A Bay Area Film Festival Is Reimagined in Light of Covid-19

Mark Fishkin and Zoe Elton

Thank God for Mark Fishkin’s and Zoe Elton’s passion for film, their belief in the medium’s power and their strategic vision. Without them, the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) wouldn’t have become an internationally acclaimed event with a 43 year history. Now, during this challenging pandemic and fire season, Black Lives Matter protests, a challenging election and insecure times — when so many other festivals have been cancelled, MVFF went ahead. Fishkin, MVFF Founder and Executive Director, and Elton, Director of Programming, are not only keeping MVFF going, they’re using this powerful platform to create solutions, foster important conversations and grow opportunities for filmmakers around the world. Furthermore, they’re strengthening other film festivals through greater collaboration.

MVFF’s reputation and impact can best be understood from past participants. John Malkovich, Forest Whitaker, Laura Dern, Woody Harrelson, Uma Thurman, Emma Stone, Peter Fonda, Robin Williams, Sydney Pollack, Julie Taymor and Dame Helen Mirin are but a few of the industry greats who have walked their red carpet or received an award. Films have debuted at MVFF which went on to win Oscars – like La La LandSpotlight and Green Book among others.

Fiskin and Elton have leveraged their MVFF success to found many other organizations that create tremendous impact for others through film, including Mind The Gap — a highly successful gender equity in filmmaking initiative — the California Film Institute, filmmaking education opportunities for students and schools, and DocLands, a documentaries only festival. Moreover, Fishkin has served as a San Francisco Film Commissioner, and he and Elton are sought-after internationally as thought leaders in film.

When Covid-19 hit and so many others shut down, these two leaned in. They’re bringing better to so many others during this troubling time because of this too.

In a Zoom interview, Fishkin and Elton discussed the challenges of producing this year’s MVFF, celebrated the opportunities being fostered, and offered a sneak peek into the highlights of the October event, soon to be streaming across the county and around the world. “Besides family, film is where I get my values and my lessons,” Fishkin declares, as he sits in the MVFF office with his ever present, beloved dog at his side. He’s determined to help others who feel this way too and foster greater empathy, as only film can do, too.

An erudite Brit, with the charming accent and fashion statement big glasses you would expect, Elton effuses, “This is a really exciting time! We’re planting the seeds of the future of film this year. We’ve launched 20 years of evolution in what is likely to be only two years time.” Thinking about their goals and how to work in a virtual space, “opened the door for us to be able to work with people in ways that we might never have imagined otherwise,” she continues.

The festival is making panel discussions with industry and other thought leaders available worldwide. It’s easy to imagine what an inspiring and outstanding education this will be for aspiring filmmakers and passionate film buffs everywhere.

“We remain dedicated to content as education and inspiration — as well as to the big theatre experience,” Fishkin also declares. As proof, the festival is creating their own drive-in theatre. “Of course,” he adds as a wry aside, “this will only work as long as the electricity stays on.” Let’s hope the California grid does not become overtaxed during the festival.

The pair have created substantial MVFF content in response to the challenges of our times. “Because of Black Lives Matter, we embraced the notion of intersectionality at its deepest meaning,” Elton explains. “We asked ourselves, how can we start to be a place for communities of black, brown, nonbinary and queer, as well as female? How can we do more to heal through film?”

Their answer includes expanding the Mind The Gap initiative beyond simply being a gender lens. Panel discussions will also showcase, as well as a political tract of the festival designed to foster live dialogue and connection building.

MVFF also jumped on opportunities to bring exciting new films to the broadest possible audience. Many of these will be shared with other film festivals too, like Chicago. Thanks to the MVFF pivot, award-winning films will be available to anyone in the country who buys a ticket and wants to view it from the comfort of their favorite location and device.

This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine.

We Grow the Most When Times Are Tough: From Personal Struggles Come Reasons for Gratitude

Last week, I wrote a Gratitude Daily Devotional shared by my church, Kenilworth Union Church. These daily devotionals are rooted in scripture and provide a brief opportunity for reflection and gratitude as we prepare to face the day ahead. Whether you’re religious or not, a daily gratitude practice has been shown to be one of the most reliable ways to improve your mood. Here, I share a recent challenge I faced and the opportunity for growth I’m so thankful it afforded me.

We make our plans and God laughs. That’s the story of my complicated, abundantly blessed life, and I’m so grateful for this!

Growing up in the most diverse and integrated section of Indianapolis, working in our family owned grocery stores, attending a 90% black high school, I thought my generation modeled the ideal, color-blind future rapidly in development. I also imagined I’d marry a man who felt similarly about Indianapolis and that we’d raise two kids who would grow up working in our family business too.

Ha! God’s plan actually included me commuting from Chicago to Indianapolis for almost a year while pregnant with my fourth (our combined sixth) of eight children, in the black fog of grief, to navigate that beloved business through bankruptcy and closure. My dad died of a stroke soon after the “big box” grocery stores came to Indianapolis. The stores died from the overwhelming competition which devastated similar businesses across the country.

Fortunately, it is true that we grow the most when times are difficult—if we stay close to God. I’ve carried important lessons from that difficult time with me in my entrepreneurial social impact endeavors ever since. (I pray that this will influence my children and grandchildren too.)

Kenilworth Union Church has been a North Star and strong connection point in my unexpected life, helping to keep me focused on the importance of living generously and with trust in God’s abundance. Blessings rain down, I pay them forward. Trials come, I grow with God’s guidance. An example of this is that long-time, beloved Kenilworth Union Church member Dick Kiphart recruited me to the small board of trustees for the Poetry Foundation (PoFo).

People find solace in poetry during troubled times like these—a pandemic, racial injustice, environmental disasters, a contentious election. So I expected my affiliation with the largest endowed poetry institution in the world to be a comfort to myself and others. Instead, when #BlackLivesMatter came to the forefront, PoFo was attacked by other poetry leaders for being out of step, insensitive, and unresponsive to opportunities which would serve poets and social justice needs well. Their open letter demanded the resignation of all leadership, including our board. It prompted the widely reported resignation of top leaders within the institution, but not the entire board.

