Jennifer Roller, The Raymond John Wean Foundation
Jennifer Roller has been with the Wean Foundation since 2007 and served most recently as vice president and interim president. Roller has represented the Foundation’s interests as a committed civic leader, staying abreast of current civic affairs and trends. Alongside the Foundation’s past two presidents, she has worked closely with strategic partners to ensure alignment of the Foundation’s shared vision and strategic initiatives. She also developed and supervised the Foundation’s Neighborhood SUCCESS and Leadership Program.
1. What was it about the field of philanthropy that initially attracted you to start your grantmaking career with The Raymond John Wean Foundation in 2007?
My initial introduction to the field was as a director of a pre-college program at our local university. Through the generosity of a donor from a bank trust, dollars were contributed to our program. The bank representative would graciously attend our annual event and his/her presence would be acknowledged. It wasn’t until a decade later that I met the then-president and I got a sense of what strategic philanthropy looked like. He talked, in detail, about the people he’d met and the information he’d gleaned. I was intrigued by 1) how insightful, as “an outsider” he was and 2) his skillful alignment of the key stakeholders and the work. I was then introduced to the Chairman of the Board. Here sat another man who could be anywhere, doing anything, and chose to be here continuing his family’s legacy of investing in the Mahoning Valley. It was, therefore, the people that initially attracted me. Smart and thoughtful people who represented the Foundation. And committed and engaged people/residents that they insisted remain central to the work. Throughout my career, caseworker, case manager, director, program officer, it’s my connection to people that has remained constant.
2. What is your personal philosophy about grantmaking, and how it can be most effective?
I’m transparent about how I show up through our mission and values. I work hard to be honest about expectations and thoughtful about meeting folks where they are: where they really are and not simply where I wish or where I expect them to be. In some instances, it’s “you do good work, we fund good work – have at it.” Sometimes, that approach can leave too many folks out of the conversation. And I must provide the capacity to do the work well. Being mindful to ask along the way “how can I be helpful?” This allows us to begin to create partnerships. Acknowledging that we all bring something to the table. This leads me to accountability: once we’ve agreed on how we’ll all show up in the work. We’ve all got to deliver and do what we said we’d do and be prepared to have real conversations when that looks different.
3. In your role, how do you drive innovation and test new ways of achieving impact?
I’d love to answer that question with: we take risks. Because that’s what we do in philanthropy. I’m told, if anyone can take the risk it’s us, the folks in philanthropy. The question is who wants to take a risk and fail? Not me. Not the grantees whose funding this work depends. We start by setting ourselves up for success. We do that by being inclusive. When we genuinely look to share the space with folks from various backgrounds, upbringing, and life experiences, we open ourselves to rich thinking and ideas that we can’t possibly tap into being closed. We try to set a tone of “we’re in this, are you in this?” What does being “in this” look like? We call out where our mark is in case we miss and must go a different way. We work hard at being courageous in our conversations – setbacks, shifts in plans, resetting and starting again. Innovation for us depends heavily on our sharing the learning. This is not the 4th grade spelling quiz – we can’t cover our answers. How or what we failed at could be the very thing that takes the next funder or the next grantee to the next level.
4. As a funder that invests heavily in communities in the Mahoning Valley, what have you learned about community building in your nearly 10 years with the foundation?
Start with the residents. They know stuff. It’s not always popular, and honestly it has yet to consistently catch on here, but not once in using this strategy have I been steered in the wrong direction. Quite the opposite. It’s when I have lost sight of the importance of leaning into the knowledge base of those closest to the challenges that I’ve gone off the rails or needed to course correct.
5. Who has impacted you the most in terms of your development as a leader, and how have they impacted you?
I am certain that my leadership development has been most impacted by the grace of God. From there, it’s been a collective effort. Consistently, the folks I call “my people,” they listen; they laugh, at and with me; they weigh in; they push back; they believe in me and step up when and where I need them. One reminds me “I got you.” Philanthropy isn’t easy work and they help to keep me grounded. It’s important, and not only for me, but for my community, that I get this right. I don’t always, but I try real hard.
6. What are you reading currently?
I am currently rereading the Untethered Soul and then two books about productivity – How to be a Productivity Ninja and Getting Things Done – the Art of Stress Free Productivity. The question will be whether I finish them.
7. How do you recharge your batteries when you need a boost?
Long term boost – me on a beach anywhere with my toes in the sand and a frothy drink in hand. Midterm boost – I run. Me, the girl who used to hide under the bleachers in high school so I didn’t have to take gym. I got bit by the running bug a decade ago and haven’t stopped. Short term boost – washing & conditioning my hair with the shampoo from the beach resort hotel. The smell takes me back there, if only for a little while.
8. What’s something you can share about yourself that few of our readers would know?
I cannot swim! I’ve tried to learn – 5th grade – YMCA; late teens; early 20’s – I dropped the class twice in college; late 20’s; late 30’s – my YWCA instructor left the country; and again in my early 40’s. I cannot swim, but I persist.
Before coming to the Foundation in 2007, Jennifer was director of Upward Bound and SCOPE at Youngstown State University. Roller earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Youngstown State University and, in January 2013, she completed a one-year fellowship with the Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE), an independent membership organization that promotes effective and responsive philanthropy in black communities. The fellowship included a weeklong Connecting Leaders Fellowship Summit and the ABFE annual conference, monthly fellow calls, professional coaching and the implementation of the Community Based Learning Project.
The Raymond John Wean Foundation seeks to empower residents of our region by creating a healthy, vibrant and economically stable Mahoning Valley with equal opportunity for all. The Foundation provides a combination of financial, technical and training support across a limited number of high-priority issues with a focus on achieving resident engagement, organizational excellence and networks for collective impact. The Foundation targets its financial and technical support to nonprofit organizations and associations, as well as public sector and academic institutions, working in the following practice and policy domains: Early Childhood, Educational Opportunity, Economic Opportunity, Community Revitalization and Public and Civic Sector Leadership.