for young people that it would be very easy to accept less from, is commendable and actually very unique.”
Once, Santelises fielded a call from Monroe about a principal who was trying to back away from funding a full-time librarian at a Weinberg library.
“I’ll never forget, the principal at one of our schools was saying ‘we don’t have the money,’” Santelises says. “I got on the horn and said to the principal, look, if you just want a pretty space then we can give this to another principal who can find the money in their budget to support a librarian. This is not just about a pretty space. The principal found the money.”
The libraries are intended to be anchors in their communities. Partners such as the Maryland Food Bank distribute food at schools with Weinberg libraries; Operation Warm distributes coats. The libraries are air-conditioned and stay open during the summer for literacy programs.
“There’s an understanding that Rachel and the Weinberg Foundation bring,” Santelises says. “We have foundations and wealthy folks who want to give one specific thing. Part of Rachel’s vision is thinking about libraries as a way of connecting communities and kids. What Weinberg did was think very creatively about the foundational crucial, critical, noncompromising work of a school system, and it landed on something that everybody can understand, which is what’s so powerful about it.”
When Monroe is not traveling, her days usually start with a coffee meeting around 8 or 8:30 in the morning. She’ll meet a colleague for lunch, and two or so nights a week she’ll do the same for a post-work drink or early dinner. She’s dogged when it comes to networking with leaders in Baltimore’s nonprofit and government communities.
“Rachel herself is a tremendous thought partner,” says Leana Wen, Baltimore City’s Health Commissioner. “Every time I have a tricky issue, she is the one that I go to, to help me navigate the complexities. She has a way to see through a complicated problem and get to a solution that takes into account the best wishes of all parties concerned.”
After meetings with Santelises, the women have been known to talk about their kids. Monroe has been adjusting to life in her Stevenson, MD, home without her daughter Audrey, now a freshman at the University of Michigan. Her two sons, Danny, 16, and Ben, 14, are students at Beth Tfiloh, where her husband, Joel, is the high school history department chair, teaches AP economics and U.S. history and is the golf coach.
“My life has been blessed since the day I was born,” says Monroe, knocking on the wooden armrest of a chair in her office. Because of her work at the Weinberg Foundation, and the work of her staff and community partners, thousands of less fortunate people’s lives have been a little more blessed as well.
“The job of philanthropy is to wrap a quilt around the community and make sure that we’re standing strong,” she says. “We are the privileged stewards of a man who has left a legacy unlike many others in the world. It’s our obligation to try to honor that.” CEO
Mike Unger is a freelance writer based in Baltimore, MD. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CEO OF THE YEAR
Each year, SmartCEO magazine names a CEO of the Year. In selecting its CEO of the Year, SmartCEO looks for entrepreneurs who are true leaders among their peers. They have grown profits and community popularity, but they also have proven track records of innovation and bringing value to the marketplace. They lead more than just companies; they lead industries in new directions.
Why Rachel Garbow Monroe?
As the chief steward of the Weinberg Foundation’s $2.1 billion legacy, Rachel Garbow Monroe has both the privilege and the responsibility of fulfilling the founding charter set by Harry and Jeanette Weinberg: “While they are finding the cures for all the ills of the world, someone will be hungry, someone will be cold. That’s our job.” During her tenure, Monroe has overseen the growth and transformation of the Weinberg Foundation into a well-run and professional organization providing in excess of $100 million in grants annually to seven focus areas: older adults, workforce development, education, general community support, disabilities, basic human needs and health, and veterans. Even as one of the country’s largest philanthropic foundations, not every need can be met. Only 40 percent of applicants receive funding, which makes receiving a grant from the Weinberg Foundation a highly competitive and rigorous process. Monroe, who employs a leadership philosophy grounded in kindness, is fiercely protective of the foundation’s mission, ensuring every dollar granted has measured and meaningful impact in the lives of the country’s most vulnerable populations. For these impressive achievements and more, SmartCEO honors her as our 2016 Baltimore CEO of the Year.
JOURNEY OF A LEADER
Among the many photos of Rachel Garbow Monroe’s children, husband, friends and colleagues displayed throughout her office is one of her parents, Mel and Dene. Her father was an early partner at the renowned Washington law firm Arnold and Porter, and her mother was an elementary school teacher before taking a few years off to raise Monroe and her older brother, Avi. Eventually, she went back to work, becoming the manager and buyer of the National Building Museum’s shop (which, Monroe proudly points out, has repeatedly been recognized as one of the best museum shops in the U.S.). Even today, at 47, Monroe speaks of her parents with reverence and adulation.
“If I’ve had any success in life, everyone should point to my parents,” she says.
The family traveled extensively, including frequently to Israel, a country she still visits both professionally and personally and calls “magical.” From her parents, she absorbed a “work hard, play hard” attitude that she still tries to emulate.