Once again, I’m confronting a hard personal truth. Despite a lifelong progressive perspective and good intentions, I’ve been blind to—and unwittingly exacerbated—profound racial inequities. And not just through my PoFo board service. Now, though, I’m grateful for the PoFo position, because it’s helping me learn faster how to be affirmatively “antiracist.”

I’m also grateful that PoFo makes it easy to find solace in poetry through their “Poem Of The Day“—and that the one which arrived in my inbox on Saturday, October 2, inspired this reflection on my life, God’s plan, this church, perspective, and gratitude:

Thank You

By Ross Gay

If you find yourself half naked
and barefoot in the frosty grass, hearing,
again, the earth’s great, sonorous moan that says
you are the air of the now and gone, that says
all you love will turn to dust,
and will meet you there, do not
raise your fist. Do not raise
your small voice against it. And do not
take cover. Instead, curl your toes
into the grass, watch the cloud
ascending from your lips. Walk
through the garden’s dormant splendor.
Say only, thank you.
Thank you.

Let Us Pray:

Dear God,
Thank you for the gift of love through family, church, and community.
Thank you for blessings that arrive disguised as challenges.
Thank you for your constant, loving presence—even when we forget to look for it.
Thank you for opportunities to serve others, which pay forward the blessings you rain down on us, and further enrich our own lives.
Please bless everyone now suffering because of the pandemic or other health crises, racial or other social inequities, natural and man-made disasters, and political distrust.
Please show each of us ways to help navigate these challenges and arrive at a better world.
Please bless our political leaders and give them wisdom to navigate these complicated, painful times too.
In Jesus Christ’s name we pray,

A Q&A with Wintrust Community Banks Founder Ed Wehmer

Ed Wehmer, the founder of Wintrust Community Banks, grew up working in his father’s Wilmette grocery store alongside his four siblings until the onset of competition from “big box” grocery stores eventually killed the family business. I grew up working in my dad’s independently owned grocery stores, alongside my four siblings, too. Big-box competition eventually killed both family-owned businesses. In fact, my dad died of a stroke while fighting a legal battle with one of them. I was pregnant with the fourth of my six kids while I sadly shepherded those stores through bankruptcy and foreclosure.

Ed started his own business, a community bank in Lake Forest, while raising seven kids. Soon thereafter, he bought the building where his dad’s store had been and opened the North Shore Community Bank (NSCB). (Read more about Ed’s background and his tips for success in work and life.) I founded Make It Better along with the “Kitchen Cabinet” of co-founders and one employee, in a small office across the street from NSCB. Wintrust was an important early partner. NSCB President Cathy Pratt wanted to present Best Money Practices For Teens and we promoted this through our email newsletter the “Better Letter” and print magazine. On a school night, their conference room was standing-room only. 

Ed with his family

Ed kept adding banks to his brand, expanding the Wintrust footprint. I kept adding activities and new titles to mine, expanding our footprint too. Wintrust even hosts our Make It Better Foundation Philanthropy Awards Celebration in their magnificent LaSalle Street flagship lobby. As Ed kindly said in the launch video for Better last year, “Wintrust and Make It Better grew up together.” 

I checked in with Ed to see how he, his family and the bank have fared during the pandemic and this time of social unrest. I was happy to learn that not only are all fine, the bank has been incredibly helpful to the community during these trying times too. Wintrust facilitated over 12,000 businesses and organizations receiving PPP loans, totaling nearly $3.5 billion. More than 500 were for local nonprofit partners. I also learned that—once again—our businesses have been on parallel tracks, with Better having supported many of the organizations that Ed specifically names below too.

How have you, your family and the bank fared during the past six months of pandemic and social unrest?

The family’s been great. We spent five weeks back in May together in Georgia with 17 of us in one house. It was a crowd, but we managed to have a pretty great time all together. Nothing like a pandemic to encourage everyone to be cooped up together! These days, I head into the office two or three times a week and find it pretty strange to be one of 50 or 60 people walking our campus that usually has 1,600.

Ed with his family

As for the business side of things, overall, things have been pretty good. It’s a challenging time in a lot of ways, but we’ve managed to have some pretty good growth amidst it through our Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) lending and our mortgage business. Obviously, it hasn’t all been great, but we’ve focused on being there for our customers and communities, just like we always do, and that has served us well, all things considered.

Obviously, with all that everyone is navigating right now—between the pandemic and the social unrest—we’ve been just trying to be something reliable for our communities to count on. We’ve been very lucky to be able to provide stability amidst so much uncertainty.

What has been the silver lining of these complicated times?

As I’ve already mentioned, more quality time with the family has been a big one.

Celebrating together

From a business perspective, the silver lining is that I’ve watched our team do what they do best, particularly with the PPP loans for our local businesses, and I couldn’t be prouder. We had employees from across our organization come together to deliver when it mattered most. 

Our IT department pooled resources to build a system to accept PPP loan applications within a week of hearing that these funds were going to be available through the SBA. Employees from all different departments worked around the clock to help process applications. Our business bankers were communicating updates and verifying information at all hours when people were telling us we were the only bank to answer their calls. Our staff came together to deliver a 10-day turnaround on PPP loans when our clients were depending on those funds to get their employees paid. Overall, we lent more than $3.4 billion to assist more than 12,000 local businesses and secured more than 114,000 jobs. It was incredible to see.

How has Wintrust pivoted during the pandemic?

Our preference is always to connect with our customers in person, so when we got the shelter in place order, it was a challenge, but we knew we could still provide the service we’re known for no matter the circumstances. We’ve had to lean a lot on our technology and service customers virtually where possible, but we’ve done it while staying true to who we are. Our mission is always to put our customers first, so we’ve managed to find other ways to support them from afar. 

We’ve obviously transitioned from the initial lockdown and most of our locations are now open, but we’ve also been leaning on things we know will keep our customers, employees, and communities safe. People can go online to make an appointment to come in and meet with a banker or open an account online. When they do come in, we’re taking all the proper safety measures. We had to adjust quickly to this new normal, but we were able to do that because of our culture and our principals as a company. We keep it high tech, but also high touch, so our customers are always supported, especially right now.

