Social Impact Heroes: How Melissa MacDonnell of the Liberty Mutual Foundation is helping to address the epidemic of youth homelessness
One, we must ensure that every young person who exits foster care or any system of care leaves with a plan/roadmap for surviving and thriving.
Two, we must institute screening in schools to identify students who are unstably housed or homeless so interventions can take place prior to a young person ending up on the streets.
Three, we must incentivize more affordable housing.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa MacDonnell. Melissa is President of the Foundation at Liberty Mutual Insurance, a Fortune 100 global property and casualty insurer. Since Melissa founded it in 2003, Liberty Mutual Foundation has committed approximately $200 million dollars to 1,150+ organizations through direct grants, with a focus on accessibility, homelessness, and education; as well as employee matches to thousands of other nonprofits.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Melissa! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
One of my first professional jobs after college was working in the budgeting department at a bank. At that time, I was also a volunteer GED teacher for young people who had dropped out of school.
After conducting a series of budgeting workshops around the bank, I was asked to apply for a position as the controller for the company’s new foundation, even though I didn’t know anything about the bank’s charitable giving program. But coincidentally, the bank’s foundation team was very involved with the same GED program. So it was my volunteer work decades ago that actually gave me the edge for my first job in philanthropy, and set me on a professional track that has been more fulfilling than I ever could have imagined.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
A few years back when I began looking at how our foundation could adopt best practices employed by the broader Liberty Mutual community, I became intrigued by an exercise called the “voice of the customer”.
The foundation team had always received feedback from our community partners. But it was informal … and frankly, it was always positive (which makes sense since we are a grant maker). So we decided to hire an outside firm to formally conduct confidential research. They distributed external surveys to hundreds of grantees — and conducted dozens of in-depth interviews with experienced leaders at major nonprofit organizations.
What we discovered changed our strategy and ultimately the structure of our team. We heard lots of positive feedback: We were seen as a key partner. We were making a meaningful impact. We had a terrific understanding of the community and its challenges. But we also heard that while Liberty Mutual’s commitment to not promoting its philanthropy was widely admired, our modesty concealed our knowledge and, in turn, was limiting opportunities to advance our partners and the issues on which we were focused.
We took this feedback, used it to develop a reimagined strategic plan and ultimately grew our team and our thought leadership efforts to more actively champion our focus areas and our strong community partners.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
At the age of 16, I started out in the world of work at a place called Dairy Joy, a soft serve ice cream stand. It was — and still is — a crazy busy place. I’ll never forget my first day making a chocolate-dipped ice cream cone. In order to dip the cone, I needed to turn the ice cream cone completely upside down. No hesitation. No halfway. Well, I was hesitant and I did go halfway and so my ice cream fell off the cone and into the canister of gently-heated chocolate syrup. Jumping to fix my error expeditiously, I reached in with my bare hand to pull the ice cream out. Needless to say that did not go over well with management. The lesson from that frightful day was don’t hesitate, don’t go halfway and if you do fall short, think twice before you contaminate the future trying to recover.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Our most prominent social initiative addresses the epidemic of youth homelessness. At Liberty Mutual Insurance, we believe progress happens when people feel secure. We know that young people who are experiencing homelessness have to focus on the urgency of today … where am I going to find my next meal? Where am I going to sleep? They are not in a place to fully invest in their futures. The implications of youth and young adult homelessness are harsh and yet are just beginning to be understood. In 2019, to help reduce and end youth and young adult homelessness, Liberty Foundation made 44 youth homelessness grants totaling $6.565 million. These grants will support nearly 15,000 young people across the country. We are also raising awareness through convenings, social media, speaking at national conferences and any opportunity we find. In partnership with all those on the frontlines of this work, we are moving toward a world in which youth homelessness is non-existent; but in the meantime, when a young person does end up on the streets, it is rare, episodic and non-recurring.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?
Definitely. Let me tell you about a young woman I recently spent time with named Amina.
When Amina was ten years old, her family lost housing and had to move into a shelter. For over a decade, she moved with her mother from shelter to shelter, all the while, as she puts it, “scrounging for food.” During that time, Amina worked hard to stay in school, but it was just too hard and she dropped out in the 12th grade.
About a year ago, some family friends helped her find Bridge Over Troubled Waters — Boston’s foremost agency providing life-changing services for homeless, runaway and at-risk youth — and one of Liberty’s significant partners. Everyone at Bridge was welcoming and Amina got involved in their GED program where she ultimately was able to finish her schoolwork and earn her GED!
The team at Bridge Over Troubled Waters also told her about job training at More Than Words, an organization that gives young adults who were in the foster care system, homeless, court-involved or out of school an opportunity to learn skills and operate a business, all while working to turn their lives around.
