In August 1988, Geri Mannion joined the Carnegie Corporation of New York as a program associate. As of August 2021, she has been responsible for 1,735 grants there, totaling more than $394 million. Mannion, whose current title is program director, Strengthening U.S. Democracy and the Special Opportunities Fund, worked her way to the upper rungs of philanthropy, starting from humble beginnings and taking an unconventional path along the way.
Founded in 1911 by industrialist Andrew Carnegie, the Carnegie Corporation was initially created to support education programs across the country, and later, the world. The philanthropic fund holds more than $3 billion in assets and is one of the oldest foundations in the country. (If you’re curious about the oldest, well, that’s St. George Society, founded to help impoverished colonists in New York City in 1770.)
During her time at Carnegie, Mannion has helped spearhead several key collaboratives including the Four Freedoms Fund, which works to strengthen the immigrant justice movement, and the State Infrastructure Fund, which recently helped drive massive Black voter turnout in the critical U.S. Senate run-off races in Georgia. For someone like Mannion, who’s been digging into these areas for decades, it’s remarkable how pivotal and timely some of these issues have been in the wake of a surge in attention to Black Lives Matter, tension around immigrant rights and unprecedented challenges to democratic institutions.
We thought it would be good to connect with Mannion within this context to get a sense of her experiences at a top-flight philanthropy, how she rose through the ranks with an atypical background, and how she sees her role at Carnegie today.
A Bronx tale
Mannion is the daughter of Irish immigrants, Jerry and Margaret, who left for London and then later arrived in Pittsburgh—where none other than Andrew Carnegie earned his great fortune. The immigrant family made such a splash that they were written about in the local paper and began the process of building a new life. Eventually, they arrived in the Bronx, where they were able to tap into the local Irish community to find work and their first apartment. And when Jerry passed away unexpectedly at just 40, the Irish-American community once again stepped up to fill in the gaps.
Mannion says that in those days, women were expected to go to secretarial school, which provided a pathway to a first job. So in her late teens, she got the opportunity to work for a program associate at the Rockefeller Foundation. “I had no idea what a foundation was, by the way… But I started off with a very good skill set… I was one of the first people hired without a college degree at Rockefeller,” she told me.
Mannion had a particular knack for the written word. Colleagues at Rockefeller encouraged her to go to college at night, supporting her as she completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Fordham University, a private university in the Bronx, footsteps from the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo. At that point, Rockefeller had field offices all over the world, including Africa. In the 1980s, Mannion traveled to Congo, Kenya and South Africa.
“That’s how I learned the world… by typing up peoples’ memos and grant recommendations,” Mannion said.
Mannion’s boss at Rockefeller was Kenneth Prewitt, then a senior vice president of the foundation who went on to head up the U.S. Census Bureau. After working for 13 years at Rockefeller, she decided it was time to make a career move, knowing that without a Ph.D. or other high-end credentials, she could not proceed much further up the ladder.
Finding her footing
After a short stint at the Ford Foundation as a consultant, Mannion joined the Carnegie Corporation of New York in the late 1980s as a program associate. She describes herself as a generalist, then and now, focusing on a potpourri of issues like conflict resolution, as well as media and public broadcasting—which, by the way, is another one of Carnegie’s long standing interests. Over time, as Mannion took over Carnegie’s democracy portfolio, she also dug into voter participation and immigration.
“It was not a definitive decision to enter philanthropy… but it’s the best job ever. It’s an unbelievable learning experience. Every day, you learn something new,” she said.
As a woman, and as someone from a working-class background without the typical Ivy League pedigree, she did not find philanthropy to be all sunshine and roses at the beginning, though. As she was coming up, there were very few women in leadership positions in the sector. She looked up to women like Susan Berresford, a founder of action affinity group Women in Philanthropy, who went on to become president and CEO of Ford Foundation. Mannion also spoke about the direct mentorship she received from Barbara Denning Finberg, an early childhood education pioneer and former executive vice president at Carnegie.
After a few years, Mannion was promoted to program officer. “They [foundations] gave you three to five years. If you didn’t become a program officer by then, it probably was never going to happen. As soon as I moved up, I got more flexibility. I was able to shape the proposal… and understand the importance of giving,” she said.
Mannion also emphasized the importance of relationship-building, including key connections with ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero and former Rep. Donna Edwards. In the early 1990s, Mannion linked up with Romero, who was then working at Rockefeller, to start the Funders’ Committee on Civic Participation (FCCP). Last year, the affinity group helped mobilize philanthropic engagement toward a fair and accurate 2020 Census. She stays in touch with Romero and Edwards to this day.
Working in collaboration
When we cover individual donors and those who steer family foundations, the personal forces driving them to give, and the causes they favor, are often of immense importance. Well, the same goes for program officers and the programs they lead. And for Mannion, it all goes back to her family’s immigrant story.
Mannion began working on naturalization issues at Carnegie in 1990 on the heels of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Among other things, the act legalized most undocumented immigrants who had arrived in the country prior to 1982.
“When I go out now with young DACA recipients… and having them feel so uncertain of their pathway, it reminds me of every immigrant who came before,” Mannion said.
In her work, Mannion focuses on systemic change and policy change, a long slog. But on the plus side, when she does make headway, she said it’s likely to affect a wider swath of people. And she’s particularly keen on collaborative efforts.
A decade ago, Mannion worked with numerous national funders to establish the New Americans Campaign at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center to increase naturalization rates among legal permanent residents. She notes barriers like the difficulty of the U.S. citizenship test, which would flummox many American-born citizens who aren’t well-versed in civics. The process is also expensive. In 2020, the naturalization application cost $725.
In the early 2000s, Mannion also helped spearhead the Four Freedoms Fund at NEO Philanthropy, a funder collaborative working on immigrant integration on the state level. She and her colleagues did not plan on the fund running for this long, but noted that while top-line immigration reform happens at the federal level, the states also need support.
“We wanted to be able to get money to the states, to support their immigrant work at their state level,” she said. Today, the Four Freedoms Fund operates in 30 states. Grantees in 2020 included the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ), New Orleans Workersʼ Center for Racial Justice, Casa de Maryland and many more.
Ultimately, Mannion believes her work has been so effective because she’s been a part of these learning tables. “I am a much better funder because I’m a member of a collaborative than if I sat in my office on Madison Avenue and made grants,” she said.
During the 10 years ending September 30, 2019, the Carnegie Corporation reports awarding 3,150 grants totaling more than $1.32 billion. Mannion says she is drawn to organizations that are not always moving to the next shiny object. For instance, Carnegie was one of the first supporters of the Brennan Center for Justice, doling out an initial $25,000 discretionary grant back in 1996. That giving escalated, and by 2008, Carnegie had given $3.65 million to the Brennan Center.
Looking back, Mannion is proud that it has remained laser-focused on ongoing litigation and policy change. “I look for good leadership, people with passion, an ability to articulate their vision… and [people who] are always thinking of the affected community,” Mannion told me.
As for her long career and unlikely path, Mannion is the first to admit that she’s a unique case. She’s also unsure whether someone like her could take the same route today. Even during her early career, she was directly asked how she could be in her role without a conventional pedigree. And more recently, she notes that big foundations have been very much into recruiting experts— science professionals, policy wonks.
Still, she believes in the power of being a generalist and recommends that people just starting out go work at a nonprofit for a few years to see what it’s like to raise money and to be turned down multiple times.
“I like the idea of bringing in people with a wider view, a bigger picture view, and frankly, someone with my experience… I live in Jersey City, I commute,” Mannion said. “I like to still think of myself as a working-class kid from the Bronx.”