Social distancing precautions at a local Wintrust Bank

So far, it’s been working out. I just heard a story recently from one of our bankers about a customer who came into the bank after we opened back up and gave our staff a round of applause she was so appreciative of the service she received. Those are the stories I hear that make me extremely proud of our staff and their agility.

What is your best advice for individuals and for businesses trying to help or serve their communities well?

Adapt, but also remember what you should be focused on. For us, it’s all about our customers and shareholders. That’s who we are delivering for and, no matter what happens around us, that’s our guiding light. This time has taught us well: It’s important to be flexible and be able to pivot when necessary, but you have to have a solid foundation to fall back on. 

What are some of the most impactful nonprofits or civic institutions Wintrust has supported during the pandemic?

Economic/Neighborhood/Community Development

Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC): LISC connects communities with valuable resources to help build homes, businesses and schools among other public needs. Since 1979, LISC has invested $22 billion in local neighborhoods. LISC is a strong reflection of Wintrust’s support of economic development in Chicago communities. 

Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives (CNI): Focused on distressed Chicago neighborhoods like Pullman and Englewood, CNI collects resources to help build economic activity. In total, 117 small businesses have received micro loans through CNI. Wintrust and CNI have had a long-term partnership to aid South Side individuals and businesses. 

My Block, My Hood, My City: My Block, My Hood, My City is a grassroots organization that teaches underprivileged youth awareness of the world and opportunities beyond their neighborhood. The organization has a newer, emerging partnership with Wintrust. On this year’s Juneteenth, My Block, My Hood, My City was the highest grossing organization of Wintrust employees Match Pilot Initiative. 


Boys Hope Girls HopeMore than a college-readiness program, Boys Hope Girls Hope helps high school students break through the vicious cycle of poverty. Wintrust’s collaboration with Boys Hope Girls Hope reflects the company’s strong support of education and anti-poverty among youth.

Metropolitan Family Services: Serving more than 93,000 families across the Chicagoland area, Metropolitan Family Services advocates for healthy familial relationships. A Wintrust board member, Metropolitan Family Services reflects Wintrust’s values of supporting families and children.

HFS Chicago Scholars: HFS Chicago Scholars provides underserved Chicago high school students rich academic resources to succeed beyond high school. HFS Chicago Scholars implements a lifelong mentorship and college readiness programs and provides financial aid to Chicago colleges.

City Year Chicago: City Year Chicago knows that many Chicago Public School students lack access to the right educational tools due to systemic inequality. Wintrust is a proud partner of City Year, helping support equal education for all students.

Metropolitan YMCA: YMCA Chicago is the recipient of a large grant through the Federal Home Loan Bank COVID funding and a Wintrust board member. Additionally, Wintrust is a strong supporter of the YMCA Chicago for serving first responders during the crisis.

What your hopes and your predictions for the coming year?

It feels hard to predict anything right now. Who could have seen any of what this year has brought us? I will say, it’s going to be interesting. And, likely, challenging for a while longer. I’m predicting a vaccine, hopefully soon, but it will probably still take a year to get it out. A lot will depend on what happens with the election in November. That will have a big impact on where we go from here, but if there’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that America is resilient. My hope is that we’ll come out of this stronger than ever. 

Cubs or White Sox?

Wintrust on display at the White Sox

You know, I have a strong allegiance to the Cubs, but that doesn’t mean I dislike the White Sox. They’re having a great year. My picture is in one of the seats behind home plate, so I think I must have given them some good mojo! 

The Enduring Power Of A Father’s Advice

A father’s advice and example can be powerful. Here are examples from the world and our own company:

Don’t hate, don’t hide, don’t be a victim.

Someone hateful burned a cross in the front yard of the home across the street from Jonathan Harmon in 1979—when he was 14. Harmon, his family and those neighbors were about the only blacks in their overwhelmingly white, middle class hometown.  Intriguingly, the values that Harmon learned from his father’s response to this terrifying event took him far in life, as he recently explained in the Wall Street Journal.

“Don’t hate, don’t hide, don’t be a victim,” his father instructed. His dad practiced what he preached too—including being civil to the person they believed to be responsible for the hate crime, who also lived in their town, for many years afterwards.

Harmon graduated from West Point and fought in Operation Desert Storm, where he learned empathy for police and military, before finding his way into a high-profile law career.  He now serves as Chairman of an international firm, McGuireWoods. So, there was great power in his father’s advice and example.

You can do anything.  Believe in yourself.  Help and serve others. All people are equal.

Harmon’s father reminds me of the advice and example that mine provided too. My father, Richard Blankenbaker, has been dead more than 30 years, but his words, values and example continue to influence my life and work as a publisher trying to make a difference for as many good people and communities as possible.
















Dad owned grocery stores in Indianapolis, in integrated or primarily black neighborhoods. He grew up dirt poor—with no electricity or plumbing in his southern Indiana home, until he put it in as a teenager. He believed strongly that every person deserved to be treated well and with dignity—including women and people of color. Dad paid forward the blessings of his then successful business and a large, healthy family by living, working and serving in diverse communities and actively promoting better opportunities for nonwhites and females. My neighborhood, schools, church, extracurricular activities and friends were truly integrated. As a white, I was in a very small minority at Shortridge High School. Our group believed that we modeled a post discrimination world in development.  How naïve we were!

Dad also served as the Indianapolis Public Safety Director, overseeing the police and other city public services.  He fostered mutual admiration between police and community in a manner that seems to long lost now.

My father’s stores didn’t survive the onset of the big box era, just as a truly colorblind society didn’t unfold and public trust in police has evaporated.  But I still hold tight to my dad’s beliefs in the goodness of people and the importance of civic service that fosters strong, equitable communities.

Perhaps my best gift from my father though were the following words that he repeated so often, they are burned into my soul:

“You can do anything.  Believe in yourself.  Help and serve others. All people are equal.”

My father died rich in relationships and admiration from others, but not wealthy in the traditional sense. My publishing goal is to honor his legacy and grow a more enduring business too. Yes, we can do good and do well.  In fact, in these disquieting times, it’s more important than ever to do so.

I’m honored to share my publishing journey with talented staff with big hearts and great goals too.  Their stories also prove the power of a good father’s words and example.

