After beginning his career in the financial services industry, Eric Weinheimer quickly discovered he’d much rather focus on mission than profit. In 1996, he began his career in the nonprofit sector as the President and CEO of The Cara Program, a workforce development agency, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Since 2014, he’s continued serving the nonprofit sector as the President and CEO of Forefront (formerly the Donors Forum), a nonprofit membership organization that brings together nonprofits, grantmakers, public agencies, advisors, and allies under one umbrella.
Eric serves on many boards and advisory groups, including several related to social enterprise and social innovation issues. He earned a B.S. from Boston College and an M.B.A. from The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Here is his story.
IFF: You left the financial services industry over 20 years ago for a career in the nonprofit sector. What made you make that decision, and what do you think draws other people to public service?
Eric Weinheimer: I think we’re all on a continuum where some people are motivated in their work by profit and some are motivated in their work by mission. Quite frankly, I think we need both – one isn’t better than the other – but I realized in my late 20s that I was pretty far on the continuum toward the mission side. What really motivated me and got me charged up was to be part of something that was bigger than myself – in particular, to help people struggling with urban poverty.
Around that time, I had the luck of meeting Tom Owens, an entrepreneur who was looking for an executive director for The Cara Program. I had no work experience in this field, I had never managed anybody, and I had never raised a dime, but lucky of me Tom was impressed by my business background and my MBA. He gave me my start in the field, and I haven’t looked back since. It’s one of the greatest gifts in my life to be in this sector for as long as I have.
A lot of people I meet in the nonprofit sector really understand what motivates them. They know what gets them excited to get out of bed every day. If you have that self-awareness about where you are on the continuum and what you really care about, then you can hopefully move your career in that direction.
IFF: When you took the reins of Forefront in 2014, you said you wanted the organization to “be provocative.” How do you think you’ve achieved that so far?
Weinheimer: I think Forefront has a critical role to play as a leader in our sector. While we are a membership organization, and we certainly listen to and serve the needs of our members, we also have a role to play as a leader. During our first year as Forefront, we started a campaign called #ILGive for Giving Tuesday to increase individual giving throughout the State of Illinois. Some people said it was not our role to provide this kind of leadership, that we should be focusing on work with foundations rather than with individual giving. But we said no – It’s about serving nonprofits to get them more resources, AND it’s about leveraging the limited resources of foundations.
Another example of Forefront being provocative is our Mission Sustainability Initiative (MSI), which we created with foundations, nonprofits, and some businesses to make it easier for nonprofits to collaborate and partner. Other, similar initiatives like the MSI around the country were started by foundations. But the reality is that Forefront is able to mobilize all different constituencies, and we need to take advantage of that asset of ours.
IFF: Your organization famously changed its name from Donors Forum to Forefront just 2 years ago, after 40+ years in business. You’ve said the new name is about “leading instead of being reactive.” How is it working out so far? After 2 years, do you still think of the name as “new”?
Weinheimer: I think it’s working out very well. But I’m probably biased. To your earlier question about being provocative, I think our name change was one of the first indications that we could be that.
There’s no doubt that there are still people out there who wish we were still the Donors Forum. Around the country, there are 35 regional associations of grantmakers and 40 state associations of nonprofits. Outside of one or two, they’re all descriptive names – Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, Philanthropy Florida, New York Council of Nonprofits, Michigan Council on Foundations. I love the fact that in the middle of the country, amidst all these membership organizations serving our sector, you have this organization called Forefront – it just kind of stands out. And that’s exactly what we wanted to achieve.
What’s more, we can create whatever we want out of this name. I’m reminded everyday how our sector is changing dramatically. Who we are today might not be the organization we are five years from now. We want a name that can be adaptive and grow with this changing organization and changing sector.
It will still take time for some people to not think of it as Donors Forum, but it really has very little to do with the brand – it’s about the work. Once we do the work, people will start to embrace the brand, if they haven’t already.
IFF: What do you think are the major challenges facing nonprofits today?
Weinheimer: First of all, the funding model is changing dramatically. This sector has always been under-resourced, but as the government retreats from its responsibilities, there is even more need and even fewer resources.
Second, the way we’ve always attracted resources is changing. Foundations are looking for new ways of investing in their grantees. Corporations are looking to move beyond standard CSR [corporate social responsibility]. And there’s a new age of philanthropy in which younger philanthropists – mostly driven from the tech sector – have different rules about how they are going to invest in a nonprofit. Plus, you have the social enterprise, hybrid model coming to the scene.
There’s so much change out there, but what is constant is the need. So the challenge for nonprofits is how we continue to meet that need while adapting to this rapid change.
IFF: Your background includes a lot of work in the social innovation / social enterprise space, and you’ve said that Forefront should expand on its traditional membership base to engage that slice of the sector. How are you working to achieve that?
Weinheimer: The work in social innovation is so fragmented – you have impact investors over here, both for-profit and nonprofit social entrepreneurs over there, universities that are carving out a particular niche, corporations that are looking to move beyond CSR. Who is bringing all these groups together? One thing we did at Forefront was start a Social Innovation Roundtable to be that hub and convener for those organizations so that we can coordinate our efforts. It’s still not where it needs to be, but the dream is to eventually move it into a community of practice. We feel that’s a role that Forefront can play so that we can build the capacity of nonprofit social entrepreneurs, connect impact investors with causes they care about, and generally spur much more social innovation in Chicago.
IFF: You went to Boston College, but you’ve lived in Chicago for a while now. If there were ever a Cubs v. Red Sox World Series, who would you root for?
Weinheimer: Cubs all the way.