Donald Cooke
Donald Cooke

Donald A. Cooke has long been on the nonprofit scene in Chicago, where he’s currently senior vice president of philanthropy at the McCormick Foundation. He oversees grantmaking programs at McCormick, a Windy City institution with over $1 billion in assets. Prior to joining the foundation in 2005, he served as vice president for institutional advancement at the Field Museum in Chicago and vice president for external affairs at the Philadelphia Orchestra.

We recently spoke with Cooke about his career, the state of philanthropy, the fate of our sun and other topics. Here are some excerpts from that discussion, which have been edited for clarity.

Who are the people who have had the greatest influence on you as a professional?

I really need to go a little further back for this one. I’m a trained astrophysicist, and my college professor was one of my early mentors, and we’re still friends after all these years, and I owe him a lot. As far as the nonprofit world is concerned, I’ve been fortunate to have really good bosses and trustees. The trustees at the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Field Museum were especially helpful in getting me to think about the stewardship aspects of fundraising.

Then, 16 years ago, I came over to McCormick, only really knowing the fundraising side of the equation. I suddenly wasn’t a social service person at a nonprofit. But everybody was a mentor. I learned—and continue to learn—from experts in all of our program areas, like housing and economic opportunity.

This was really important, because we’re a pretty broad funder, and my job has never been to know everything about anything; it’s to know a little bit about everything and support my people who are really the experts, and be sure they have the tools they need to do a good job as grantmakers.

What are some of the other surprising or challenging aspects of that transition from fundraising to grants management?

When I worked for my previous organizations, every day, I would wake up and say, “What am I doing today to help further the mission of this organization?” So when I was at the Field Museum, this meant raising money to help people who were digging for dinosaur bones or to build exhibits.

And then I moved over to a foundation with a lot of different program areas and I quickly realized, “I don’t own anything.” One minute, I’m talking about veterans, and the next hour, we’re addressing economic opportunity in the inner city, then it’s on to violence prevention, and my job is to oversee our experts and provide them with support and guidance. For example, I started our veterans program, and then handed it off to somebody else. So even though I technically owned it, I turned it over to other people to do the work. It’s a different approach from the fundraising world, and it’s one that requires partnership and trust.

What is the biggest change you’ve seen in philanthropy in the last five years?

This may go a little farther back than five years, but I would say an increased interest in appetite and demand for impact measurement. I’ve seen it grow dramatically across philanthropy, this idea of understanding if dollars are making an impact.

Now, some would say that this is the difference between charity and philanthropy—philanthropy is strategic, and of course, we all want to do that. But once you ask for it, you’ve got to be willing to fund the work to get the data. You can’t just say to an organization, “Give me the data,” because many of them don’t have the resources or capacity to do it. And so funders have to be aware that the more demands they put on the nonprofits for that sort of thing, the more they have to be willing to actually pay for it.

More recently, there have been broader conversations around race equity and the importance of tying this work to the community’s voice. Foundations shouldn’t be the experts on the 43rd floor of some high-rise, saying, “You need to do this.” I’d much rather hear from a person in the community doing the work than from a foundation person, and I think we’re seeing more of that now.

If you could snap your fingers and change one thing about philanthropy, what would it be?

It would be a reduction or elimination of the tension between folks who need the money and the folks who are giving them. Now, I think foundations are mainly the cause of this tension because they’re the ones with the money. They have ideas about how they want things to get done and they’re tasked with executing a mission.

So the challenge is to minimize this tension. For instance, on the program grants side, funders should be willing to provide administrative cost support. You can’t run a program if the building doesn’t have heat or the employees don’t have training opportunities. It isn’t a sexy topic, but I think there needs to be a better understanding and approval of the need for overhead built into grants.

Funders should also simplify the application process. If the college and university world can have a common application, we can do the same for nonprofits, and I’ve been talking to my colleagues in Chicago about creating something like this for our community.

You came from the fundraising world. What advice would you give your former colleagues in the field?

First, I’d say don’t chase money when it doesn’t fit. Sometimes, the choice is obvious—I remember I turned down a gift from a tobacco company that wanted to sponsor a health fair! But other times, there are more complicated ethical issues at play, and it can be difficult to shut off a portal for money. So you have to be true to the organization and its mission.

I’d also say that fundraisers should find the right balance of staying connected with their funders when they’re not asking for money. I’m amazed at my current job at how many people we’ve given capital campaign grants to [who] have not talked to us in three years. Of course, I know what causes it. There’s a lot of work to do, and if you get a grant from somebody, you’ve got to move on to the next one. The pressure is enormous.

It can also be irritating if there’s too much interaction, but again, there’s a balance to be had to keep people periodically interested and involved. Fundraisers need to stay in touch and let us know how they’re doing.

What’s the last great book you read?

I recently finished Walter Isaacson’s book on Leonardo da Vinci. It’s a brilliantly structured book that’s a biography, but sprinkled throughout are long, interesting treatises on his masterpieces. I also found it fascinating that da Vinci never finished anything—it was always on to the next project.

Speaking of which, being an astrophysicist by trade, you wrote a book called “The Life and Death of Stars.” Can you provide an elevator pitch for us laypeople?

It’s the story of how stars are formed and live their lives. I wrote it back in 1985 and would love to revisit it with modern technology. Some form neutron stars and pulsars; some turn into black holes. Our sun is about 5 billion years old, and we’re about halfway through its life. One day, it will die, and then we’ll be in trouble. But luckily, we have a long way to go before that happens.

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