Leah Bronson:

“My Dad taught me how to be very creative with my words, negotiate, close a deal and not take no for an answer.  He taught me how to ‘count my pennies’ and that if you work hard, you get to play hard….so work hard.

He also told me that if I’m going to crack jokes, be SURE that people laugh at them. (there was a few choice words I left out of that statement, but you get the gist).

Maeve Walsh:

My father and father to seven kids, was an extremely hard worker. He worked a 9-5 job everyday and then came home and spent hours working in the garden, growing vegetables, tending to everything.   Like many of his generation he knew how to build things and also was a great carpenter.  He even knew how to sew and repair the machine when it broke down.  He was kind and honest and a great father.  I think I learned all of the above from him, (unfortunately not the carpentry).  I miss him.

Lesley Cesare:

My dad was born in Costa Rica in 1919. He died at 92 and would’ve been 101 in April!

Leading by example, he taught me to not complain. As far back as I can remember, anytime I asked how he was, he would always respond “no complaints“. I try to remember that.

Sabrina Tuton-Filson:

My father taught me to listen — whether or not I (initially) agree with the person or what they are saying. It takes little effort to be open minded and yet it makes a huge difference in the way we exist in the world. Exposing ourselves to new/different points of view affords us more opportunities to know better, do better, be better.

So grateful for him.

Sharon Coleman:

My father was recognized in WW2 for his bravery.  He was a very strong, kind and generous man.  Also, he was sought after for his negotiation/mediation skills well into his 80’s.

He taught me to be kind and respectful of others.  I miss him everyday … especially this week.

Sharon Krone:

My dad was first generation Irish in upstate NY. He suffered daily for his religious (Protestant) background by classmates and neighbors. He taught me to have faith in a good, forgiving and loving God despite what we may encounter.

Alyssa Armada:

My dad came to America from the Philippines at age 13 from a family of 8. Everything that he has accomplished has come through hard-work, determination, and compassion. He raised my sister and me on these 3 lessons:

  1. Put 100% effort into everything you do.
  2. Have integrity and respect for others.
  3. Treat others the way you want to be treated.

He is my role model, best friend, and a #girldad.

Julie Eldring:

My father taught me SO many things!  He embodied “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” He taught me to work hard, make myself useful and always do things efficiently.

He was a talented carpenter and builder and was an original recycler, he would save everything and found ways to reuse all materials.  There was rarely something he couldn’t fix or make.  Miss him so much.

Jennifer Woolford:

I had the most amazing dad  my very best friend in the world!

He was known as Big George and was proud of his Catalan heritage.

He owned and ran a swimsuit company and I grew up going to his office with him any day that I wasn’t in school or at our summer home. I would literally watch him work … selecting fabrics, styles and organizing shows and events, sales meetings with the companies I loved to shop at…. so much fun!

He showed me that as long as you have passion for the business, a strong character, a good sense of humor, show kindness and concern for others and get the job done…. you will succeed.

His biggest advice:  Always try your very best, be honest and EVER reliable.

“People remember reliable”

He was colorful, funny, smart, musical and as warm as they come.

Natasha Romanoff:

My father taught me generosity – he is one of the most giving people I know. He gladly gives his time, energy, and resources without expectations. He really has an open heart and I’m so grateful to have had his influence growing up.

Alex French:

My father thought at one point, that he wanted to be a Minister. I think it guided a lot of who he was. He taught me to always be kind and put the other person first.

Virtuous Circles: Cabi and A Safe Haven

We describe our publishing work at Make It Better Media Group — including Better Chicago magazine — as creating virtuous circles. We connect our audience to trusted resources through helpful, inspiring content in order to help everyone live, love, work, and play with greater purpose.

Naturally, we delight when additional connections and helpful activities flow because of our work too. This keeps the good growing — as virtuous circles are wont to do. Here’s a recent example I’m grateful to share with you.

Sue Pelletier is a consummate “Make It Better” woman, an intuitive connector who puts heart, smarts, and drive toward excellence into everything she undertakes. This includes her work on behalf of Our Lady of Perpetual Help School (OLPH) and as a rep for Cabi clothing.

Pelletier recommended one of my all-time favorite Better Chicago stories — on Sister Paulanne and her Needy Family Fund at OLPH. But, it’s her Cabi connection that I’m celebrating here. The company selected her as their Illinois Ambassador for the Heart of Cabi Foundation, which empowered her to create and host an event where many Cabi representatives and partners helped style and dress women trying to transition out of homelessness and back into the workforce.

Pelletier selected A Safe Haven (ASH), a winner of an early Make It Better Foundation Philanthropy Award, as the nonprofit partner for this event. We are big fans of ASH and its founder, Neli Vazquez Rowland, another woman who embodies Make It Better sensibilities.  Please see her recent appearance on Windy City Live to be inspired by her too.

A Safe Haven’s wraparound model delivers comprehensive, effective services to homeless individuals and families, and needs to be replicated more broadly. The more support it receives from individuals like Pelletier and organizations like the Heart of Cabi Foundation, the more likely that is to happen too. But, in the meantime, we’re grateful that Pelletier selected ASH because of our work and are happy to share the news of the 90-plus women transformed by Cabi’s generosity through Pelletier’s and Vasquez Rowland’s perspective too.


Neli Vazquez Rowland and Sue Pelletier

From Sue Pelletier:

Dear Susan,

Thank you so much for introducing me to Neli Vazquez Rowland at A Safe Haven. As the Heart of Cabi Foundation Ambassador for Illinois, I was able to collaborate with Katherine Agle from A Safe Haven to create an amazing HOcF Week event one week ago on Wednesday, May 15 benefiting over 90 women residents of their program.

Over 500 items of clothing donated from Cabi and more than 400 items from stylist donations were organized in the chapel room for a Shopping & Styling distribution event for the women at ASH.

From 1:00 pm until 7:00 pm, the women came in shifts to the chapel to work with one of our 25 stylists who volunteered their time that day.

The joy and gratitude that filled the room that day was heartwarming!


Some of the recipients’ comments:

“I would love to thank the ladies of Cabi for taking the time to share & help the women of ASH to become better women with clothes for all occasions. Interviews will never be the same again! Thanks 4 everything!”

“Thank you. We had a great experience. They helped us and actually cared about how we felt about things. It was great!”

