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Jennifer Shipp, General Counsel, Heising-Simons Foundation

Jennifer Shipp, General Counsel, Heising-Simons Foundation

February 8, 2021

Tell us how you got into the “mission-driven” world and what you love about the work? After years of working at big law firms supporting clients’ corporate finance transactions, I found myself much more interested in my pro bono projects with nonprofits than the billable work. I tried to make the transition to mission-driven work directly from the firm but didn’t have any success, so I decided to make a clean break. I pursued a graduate degree in public policy both to signal my transition and to see what else might be out there that was interesting and well-suited to my skill set. More than anything, my time in graduate school exposed me to amazing people and a vast landscape of socially-impactful careers. When it was over, I landed in philanthropy, and I couldn’t be happier with that result. I love that my job is to ensure that generous individuals who have committed their wealth to improve society can do so through a stable institution whose purpose is to find the spaces where those resources can be put to their best and highest use. I truly enjoy meeting and working with grantees, sharing in the passion for their work, and in many ways catalyzing change that is both experienced by people in the short term and sustainable for the long term.

What are your thoughts on leading, mentoring, and collaborating with your team? At the Heising-Simons Foundation, in my first leadership role, I am currently a legal team of one. However, I work closely with other teams, especially since I am also the first in-house lawyer at the Foundation. I am doing a lot of learning about how the Foundation has done its work and how it plans to grow and evolve. I’m building relationships and trust within the organization and sharing what I can to support the mission, which requires all of these. In prior Foundation work experiences, collaboration within the legal team was so important. With multiple lawyers supporting the work of a foundation, consistency in approach is critical so that the team speaks with one voice on legal issues, and as a result, so does the institution. That means sharing knowledge and expertise, mentoring and being mentored on how to build and nurture relationships as an in-house lawyer, and asking lots of questions.

What have you found to be the most challenging personally and professionally since the start of the pandemic? I started working at Heising-Simons in April after we had all sheltered-in-place due to the pandemic. So, I have not had the pleasure of working with anyone in-person. Starting in the General Counsel role remotely was certainly a challenge. Meeting many of my co-workers through scheduled coffee chats and smaller meetings, learning about the Foundation’s work and its culture, and building relationships were all made more difficult. Most opportunities to connect with people were because of work that needed to be done, not the casual hallway run-ins or chats over lunch that are typically how you get to know people and understand a place. Add to that the personal challenges to two elementary school-aged children who are learning virtually from home, and a spouse who is also working from home, its been quite a start, but my colleagues at Heising-Simons are incredibly generous and understanding. We also afford each other large helpings of grace.

What advice and tips could you offer for those passionate about joining a mission-driven company? I’ve found that there is no one way to get into this kind of work, so I think networking, attending conferences and other convenings, and building genuine relationships is important. I’ve found people to be welcoming and open, willing to share their experiences, knowledge, and relationships. It’s also important to know what’s happening in the field. There are amazing established organizations, and also new and emerging organizations—each led by passionate people—but, some have new perspectives on how to make a change in the world. It’s also important to know what motivates you and the kind of environment in which you thrive. For example, how close do you want to be to beneficiaries, do you want to focus on a single issue, are you more interested in impact investing, policy, or capacity building? This can help you evaluate opportunities as they come along, not necessarily to find the perfect one, but to help determine if there is something to be gained from the experience, as well as whether you have something to offer along the way.