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‘To see that problems get solved’: a Q&A with new Minnesota Philanthropy Partners president Eric Jolly

After 11 years as head of the Science Museum of Minnesota, Eric Jolly started this month as president of Minnesota Philanthropy Partners.

Eric Jolly
Photo by Jeff Achen

Eric Jolly made a mark in St. Paul and the local nonprofit community as president of the Science Museum of Minnesota for 11 years. He grew the downtown riverfront museum from an organization with a $28 million annual budget to one with a $44 million budget, creating buzz along the way with several groundbreaking exhibits.

This month, he started a new job: president of Minnesota Philanthropy Partners, the umbrella organization that operates a network of foundations, including The Saint Paul Foundation (which — full disclosure — has given money to MinnPost), Minnesota Community Foundation, F.R. Bigelow Foundation, Mardag Foundation and others.

A former professor, Jolly illustrates his points with gestures and the occasional diagram. He celebrates his Cherokee heritage, and often wears a bolo tie and his gray hair pulled back in a ponytail. A large photograph from the early 20th century — Qahatika Girl by Edward S. Curtis — dominates the wall of his 23rd floor office.

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In announcing his appointment, the MPP board said that Jolly’s “range of experience in organizational and philanthropic leadership, as well as in education and community engagement, stood out among the candidates.”

MinnPost sat down with Jolly last week in his 23rd floor office in downtown St. Paul. Here are excerpts from the discussion:

MinnPost: You oversaw major growth at the Science Museum. What are you most proud of?

Eric Jolly: There were two things; the first won’t seem as newsworthy, but it was critical: I hired and promoted well. The people I worked with there helped revitalize the industry, nationwide. They’ve helped make science central to the conversation and educational pursuits of the state and the nation, and helped our community grow.

As for things that together we achieved, I’d say the “Race: Are We So Different?” exhibit is a legacy piece. There is nowhere in this nation that an exhibit of that nature could have debuted with better reception and more learning. It was stunning. Sting came to the exhibit; Eric Clapton celebrated his birthday at the exhibit. Prince jammed at the exhibit.

Other science museum presidents were excited about the exhibit, but wanted to wait and see how it turned out. Well, our planned three-year run was extended to more than seven years. There are now three versions traveling around the country and it’s been hosted in the 50 largest cities in the U.S. We’ve had other tremendous exhibits, like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Mayan exhibit, but the Race exhibit was the perfect pairing of the courage of the community and the institutions it has grown and supports.

MP: What were your biggest challenges at the Science Museum?

EJ: Initially, finances. Our cash reserves were meager, our endowment small and our debt was large. We halved the debt, doubled the endowment and moved the cash reserve into seven figures. That was good.

But today there are still challenges. The Science Museum receives precious little government support from the city, county and state, compared to our peer institutions. I wish I’d been able to find a slight increase and a more permanent line of support. And I say slight, for there’s no reason to be dependent on any one entity. We diversified funding, allowing us to do great work for our community, but I would have liked to assure that the level of support from the government was meager, but steady, instead of tenuous.

MP: Were you looking for a change when the opportunity to head Minnesota Philanthropy Partners came up?

EJ: I was in this very office, asking [former MPP President] Carleen Rhodes for money to support the Science Museum. She turned to me and said: ‘Why don’t you apply for this job, Eric?’ I said: ‘Why would I do that?’ And she had an answer.

MP: What was it?

EJ: It was about the joy of being able to help more great institutions, like the Science Museum, do more great things for the community. It sounded good. The next day, I got a call from the search firm and six weeks later we had an offer to negotiate. It was not planned. I had looked forward to living in St. Paul, enjoying the job I was doing at the Science Museum and then enjoying a fine retirement.

MP: What’s your goal at MPP?

EJ: My goal isn’t to solve problems, it’s to see that problems get solved. We’re in search of the next passionate individual and agency and community group that wants to be give the space and resources to change this community for the better. … And we’re going to show how Minnesota can demonstrate to the nation new ways of making philanthropy relevant in the future.

MP: Why did they hire you?

EJ: From what I can tell, the board had gone through a strategic exercise that laid out the core values, but left open what strategies could be used to implement them. They wanted someone who knew the community and had a passionate love of the community to help them take the next steps. I believe they made a good choice.

MP: Explain Minnesota Philanthropy Partners.

EJ: MPP is a hybrid organization that’s difficult to describe in a few sentences. It’s an umbrella organization that provides infrastructure, staff, resources and knowledge to many foundations. [Some, The Saint Paul Foundation, the Minnesota Community Foundation, the Bigelow and Mardag Foundations, are very large, but there are also thousands of smaller donor-advised funds.]

This way, the foundations can maintain their independence of thought while not having to replicate the infrastructure. We help manage a fund and they choose where to direct the support. With the advice and counsel of our staff, they know they’re investing in a qualified resource that can do good.

The best thing we can do is help them with a shared goal and vision for our communities. This way, there’s a collective impact. That’s a new buzzword in philanthropy, but another phrase I’ve used for a decade is “coherence.” It’s the logical and consistent alignment among independent sectors towards a shared goal. You can put energy into this direction or that direction, but putting that same amount of energy into the same direction will help us reach the goal more quickly. That’s a critical factor, and you must identify that shared goal at a high enough level so that others can say they want to play along.

We want to do it through educational achievement, through economic opportunities that create a just society and fight racism and the idea is to get as many people marching along with us as possible. And this broad framework doesn’t just mean to provide an escape from bad things, or being able to afford a meal, or transportation. Those are important, but it also means living a life that you relish, and take joy in. Where you find opportunities for expression through are and service. And making a life that matters by giving to others.

MP: What are your priorities for MPP?

EJ: My first priority is learning. I’m intensely curious and the joy of these first days is like sipping from a fire hose with great caution. Then, over the next six months to a year I hope to turn our own values outward, to be bolder in the external expressions of the goals we have. To speak boldly and loudly about creating justice and fighting racism. And to give voice to others who want to join in that chorus. We’ll help others succeed in diversifying their work force and creating a healthy environment for the rest of the community.

MP: Is that a big shift from what’s happening now?

EJ: It’s a shift in perspective. How can we take our racial equity framework and help create agents of change for the newest members of our community? How do we help our immigrant population find their way to take the philanthropic spirit of Minnesota and build a great future for all? We practice this in our organization; now we have to spread it.

MP:How does MPP compare in size to the Science Museum?

EJ: We’re larger, and smaller. The Science Museum now has a $44 million operating budget, an endowment of $54 million and 684 employees. Here [at MPP], we have $1.3 billion under management, but just 64 employees. So we’re roughly 200 times larger and one-tenth the size. But our goal here is to get resources to agents of change. The Science Museum was the agency of change. They’re the end provider, we’re the intermediary.

MP: You’ve talked about Minnesota’s strengths in fundraising and philanthropy. Are we a hub for giving? 

EJ: We do lead the nation in individual volunteerism and individual philanthropy in several key measures. I think it’s something about how the community that settled here always has been ready to give the new-comers a hand-up. Why do we have such a large Somali population? Because church groups and Peace Corps volunteers made it clear that this area is a beacon of opportunity. The same with the Hmong. Our nature as a beacon community runs deep. We are welcoming and passionate people.

MP: Does that make it easier to do this job?

EJ: There’s less convincing about the act of giving and more convincing about which of the many ways to act when giving. That’s a nice problem to have. I look out my window and I see the Mississippi River. From this point, great commerce and great ideas have been shipped across the nation, floated down that great river and put on the Hill Company trains. We distribute ideas and people, too.