PJEFs Learn the Ins and Outs of Philanthropy with Mariah Casias '10
Haverford Peace, Justice, and Equity Fellows (PJEFs) discussed large-scale philanthropy, non-profit work, and career networking with Mariah Casias, Vice President of Learning and Evaluation at Philanthropy Network Greater Philadelphia.
Mariah Casias ‘10 began her presentation to Haverford’s Philadelphia Justice and Equity Fellows (PJEFs) provocatively, focusing on concerns students hold about the philanthropic sector. An early slide considered the assertion, “Philanthropy exists to launder the reputations of the rich.” For each of the fellows, she was an emissary from the world of philanthropy, where heaping sums of cash are distributed to those in dire need. Most activists, Ms. Casias would admit, chafe at the thought of relying on millionaires, billionaires, and gazillionaires to make a difference in the world, but in a capitalist society, money talks. And it often talks as bluntly as Ms. Casias.
This is not to say she’s intimidating. Quite the opposite. She relates to the PJEFs as a former Haverford student who matured intellectually in the college’s idealistic milieu. As an alumnus once told a crowd of which your correspondent was a part, Haverford students sit under trees and think up solutions to the problems that the nearby Wharton School creates. Beyond our respective campuses, these worlds necessarily collide, mission meets market, and ‘the work’ often becomes the daily grind of adapting existing structures to better align with ethical actions. Though Ms. Casias acknowledges that Wharton School students have an advantage in an “understanding of how business and government work on a very practical level,” she will attest that Haverfordian ideals invigorate her philanthropic work.
The presentation and discussion were all part of the professional development series organized through the PJEF Program. Through PJEF, a small cohort of students work with Philly region organizations on anti-racism and inclusion initiatives, while receiving professional development opportunities to support students’ broad preparation for success in justice work. In this case, the students also got to hear about the career journey of a young alumnus.
Casias came to Haverford hoping to study biology, but a few chemistry classes turned her interests in other directions. She became a history major with a minor in political science. Post-graduation, she wound up in the philanthropy industry through a series of lucky breaks. “I’ve been very fortunate,” she said in an interview conducted via Zoom. “I’ve always had supervisors that listened to me and gave me a way to develop and contribute.” Such supervisors are rare for philanthropic underlings to encounter, but they possess the ability to catapult a young person’s career.
The interview we conducted saw Ms. Casias sick at her home with a mild case of COVID-19. Though vaccinated, she is experiencing a breakthrough case, a reminder of the importance of masking and social distancing measures. She popped a few cough drops in between her responses. Her cat crawled across her laptop a few times. She described her partner dropping off groceries as the only human contact quarantine allows. Still, she was performing her job’s normal duties. Like so many others, she was just doing it remotely.
Many things fuel Ms. Casias’s fire. For one, her upbringing forced her to contend with a feeling of “in-between-ness.” Being of mixed ethnicity, she has felt a peculiar sense of difference from a young age. Being of a family at times privileged and at times disadvantaged, she felt she had one foot in two groups. The first is “those who feel like they’ve had so much they need to give back to society,” and the second is those who have “been through the wringer and want to make it better for others” Belonging to both meant a career centered around giving was all but inevitable. Today her work embodies the challenge students acknowledged during the meeting. That is, as much as many of the students gathered are critical of the philanthropic sector, all of them would love to see more resources mobilized to support the important initiatives they are working with through the PJEF program, from abolitionist work to ensuring better access to prenatal care and counseling for Black women in Philadelphia.
Though she enjoys the work she does, Ms. Casias will admit that philanthropic work, like any kind of work, has its downsides. With some frequency, she sees lower-level employees bogged down in “a lot of layers of leadership authority.” If someone isn’t as lucky as her, they can expect to have few lines of communication to the upper levels of management, meaning a slog through non-constructive, uncreative work is likely.
Additionally, criticizing the structures of philanthropy tends not to be taken kindly. “I’ve never really been satisfied with the answer to why things can’t change,” she says, and luckily, as a Vice President of Learning and Evaluation at Philanthropy Network Greater Philadelphia, she’s in a position where she can enact structural change. In addition to growing in her own personal authority, Casias is part of a group of young Philadelphia philanthropists who have started their own learning community - critiquing, thinking, planning, and acting for change together. For many employees in the industry, however, they don’t enjoy the same opportunity. Ms. Casias knows from experience that many employees will refrain from expressing criticism or alternative visions of bureaucratic change for fear of losing their positions.
That said, she will also attest to the worth of such work. There are many moments that remind her of why she ultimately chose this career path. “When you see someone have that fire lit within them [...] When you feel like something has moved into the mainstream,” that’s when you know the work is worth all the tedium, bureaucracy, and paperwork.
“You always have a voice to push for the way things should be,” she told the PJEFs at Haverford. They debated many topics related to the world of philanthropy. They discussed the difference between charity and philanthropy, the myriad roles a person can play in social justice work, and the variety of jobs on offer after graduation. In Philadelphia, there are 15,000 nonprofits that offer 242,000 jobs, totaling $11 billion dollars in annual wages. There are also 1,873 philanthropic foundations with assets worth $15.4 billion dollars. In the right hands, this money can change the world. Hopefully, those hands will be like those of Ms. Casias.