At More than Words, Amina came out of her shell while working in customer service– earning promotions along the way and learning how to give feedback to her peers as she worked her way up to becoming a shift leader in the business.
But even with all this support, homelessness was still making it hard for her to focus on her future. She had to buy a backpack to carry all of her possessions with her every day and bring it everywhere she went. And even then she still lost a lot of her things, including all her winter clothes.
That’s when More Than Words and Bridge selected her for a new housing program, also supported by Liberty Mutual, and now Amina lives in her own room in a beautiful space surrounded by a support system while she saves up for permanent housing and college.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Yes. One, ensure that every young person who exits foster care or any system of care leaves with a plan/roadmap for surviving and thriving. Two, institute screening in schools to identify students who are unstably housed or homeless so interventions can take place prior to a young person ending up on the streets. Three, incentivize more affordable housing.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
For me leadership is about creating an organizational climate and culture in which all team members feel respected and included; recognized for work well-done, have opportunities for growth and development, and can trust and support the rest of the team whenever necessary — where collectively, the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.
I try to operationalize this by being clear regarding my expectations, by being fair but firm, by holding everyone accountable to the same standards of excellence, by providing constructive feedback when needed, and by being open to feedback from my team.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I wish someone had told me when I first started to: 1) Assume positive intent. This is one of our guidelines for inclusion at Liberty Mutual. I love to step into a conflict or challenging situation consciously assuming that the person on the other side of the conflict has good intentions of his/her own. And frankly, I appreciate interacting with others who are assuming the same of me. 2) Everyone has blind spots, the sooner you find yours, the less harm they’ll do to you and others. I’m very fortunate that Liberty Mutual invests in its leaders. Through that investment, I saw areas of opportunity for me to grow as a leader, for example, I saw the kind of pressure I could put on my team to be perfect — which brings me to my third lesson …3) Perfection is overrated. Sometimes, perfection is not the goal — knowing when that’s the case, can really help one’s effectiveness as a leader. 4) Find your voice — always know who you are and who you’re not and what’s at stake! 5) Lean heavily into your gifts. We all do certain things really well. Professionally, the more alignment between our gifts and our work, the greater our impact.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would like to inspire an anti-poverty — pro-empowerment movement. It would need to have sub-movements to get at some of the root causes of poverty and examine how systems can perpetuate harm.
For example, education is the surest way to get and keep people out of poverty. We all know this. Yet access to quality education is not a given. In certain neighborhoods, the options for schools are abysmal. In certain countries, females have zero access to education. Yet we all know that quality education breaks the cycle of poverty. Therefore, quality education would be my number one sub-movement.
While education is the best investment in the future, I’d also want to address the immediacy of today’s needs.
We all have things happen to us that put us in peril, but for many of us, we have a social and safety network that can help us during these times of crisis. Some people just don’t have that. We see this a lot with youth and young adult homelessness. Many young people who are in the foster care system for example, transfer homes a half dozen times in their young lives, and never have the stability of one caring adult.
When I’ve had the opportunity to walk the streets of Boston during the City’s annual homeless census count or ride the nightly van with the Pine Street Inn, I’ve learned a lot from the people I’ve met who were living on the streets. The most critical lesson is that people need access to mental health services. They need their medications. They don’t need to be on the streets. Once their mental health is straight, all else can follow like job training and affordable housing.
Progress happens when people feel secure. Getting at the root of poverty, helps people soar. We are all put on this earth to make a contribution. It is nearly impossible to live out your purpose when you’re simply struggling to survive.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There’s a quote from the Bible that has become my life lesson. It is an instruction to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” This spoke to me 20 years ago and has stayed with me ever since. Leading the philanthropy at Liberty Mutual is bigger than a job, it’s a privilege. I am helping a company that is full of caring people and leaders who desire to do a lot of good. I feel called to make the most of this opportunity. Personally, I had the privilege of being fourth of eleven children born in thirteen years. And although we were kind of like one big pack of kids, I always felt uniquely me, individually created for something I was called to do. And I believe that for every single person in this world.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to have breakfast with Oprah Winfrey because, despite her enormous fame and fortune, she seems rooted in, and led by, a spirit of truth and goodness. I love how she has used her voice and platform to lift up so many others. I mentor and tutor young women from South Sudan, so of course I especially appreciate all that she has done to advance educational opportunities through her Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
My pleasure. Thank you.
About The Author:
Yitzi Weiner is a journalist, author, and the founder & Editor-In-Chief of Authority Magazine. The guiding principle behind all of Authority Magazine’s content is that good stories should be beautiful to heart, mind, and eyes.
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