“Thank you so very much. I was feeling desperate and disappointed, but this event lifted my spirits.”

“This was one of the best experiences in my life! I love fashion so this was so amazing! Thank you all and especially Lori for giving me more beautiful clothes to add to my professional collection!”

“This way beyond made my day!! Thank you for doing this and making so many women smile and feel awesome about themselves! A special thank you to Karen for bearing with me and helping me find beautiful clothes for my new job!”

Some of the stylists’ comments:

“I definitely received more than I gave today.

Thank you to all of you for a wonderful day at A Safe Haven. The women were so appreciative and amazed at the generosity and kindness that they experienced!”

“Many thanks to Sue for her graceful leadership, to each of you who gave your time to planning the event, and to each one of the stylists who showed up with love to serve these women who have experienced such hardship in their lives. My experience was so meaningful because of all of you. Cabi sisters are the best sisters!!!”

Guest of a Stylist comment:

“What a wonderful experience! So enjoyed meeting you all: your compassion and passion was contagious…so I felt the joy of sharing, giving, caring all day long. Thanks to all who committed so much time and effort for this great event.”

Overview [By The Numbers]

90+ recipients

22 stylists, 3 guests of stylists

Each recipient was able to choose 8-10 items and also received an infinity scarf and Cabi pen. Extra clothing was donated to ASH where they plan to distribute at their Homeless Veterans Event as well as to future residents in the program.

Additionally, box lunches for the stylists were purchased by Cabi through A Safe Haven’s catering business, thus supporting another program at A Safe Haven.

The Heart of Cabi Foundation Week held 33 events across the United States, Canada, and the UK. 46 nonprofit organizations were supported. 2,875 women served and loved. Over 17,581 clothing items distributed!

Thank you again for the connection to Neli and A Safe Haven. Connections and the relationships that develop from these connections are what make everything BETTER!




Robin Beattie and Laurie Carver with guest




Shayne Bullen, Jody Beutler and guests

From Neli Vazquez Rowland:

Good Morning Susan Noyes,

Ditto! Thank you for introducing us to Susan Pelletier! You are both a huge blessing to us in so many ways.

I cannot thank you both enough for everything you did to connect with us and all of the women at A Safe Haven Foundation!

Susan Pelletier, it was awesome to witness all of our ladies smiling as they were over the moon with joy knowing that there are people like you and all the Cabi ladies out there that took the time to care about them and to generously give of their time, talent and clothes!

Many of the women arrive with just the clothes on their back as they escape domestic violence or sex trafficking situations, are under house arrest awaiting court dates because they couldn’t make bail or because of living on the streets due to addictions or joblessness, mental health issues like depression and poverty, by the way most of them are moms with children in our program. All of them are desperately in need of some love and support and pampering them with their own professional stylists and clothes is truly a gift that they will never forget.

On behalf of myself, Katherine and all of the women at A Safe Haven, thank you Susan for thinking of us and for everything you did to make it a day of social impact and a beautiful day to remember!

Your gift of the surplus clothes continued to be felt by the women veterans at our military veteran stand down this Saturday where we hosted over 500 veterans, 75 volunteers and the clothing boutique was among 80 services the vets received like health check ups, housing and employers came to bring real resources to our military heroes. The event attracted several top government agency leaders who came to speak and share their commitment to employ more veterans at their agencies. It was another heartwarming, authentic and amazing day of true social impact where CABIs presence was felt and deeply appreciated by all.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!!”

Pelletier said it exactly right above — “Connections and the relationships that develop from these connections are what make everything BETTER!”

We’re so grateful for the opportunity to create and amplify positive, powerful connections like these.

If you haven’t already done so, please subscribe to our Better Letter and help grow the good while you live, love, work, and play with greater purpose too.

Thank you!

Giving Tuesday: Where to Donate to Make the Most Impact

It’s hard to believe that Giving Tuesday is entering just its seventh year. Immediately following Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday is perfectly situated to counter any angst shoppers might feel from overspending on those who already have plenty or for those who simply want to elevate holiday gifting to a more philanthropic level. This was a great idea because gifts to those who most need it really is the best giving of all.

Giving Tuesday was founded by the Belfer Center for Innovation and Social Impact at the 92nd Street Y and the United Nations Foundation as a response to the commercialization and consumerism of the post-Thanksgiving season.

Giving Tuesday 2018

Image courtesy of Giving Tuesday.

Mashable, a technology website, first announced #GivingTuesday. Other founding partners included Skype and Cisco,  MicrosoftSony, Aldo

$10 million was raised that first year. Thereafter, the concept quickly caught on elsewhere too. The Belfer Center now provides tools and a platform to help every nonprofit interested in participating, and facilitated more than $300,000,000 in giving in 2017. Tomorrow’s event is sure to be a blowout affair too.

Facebook and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provide a good example of the #GivingTuesday acceleration. In 2016, the Gates Foundation matched $500,000 in donations through Facebook, which waived donation fees. When the $500,000 limit was quickly reached, the Gates Foundation increased its matching to $900,000. In 2017, both organizations upped their gifts and more than $45 million was raised!

But the #GivingTuesday clamor can be overwhelming now too with so many organizations vying for your attention and dollars. This raises questions of who to support and where your gift will do the most good and make the most lives better.

Fortunately, as #GivingTuesday grew, so has Make It Better Media’s venture philanthropy expertise. The list of nonprofits we’ve carefully vetted and can highly recommend in Chicago has grown accordingly as well.

If you’re looking to create the most impact with your Giving Tuesday gift, you can trust those who have won our Philanthropy Awards, earned one of our Better Giving Circle media sponsorships or event sponsorships, taken advantage of our $10,000 and above matching grantsor provided extensive information for the nonprofit category of our Better List.

As we grow in the San Francisco Bay Area, we look to recommend more nonprofits there in the future. At this time, though, we’re enthusiastic supporters of 10,000 Degrees, WorldWideWomenand SMART.

I particularly and proudly recommend the Make It Better Foundation Philanthropy Award winners — find a full list on the Foundation website — and thank all judges and sponsors for their support too. The following are a powerful virtuous circle of venture philanthropists and philanthropies that you can trust. 

