Striving for Impact with Michael Bigley of the Venable Foundation
As a relative newcomer to Baltimore-area philanthropy, Michael Bigley, director of the Venable Foundation, was eager to engage with Maryland Philanthropy Network and excited for the chance to serve on the Board of Directors.
While the pandemic changed things, Michael enjoys the various programs offered and feels MPN has been vital for him in creating stronger connections and a deeper understanding of Baltimore.
The Venable Foundation was started in Baltimore and now has major offices in Washington, DC, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago. As the first director and sole staff person focused on the firm’s philanthropic efforts, Michael has worked to advance the operations and internal governance of the foundation since he started in 2019.
The Venable Foundation is funded through direct contributions from the firm’s equity partners rather than an endowment. Last year, the foundation awarded $3.6M to 346 nonprofits across all of its locations with over $1M going to Baltimore specifically.
It is unique for a law firm to have its own foundation, making the Venable Foundation one of the largest law firm foundations in the country. The firm also engages in pro bono legal work, volunteerism, and sponsorships that continue to emphasize Venable’s commitment to impacting and engaging in the communities where they reside.
A key aspect of his work has been to increase public awareness of Venable’s funding opportunities and diversify the grantee docket. Michael was pleased the foundation’s grants committees agreed to move forward with emergency COVID-related funding in the early days of the pandemic to address food insecurity.
“In addition to funding long-term partners like the Maryland Food Bank and Meals on Wheels, we also joined forces with our community foundation peers in each of Venable’s locations to provide funds for their COVID relief funding pools,” Michael said. “While this provided an opportunity to re-introduce Venable Foundation to those communities, it also exemplified my belief that the philanthropic community needs to come together during these times to address a myriad of challenges. It is together that we can seed change.”
While Venable’s average grants are around $10,000, their COVID Impact Grants awarded up to $100,000 per organization to address immediate challenges related to the pandemic. An additional round of Impact Grants in 2021 focused on helping education organizations address the changes in schooling, particularly high dosage tutoring efforts.
“Of all the cities where Venable operates, MPN has provided one of the most stellar resources for grantmakers of all shapes and sizes impacting the region. As we transition back to more face-to-face activities in the future, I look forward to continuing to meet new colleagues and discover how all our work can come together to address systemic issues present in our communities,” he said.
Michael has worked on all three sides of institutional philanthropy, from private foundations to government grantmakers and now corporate philanthropy. Originally intending to be an elementary school teacher, he was offered an opportunity to serve as a graduate fellow at St. Bonaventure University in New York to develop grade-school programming focused on arts education. This experience thrust him into the nonprofit sector and, after earning his master’s degree, he moved to Washington, DC to start his career as the Director of Education for Washington Performing Arts.
Michael credits this experience as preparing him for his first role in philanthropy with the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation in Washington, DC as a Program Officer.
It was there he received the best advice, “Funders are not the experts. Communities and nonprofits working day in and day out to improve the lives of those around them are the ones with the vital expertise about what they need. We, as funders, must listen to them and partner together to see how we can help them achieve their mission. Most often, general operations support is the best avenue to do so.”
Looking forward, Michael is eager to connect with his MPN peers and grantees in person to forge stronger, trusting relationships. He is excited about the Venable Foundation’s 40th anniversary next year and to continue efforts to build awareness about funding opportunities and provide open access to a wide range of grantee partners.