Interview with WPI Alumna, Ellen Wiss

Ellen with her husband, Jim, and their grandchildren

Ellen Wiss is a WGA Past President and active businesswoman and community leader. Her philanthropic journey is a great example of how engagement in philanthropy evolves over your lifetime and how using all of your forms of capital can be deployed.

Ellen recently took the time to connect with Caroline Brinton ’10 for this month’s Weaver Philanthropic Initiative interview.

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Q: What do you do in your daily life?

A: I am President of Homkor Florida, a local real estate entity currently invested in downtown core development and redevelopment. Homkor is associated with Homkor Companies, founded by my husband, Jim, who is now very active in the local work. Homkor Companies has been around for decades with real estate projects all over the country, mostly concentrated in Missouri, Colorado, and Arizona. Our company predominantly consists of income-producing properties such as grocery-anchored shopping center development and management, apartment building development and management, historic redevelopment in downtown cores, etc.

All of that said, I’m as much, if not more of, a community volunteer in my daily life.

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Q: You moved to Northeast Florida in 2009. What rooted you in this area, and what do you love the most about living here?

A: My husband and I shared our time between homes in Colorado and Missouri until 2008 when the majority of my work portfolio sold. Our kids were in college at the time, and our future plan was to look for coastal property to settle into after we slowed down in our careers.

When we visited Cumberland Island, an Atlanta couple told us we should check out the Jacksonville region. We did, and we fell in love. We didn’t know a soul in the area, but we found the area’s natural beauty, which we believe is unsurpassed in the country, to be so compelling that we made the leap to call it our home. We are now very happy in Atlantic Beach, with exciting work in downtown Jacksonville, too, and we have never looked back. This is home.

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Q: What challenges concern you most about Northeast Florida?

A: Poverty, inequity, and illiteracy. We could be talking about anywhere USA with these issues, but it’s what I cared about in my former home community and it hasn’t changed here.

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Q: When did your path first cross with The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida (TCF)?

A: When I joined the Women’s Giving Alliance (WGA), which I learned was an initiative of The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, I had the good fortune to more than cross paths with this incredible asset and force for good in our community.

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Q: How do you use TCF as a resource for your philanthropy?

A: I have two funds, one which is set up to benefit the Women’s Giving Alliance forever as a Legacy Member, and the other, with my husband, is to designate gifts to a broader group of non-profit organizations that have an impact in the areas we care about the most. TCF provides help and guidance with all of our philanthropic efforts. We get so much value as individuals and through WGA with the best expertise and leadership that makes up TCF.

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Q: As a Past Women’s Giving Alliance President, what would you say to someone considering becoming a WGA member?

A: As a member of WGA, you not only get to be surrounded by over 400 of the most amazing women ever, but you get the best return on your investment of time, treasure, and talent for real, positive impact through strategic philanthropy than anywhere else I know. Why? Because of the collective model that is foundational. My dollar is multiplied, my voice is multiplied, and my impact is multiplied, all as a result of being a part of this collective that is informed and guided by research on issues that affect our community.

Having TCF as the fiscal home for WGA, as well as having the access and resources of the top experts in the field of philanthropic stewardship there, WGA has the foundation for guaranteed success. While it’s a volunteer-run initiative, having the safety net and the link with TCF is priceless. The sophisticated and thoughtful approach to grant-making is the best there is in the field. The bigger the pot, the better. I’ve seen and been a part of WGA’s growth, increase in diversity, and its significant impact! And, because of the confidence I have in the integrity and value of WGA to this community, I pledged and invested support forever as a Legacy Member.

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Q: Why was it important to you to engage others in a poverty prevention movement that is now known as LIFT JAX?

A: Collective Impact is the only way to move the needle on big, hairy social issues, according to the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Women’s Giving Alliance is all about the collective, so I had the perfect platform to launch such an idea. Just as I was stepping into the President role for WGA, “Breaking the cycle of female poverty” became the focus area for WGA based on research and following our former focus on mental health. We had a tremendous impact in prior years with a laser focus, but there were ripple effects that were even greater due to sharing our research out and encouraging other groups and the broader community to act, too. It’s a part of the DNA of WGA.