Philanthropy Awards judges and sponsors:

Organizations that are important Make It Better Media nonprofit partners and venture philanthropies:

Whether or not you give to one of these organizations, thanks for giving at all. You’re creating impact and making a difference for others. I’m grateful for you.

Happy giving and happy #GivingTuesday.

Q&A: Joffrey Ballet President and CEO Greg Cameron

In an era when many of the traditionally great cultural arts organizations struggle, the record-breaking financial and attendance success of Joffrey Ballet’s 2017-2018 season particularly stands out:

  • Revenue up 11 percent year over year.
  • The season opener and closer — “Giselle” and Alexander Ekman’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” — earned revenue that makes them two of the top five best-selling productions in Joffrey’s history — except for “The Nutcracker.”
  • Christopher Wheeldon’s reimagined, Chicago-themed “Nutcracker” earns $4.6 million in just its second season.
  • Stunning collaborative performances with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Los Angeles Opera of “Orpheus and Eurydice” — the latter performed as part of a month-long residency at The Music Center of Los Angeles.
  • Sold-out performances at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.
  • Education outreach programs that create opportunities for artists and nurture the next generation of audience for ballet.

Because success begets success, it’s not surprising that the Joffrey also received a $1 million grant from the Alphawood Foundation to fund a three-year audience expansion and sustainability project, as well as a recent $5 million endowment gift from the Paul Galvin Memorial Foundation Trust to establish The Mary B. Galvin Artistic Director position in honor of long-time Joffrey supporter Mary Galvin.

So what’s at the heart of all this extraordinary success?

The 10-year tenure of internationally renowned Ashley Wheater as Artistic Director, world-class performers and staff, and a connected and highly engaged board, women’s board, and other development arms help. But, make no mistake, much of this success can be traced to the 2013 hiring of Greg Cameron.

Heart for the arts meets smarts with him.


Ashley Wheater and Greg Cameron at Joffrey’s 16th annual Gala on April 20, 2018. (Photo by Steve Becker Photography.)

A natural connector, strategist, collaborator, story-teller, and motivator, Cameron is a lifelong Chicagoan and champion of the arts. His career reads like a march up the city’s leading arts organization ladder — including service at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, Art Institute of Chicago, and Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, where he rose to the roles of Deputy Director and Chief Development Officer, and Chicago’s public television and radio stations, WTTW/WFMT, as COO.

Cameron evidences his deep commitment to Chicago through broad based civic service too. His board and committee service include Enrich Chicago, Forefront, UIC, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Fashion Committee, Chicago Community Trust LGBT Committee, Terra Foundation‘s Art Design Chicago Advisory Committee, and Choose Chicago. Cameron even serves as a State Street Commissioner.

I confess to a significant soft spot for Cameron, because he quickly embraced Make It Better’s innovative, collaborative, community-building strategy and helped forge a strong partnership between our organizations.

“We’re tired of first dates,” Cameron declared. “We want to go steady with you!” He serves as a particularly thoughtful judge for our Make It Better Foundation’s Philanthropy Awards too.

Because Make It Better believes that great arts for all makes communities stronger and better, we hope this Q&A will inspire a multitude of other arts organizations to similar success too. 

Susan B. Noyes: Bravo and congratulations on the Joffrey’s extraordinarily successful 2017-2018 season! Thanks for the opportunity to celebrate with you and inspire others too.

Let’s cut to the chase. Were you born to do this work?

Greg Cameron: Feels that way. I’ve always loved the arts, but I was never a good artist. I could paint by numbers, or I could connect the dots. Early on I realized that I was a good dot connector. I could connect people to each other and get them involved with the things they believed in.

I ran a makeshift theater out of my garage and sold more mints than anyone else for my local YMCA. It seemed natural to turn these passions into a career raising funds for cultural organizations that I love too.


A young Greg Cameron (Photo courtesy of Joffrey Ballet.)

Please tell us about your other loves too. What do you love to do when you aren’t working? 

To be honest, I do not think of my support of the Joffrey mission as work. It is more of a calling. On any given day I might be part pastor, politician, psychologist, or philosopher. Trusted and dedicated colleagues ensure that even when we have challenges, we have fun!

Of course, I enjoy quiet time with my partner, Greg Thompson. When we are not attending a Joffrey event we might be at the Museum of Contemporary Art “meeting” a new artist, engaging in a Steppenwolf performance, seeing a film, attending a reading, exploring Chicago’s amazing culinary scene, or entertaining friends with a home-cooked meal. I am the sous-chef and Greg is the chef de cuisine.

Our priority is each other followed closely by family and friends. They bring us joy and keep us curious. 

What are your Chicago favorites — restaurants, buildings, parks, sports, other? 

In my 60 years as a Chicago resident, I have been to three Cubs games, two Bulls games, and one Bears game. I do not attend frequently, but I love when they win. My favorite breakfast spot is NoMI in the Park Hyatt. For dinner, I love Avec, Proxi, Cafe Bionda, and several neighborhood Mexican cantinas.

As for buildings, I love the Thompson Center, even if I’m in the minority of popular opinion. My other favorites are the Chicago Cultural Center, anything that has to do with Mies architecture, and the ever-changing State Street.

As a Lakeview resident, there is nothing better than a jaunt to Lincoln Park. It has everything — the lakefront, public art, the Conservatory, the Zoo, the Green City Market, and the Chicago History Museum. 

What are you most excited about for the upcoming 2018-2019 season? Can it top the extraordinary success of this past year, which included a celebration of Ashley Wheater’s 10th Anniversary too? 

With Ashley’s artistic vision and the technical and theatrical skill of our company artists, it just continues to get better. I am particularly excited about our “Anna Karenina” co-commission with The Australian Ballet. It will be on par with our world premiere production of Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Nutcracker” in 2016. The artistic team is different, but equally accomplished in all areas of the performing arts, whether it be the choreographer Yuri Possokhov, Emmy-winning designer Tom Pye, or one of Russia’s most esteemed composers in Ilya Demutsky.

As I write, Yuri is creating the work on the company artists. Mark your calendar for the world premiere on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019.


“Anna Karenina” (Image courtesy of Joffrey Ballet.)

What are the best techniques for other arts organizations who would like to expand audience and financial support too? 