At Northwestern University, Monroe took urban studies and art history courses. She wanted to be an architect, a goal that eroded after she spent her junior year studying the subject in New York and Paris.
“I learned that I have a decent eye, but designing things myself, I’m terrible,” she says.
Perhaps her father, Mel, had a premonition.
“If you ask Avi and Rachel for directions from wherever you are to the shopping center, Avi would give you meticulously well-written instructions,” he says of his son, now chief counsel for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “It would be like your GPS. Rachel would whip out a piece of paper and draw you a map. She’s always been extremely good at illustrating things. She’s very clever at schematics. I think that may carry over into her business approach.”
After grad school at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, where she double majored in marketing and nonprofit management, Monroe landed a position as worldwide director of marketing at the international architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Surrounded by “brilliant” people, she enjoyed the work, but when her first child, Audrey, was just seven weeks old, she felt pressured to fly to San Francisco for a meeting. Against her better judgment she went, and from the moment she arrived, she knew the job was no longer for her. In the business center of her hotel she logged onto WashingtonPost.com, and saw an ad for the head of marketing at The Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
She got the job, ultimately rising to become chief operating officer. Among her responsibilities was serving as a liaison to some of the foundations that supported The Associated’s work.
One of those was the Weinberg Foundation.
In 2005, Monroe was hired by the Weinberg Foundation as its first chief operating officer, under the leadership of the foundation’s president Shale Stiller. Monroe, Stiller and other board members set about modernizing the foundation, building its brand, developing better processes for grant review and administration and driving engagement levels.
Five years later, when the board restructured, Monroe was tapped as the foundation’s first non-trustee president and CEO.
“She has all the skills required to excel in the role, and had earned the trust and confidence of all the trustees,” says trustee Robert Kelly Jr. “She’s dynamic, very open, very accessible, very transparent. There’s never any gamesmanship. All the trustees, as well as every other person at every level of the foundation, knows where they stand with Rachel. She’s a very warm and engaging person. Her heart comes through in every encounter with her.”
THE HARRY AND JEANETTE WEINBERG FOUNDATION: MILESTONES
Harry Weinberg dies on November 4, 1990 and leaves roughly $1 billion to the foundation with a mission to support nonprofits that provide direct services to low-income and vulnerable individuals and families.
The foundation’s Board of Trustees completes a substantial amount of work between 1990 and 2005, including investment and real estate management and grant reviews, approvals and distributions.
Rachel Garbow Monroe joins the foundation as its first COO.
The foundation begins fully operating and funding an annual educational business trip to Israel for 20 to 25 leaders primarily from the State of Maryland (the foundation had funded this trip since 2001, but in 2007 took over all operations).
The foundation begins hosting an Annual Employee Giving Program, where each member of staff (not including the Trustees or the president and CEO) presents a check (originally $10,000, increased to $20,000 in 2014) to the Maryland nonprofit of their choice, consistent with the foundation’s mission and grant guidelines. The 2016 program included 25 employees distributing a one-day total of $500,000, the largest amount in the history of this event.
The foundation begins its first of two national initiatives, a total $15.6 million investment, in support of older adults. From 2009 through 2012, the foundation funded The Family and Informal Caregiver Initiative, making grants totaling $8.1 million to 14 nonprofits in nine states.
Rachel Garbow Monroe becomes president and CEO. The foundation adds a new marketing and communications department.
The foundation announces a partnership with the State of Maryland to increase rental housing options for people with disabilities. In 2013, this program was replicated in Illinois with a $1 million grant to the Illinois Housing Finance Agency.
The foundation celebrates the grand openings of the first three school libraries as part of the Baltimore Elementary and Middle School Library Project. The foundation commits $10 million to design, build, equip and staff up to 24 Baltimore City Public School libraries. (To date, thanks to the support of more than 40 partners, 13 library renovations have been completed or are under construction. In total, these libraries are already serving more than 6,000 students, which represents roughly 10 percent of all Baltimore City Public School elementary and middle school students.)
The foundation launches an internal investment department and hires its first CIO.
The Weinberg Foundation, The Abell Foundation and community partners launch the SummerREADS program at six Baltimore Library Project schools. This six-week literacy initiative encourages students and their families to increase time spent reading and participating in literacy-based activities over the summer.
The foundation teams with the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Family League of Baltimore to invest nearly $1.5 million for the creation of summer learning opportunities for youth. This initiative, now called the Summer Funding Collaborative, has grown from three funders to 10, investing more than $3.5 million to date.
The foundation has distributed more than $1.9 billion in grants since 1990, has roughly $2.1 billion in assets, and will distribute more than $100 million in grants this year.