I took what I had learned and applied it to the new focus area, one in which I have a deep passion for, and was intentional from the outset to engage others, knowing how great poverty is as a social issue. I had just attended a convening hosted by the Jessie Ball duPont Fund and The Council on Foundations, where I heard exactly what I needed to hear to empower me at that moment. A United Nations leader presented the newest Sustainable Development Goals that had been ratified by 193 countries, including the USA. Eradication of poverty in all of its forms by the year 2030 was the #1 bucket. Bingo! We had alignment with International, National, and State efforts that we could tap into.

Our focus was to impact female poverty, which is the largest area of poverty; however, appealing to all sectors to focus on poverty and bringing together all individuals and groups already focused there gave us the best chance for successful outcomes. The moment WGA was officially emboldened in this role was when we listened to our grantees at our annual convening that same year, asking WGA to be the convening lead for the community for the issue of poverty.

It’s been over three years since that all-sector coalition has been engaged with forwarding momentum. It is now on the ground making an incredible impact with a neighborhood-based approach in the historic Out East neighborhood and an intention to move next into another neighborhood until poverty is replaced with prosperity throughout our region. I’m still very much involved with LIFT JAX. WGA and TCF continue to represent the community’s best interests in this effort. It’s exciting to see how much faster and more significant impact happens when our community focuses on a common goal.

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Q: You Co-Founded Read USA to address literacy in young children. How is reading tied to poverty, and how does Read USA address this challenge?

A: Frederick Douglass said, “Once you learn to read, you will forever be free.” Reading is fundamental. And it’s a right. You can teach someone to fish to feed for a lifetime rather than just give them the fish, but many still need the fishing pole. Book choice and ownership is the fishing pole for reading success.

Over 50% of children in Duval County public schools are living in poverty. “2/3 of low-income homes have zero books.” – US Department of Education. “2/3 of 4th graders that struggle to read will end up in jail or on welfare.”- Write Express Corporation. And, “the only behavior measure that correlates significantly with reading success is the number of books in the home.” – The Literacy Crisis: Real Solutions

This year, we served 84 Title 1 Schools and Community Centers, 41,000 kids from under-resourced communities, with 161,000 brand new books they chose for ownership and building home libraries that impact the whole family. We just held our 2nd Annual Peace in the Pages community event (one of the deliverables of our Multi-Cultural Literacy Project) at A. Phillip Randolph Park. After a whole line up of inspiring leaders, young and older, I closed with this message from our board: Reading is a powerful tool to end violence and poverty.

At READ USA we believe and invest in every child’s right to dream… we do so by ensuring that children from underserved communities have the opportunity to experience the magic of a Scholastic book fair and choose FREE books for themselves. Providing children with book choice and ownership makes them more likely to enjoy reading, and as we all know, reading can transform the way a child sees themselves and the possibilities around them. Author Wayne Dyer reminds us that, “Everything that now exists was once imagined. So, if you want something to exist, you must first be able to imagine it.” We hope everyone will join our work of spurring the imagination in children.

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Q: How do you balance giving from your heart and your head?

A: I have failed in every way to achieve balance anywhere in life, but I do follow my heart, and somehow the universe takes care of the rest. Being educated on strategic philanthropy is a compass, though, an education that I am forever grateful to The Community Foundation for helping me understand. So, I am not completely unhinged, thankfully. And, the incredible growth and impact in the areas I have put energy and investments are positive indicators that I’m on a pretty good path.

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Q: Do you tend to favor contributing any particular combination of social, moral, intellectual, reputational, or financial capital in your philanthropy? If so, why?

A: Do you tend to favor contributing any particular combination of social, moral, intellectual, reputational, or financial capital in your philanthropy? If so, why?

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Q: What have been your most significant learning “aha moments” as a philanthropist?

A: It’s difficult not to say “yes” to every good cause out there with good people making the asks; however, strategic philanthropy is more effective. I learned that from the education and guidance I’ve received from The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, and I am forever grateful as I strive to have more impact, sometimes by saying “no,” which has consistently been the hardest lesson for me to learn. To this day and always, I’m still learning.