Lead with mission and tell your story. Do not try to control the so-called “consumer experience.” Take baby steps and ask your supporters to join you on the journey.

Please share your best mentor advice. How does one prepare to successfully lead an arts organization that relies as heavily on philanthropy as the ballet does in the 21st Century? 

The Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

When you listen to other people and their stories, you create authentic and lasting relationships. These relationships sustain an organization in times of scarcity and abundance. And of course, always remember to thank people multiple times.   

Anything else you want to tell us?

Get involved in what gives you joy and makes you smile. If more people embraced the words of Mother Teresa, “Peace begins with a smile,” Chicago and beyond would indeed be a better place to live, learn, work, play, and dance!

Thank you!

Q&A With Laura Scher of CREDO

Laura Scher was a successful social entrepreneur long before the term became a buzzword. She didn’t just engage in corporate social responsibility, she made it the foundation of the successful corporation she founded and grew — CREDO.

In 1985, an era of Wall Street excess when many operated by the mantra “greed is good,” Scher and two other cofounders started a company focused not on money but change. The company was then called “Working Assets” and the business plan was groundbreaking: make it easy for people to power social change through everyday acts of commerce.

Working Assets began with a credit card. Each time a member used the card, Working Assets donated a percentage of the purchase price to nonprofit groups dedicated to progressive change. This was the beginning of what is now called CREDO Donations. Working Assets also funded grassroots advocacy through its Action arm, known now as CREDO Action.

The company took off and eventually added long-distance phone service too. In 2007, iWorking Assets rebranded as mobile carrier CREDO Mobile. The name has changed, but the mission remains the same: offer excellent consumer services that support the progressive values of its customers.

Since 1985, Scher’s brainchild has generated over $85 million for nonprofit groups working for causes like women’s rights, social equality, and climate justice. Nonprofits funded over the years include Planned Parenthood, Rainforest Action Network, and the ACLU. Groups are nominated by members (customers), chosen by CREDO staff, then donations are directed to three groups each month by members who vote at credodonations.com.

Another arm of the company, CREDO Action — which now empowers over 5 million activists nationally — has achieved thousands of vital policy victories on the local and national stage through the years too.

Reflecting Scher’s personal creed — to always do more, give more, progress more — the company recently expanded into the field of renewable power with the launch of CREDO Energy. It creates demand for green, sustainably produced wind power and allows members to green their state’s power grid. CREDO Energy is currently rolling out in select states across the country — and already available in Illinois.


Laura Scher and Susan Noyes

I met Scher through Make It Better’s partnership with Marin Magazine and its “Celebrating Women” event in May. She lives in Tiburon, currently serves as CREDO’s executive chair, and teaches business at Stanford University. She’s an impressive and inspiring woman. I’m particularly proud of Make It Better’s recent custom Better Letter for CREDO too, which included articles about:

The following Q&A with Scher from 2015 will help you get to know Scher and her 30-plus year socially responsible business better. Such an ingenious concept — make it easy for customers to fulfill basic responsibilities (like paying for cell phone service) knowing that they’re also making the world a better place by doing so. We hope her words will inspire even more social entrepreneurs.

1. Why has CREDO been successful?

We’re like a lot of small companies that succeed. We have a good product, great prices and we have excellent customer service.

And then we offer something no other phone company does. It’s the feeling you get when you buy a product or use a service that gives back. Like driving a hybrid car or buying fair-trade coffee. People feel good when they use CREDO because they know we donate millions every year to progressive causes they believe in and they get to vote to decide where the money goes.

If you care about our world, then CREDO is a no-brainer. Literally. You make a call or you use your credit card and you make the future better — without even thinking about it.

2. Obviously you’re proud of building a company like CREDO. What gives you the most satisfaction?

The victories we win for progressive change. For example, CREDO was instrumental in stopping the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have been a disaster for our climate. We fought against Keystone for over five years. We raised more than $2 million for groups opposing the pipeline. We generated 42,000 phone calls, over half a million public comments and 4 million petition signatures against it…

CREDO is the largest corporate donor to Planned Parenthood, so I’m proud that action by our members helped convince the Susan G. Komen Foundation to reverse its decision to defund Planned Parenthood. For years we fought destructive oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge. And we’ve been working for marriage equality and LGBT rights since the day we opened our doors.

3. What do customers say about CREDO when you meet them?

What makes me most pleased is when I meet people who have been with our company for the entire 30 years, who had our socially responsible credit card back when that was our first product. Then, when we went into the phone business, they had our landline, they had our pager — we used to have pagers! I’m feeling old now — and today they have our cellphone service. Obviously we’re doing something right. We have so many loyal customers. I remember setting up a booth at a Holly Near show in Oakland in the ’80s and signing up people for our credit card. I still see some of them today and now they have a CREDO iPhone.

4. When you’re not making change in the world, what are you doing?

I work with social change startups, advising them. And I’m a busy mom of a high school student! When I really have nothing on the agenda, I hike the trails of Marin. It clears my head and gets me ready for what’s next.

5. You haven’t slowed down since you stepped away from the day-to-day at CREDO. You’re still with CREDO as executive chair, you teach at Stanford, you’re on several boards. How do you stay on top of it all?

I teach at Stanford as a way to inspire the next generation of social entrepreneurs, the young people who will follow in my footsteps. At the same time, I tell them you don’t have to be the CEO of a socially responsible company to make change in the world. You can make change simply by choosing to do business with companies that share your values. There are a lot of us out there nowadays — like CREDO.

The Power of Positivity: Tapping Into the Bright Side of Social Media

There’s a lot of negativity surrounding social networking these days, from its effects on kids — and elections — to the time it can (admittedly) suck from our already full lives. But all of that pales in comparison to what a powerful force for good it can be when used appropriately. Positive posts, comments, shares and likes serve as a welcome antidote to the angst and anger of our current public dialogue — and, let’s be honest, much of our media. By amplifying your voice and focusing on the good, you inspire those around you to do the same.

A poignant example of this is the post Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg wrote expressing the unbearable grief and pain she experienced in the wake of her 47-year-old husband’s sudden death — and the warm embrace of love, help and kindness that met her on the other end. That outpouring of support paved the way for her book, “Option B,” co-authored with Adam Grant, and her nonprofit, optionB.org, which aims to help others develop resiliency in their most difficult times.


Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant speak with Mellody Hobson at the Chicago Humanities Festival. (Photo by Ben Gonzales.)

Social networks expedite the growth of powerful ideas while amplifying good intentions. Make It Better’s Executive Editor, Cara Sullivan, organized a children’s peace march, Lights for Love, in response to racist and anti-Semitic graffiti at her children’s public elementary school last summer. News of the march, which Make It Better promoted, quickly spread, and it was replicated across Chicagoland and around the country too.


One of many Chicago neighborhoods that gathered for the Lights for Love march in August. (Photo by Lauren Weiss.)

Further illustrating the ways social networking can be used to inspire change and give back, the Hanley Family Foundation — in partnership with innovative businesses, other family foundations, and Make It Better — recently launched a digital matching grant campaign to raise $20,000 to purchase LuminAID solar lanterns, which provide light to families without electricity in Puerto Rico. The campaign was five times more successful than planned, raising $100,000 — the equivalent of 10,000 lanterns.


LuminAID founders Anna Stork and Andrea Sreshta distribute lanterns in Puerto Rico with their humanitarian partner, Convoy of Hope. (Photo courtesy of LuminAID.)

Closer to home, our annual “Best Of” voting provides an opportunity for our audience to proudly promote the local and family-owned businesses they love to others via their social networks, and our many media sponsorships give each of our beloved nonprofits a pedestal from which to share their mission and earn more support. As a result, the businesses report a boost in sales, the nonprofits gain real traction — both on a local and national level — and everybody wins.


Make It Better Dining Dditor Julie Chernoff, actress Sarah Paulson, and Editor-in-Chief Brooke McDonald at Steppenwolf’s ninth annual Women in the Arts luncheon, one of our many media sponsorships. (Photo by Kyle Flubacker.)

As for the negative effects this brave new world of social media can have on our kids? We have the power to turn that around, and just like everything else, it all comes back to leading by example. Kids always know — and like — when their parents post something good about them. Our publisher Michelle O’Rourke Morris’ triplets just turned 18, and as Morris frequently celebrates on her Facebook and Instagram accounts, they (and her youngest daughter) are #greatkids and #collegeready. The pride and positive energy she consistently shares online about her four children is downright inspiring: The next generation is the future, and by teaching them to use their voices in positive, powerful ways, we will most certainly be #bettertogether.


Make It Better Publisher Michelle O’Rourke Morris’ triplets, then and now. (Photos courtesy of Michelle O’Rourke Morris.)

Parkland, Kids and Gun Violence

Yes, you can help the grieving Parkland community, and you can become part of the solution to deter future gun violence, too. We make it easy for you to get started with Make It Better’s How to Help: Support Parkland’s Victims and Students and Fight Gun Violence.” Donate, march, or give blood to directly impact Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Please don’t turn away, become numb, forget the pain of Parkland, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Orlando, Columbine, and our country’s roughly 35,000 gun deaths each year. Because, you really can make a difference by spending only a few minutes online.

Common sense solutions may be complex to implement, but if everyone does a little something to help, we get to that better place much faster.

All children are our future, and it’s our duty to ensure that they have the physically and emotionally safe spaces they need to blossom. They need opportunities to explore their interests — nurture body, mind, creativity, and soul — in order to have hopeful futures, too. Without hope, it’s more likely a person will turn despair into violence. So, our best hope for the future is taking better care of all children and teens as a society.

But also, guns need to be harder to get and use in public spaces — particularly rapid-fire assault weapons. The National Rifle Association (NRA) and legislators who support extreme interpretations of the 2nd Amendment need to change their views on this or be made irrelevant.

To help make guns less accessible and our public spaces safer, you can visit Every Town for Gun Safety, The Courage To Fight Gun Violence, or Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense In America.

You can help by learning more about the issues, expressing your views to elected state and federal officials, and supporting candidates committed to fighting for better gun control legislation. You can lobby your legislators to support common sense gun reform legislation, and learn about pending state and national legislation here.

Vote for candidates based on their gun control positions. If a candidate’s gun control stance isn’t obvious, ask the candidate, and check his or her National Rifle Association funding or rating. If the NRA supports the candidate, chances are they don’t support stricter gun control legislation.

Another way to help is to foster more opportunity for underserved youth. If you give hope and a better future to one child, you also help transform their family and community. You could be saving the lives of many, too. Your gift of time, talent, or treasure to any of these organizations will have great impact.

We also need to work to strengthen our mental health public safety net. We won’t ever be a safe society again if we don’t take seriously the mental health of everyone. Discuss mental health issues publicly, and do your part to wipe out any remaining stigma about mental health struggles. We need to ensure that everyone has access to professional help, too.

We know that the government can’t afford to tackle mental health alone. That model has been tried and failed. Institutions with expertise and deep pockets need to collaborate with the government — ideally through private/public partnerships. You can help by advocating for such collaborations and electing politicians with this type of vision.

Also, you can help by supporting outstanding collaborative public/private programs already in place. In Chicago, these include The Rush Hospital West Side Total Health Collaborative and the Text-A-Tip Hotline.

There usually is a reason others behave badly. Some pain is pushing them hard. Rather than reacting with anger or turning away when we are confronted with someone struggling, we as individuals and as a society need to listen with love and help them find help.

It’s heart-rending to learn how many occasions were presented to authorities and others to learn more about accused gunman Nikolas Cruz and his pain — and to do something that could have kept him from becoming the Parkland shooter. Too many “if only” moments ….  If only the person who reported his social network “professional school shooter” post to the FBI had followed up to make sure that someone had acted on it … If only the school system had provided more resources and support specific to his autism spectrum diagnosis, instead of repeated expulsions … If only others could have connected with him emotionally after his mother’s death …

Next time you encounter someone angry, pained, challenging, please take the time to listen with love. Show them you care. Connect them to help.

This is particularly true with respect to children. If you can find the time, please find a way to interact with children in less fortunate families or communities than yours. Show just one child the love and trust that every child deserves, and you could transform a life and the world. That’s time well spent indeed.