Lilly Weinberg, exploration enhances her understanding of Knight communities


As special assistant to Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen, there’s no typical day for Lilly Weinberg. It’s in her job description to work with the foundation’s program staff, its vice presidents and many of its grantees to implement its grantmaking strategy.

It’s a broad job at Knight, a national foundation that also works in 26 communities where founders John S. and James L. Knight once operated newspapers. Luckily, a love of exploration and understanding communities has always guided Weinberg.  When she retired from competitive swimming at Emory University, she finally had the time to develop those interests. Her college studies in economics and environmental studies took her all over the world  – from Botswana to Peru to the Turks and Caicos Islands.

“I love that sense of discovery. I love meeting people and learning about all sorts of things. This job allows me to do that,” she says.

Below Weinberg shares what lessons she’s learned from working in economic development, how she finally feels at home in Miami, and what a recent trip to Chile taught her about livable cities.

Your job includes a variety of responsibilities. What are your top priorities?

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L.W.:  My priority is working directly with Alberto. He travels 70 to 80 percent of the time and has a major public appearance as a keynote speaker, opener or panelist nearly every week.  I help prepare him for all that, write his talking points, etc. Another important part of my job relates to grants management. I see every single grant write-up, and I work with my colleagues to improve them before sending them on to Alberto. Because I review all grant agreements and letters, I get a good perspective of the totality of our work. We made over 500 grants last year, which means thousands of documents pass through my desk. It’s a lot! I’m also involved in Knight’s organizational development; for example I worked on a learning initiative to help staff better communicate what we’re learning and have helped organize sessions designed to improve staff’s writing skills.

Before Knight, you worked at the New York City Economic Development Corp. How is that relevant to what you do here?

L.W: Specifically, I worked within the Center for Economic Transformation, which focuses on implementing policies and programmatic initiatives that promote entrepreneurship and economic growth in New York. They do a lot of competitions because Mayor Bloomberg used them as a vehicle to for entrepreneurship. That’s similar in spirit to what we do around using contests to spark innovation. Of course, economic development isn’t just as simple as bringing in businesses; it’s a complex ecosystem involving many factors. And that overlaps with how Carol Coletta, Knight’s vice president of community and national initiatives, talks about talent, opportunity and place. People want communities that are livable and easy to walk around in. There’s evidence to suggest that young college grads first chooses the place they want to live and then they go about getting a job.

How did your Master of Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School and MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management prepare you for what you do now?

L.W.: They both really pushed metrics, encouraging us to look at data to make decisions. That helps me understand how data impacts our grantmaking at Knight. Of course, it’s complicated to measure grantmaking for the public good. There’s not exactly a clear return on investment, but there are ways that we can better measure it. I also took a lot of marketing classes, which forced me to look at the needs of people who are going to use a certain product. That’s also relevant to our grantmaking. For example, what are the specific needs of a community and is the technology applicable for them?

You’re active in Miami civic life, both as a member of Leadership Miami and as the executive director of the New Leaders Council’s Miami chapter. What excites you about Miami?

L.W.: I didn’t expect to live in Miami, but when my fiancé [now husband] was recruited by a law firm, we made the joint decision to come here. Right away, I saw a lot of potential in the city. The first thing I did was just start meeting people in my network so I could figure out my role in the community. A lot of people pointed me to Knight. I also had people encouraging me to be more civically active, so I applied for Leadership Miami and met a smart group of young people. I also got involved with the National Leaders Council, which trains the next generation of civic leaders. I now serve as the Miami chapter’s Executive Director.  I’ve met so many amazing people I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’ve only been in Miami for a year and a half, but those experiences have made it feel like home.

Finish this sentence. If there were five more hours in every day I would…

L.W.: Read more. First I need to finish “David and Goliath” or I’ll be in trouble with my book club. Also, because of my economics background and my interest in economic opportunity on my list to read is “Affluence and Influence, Economic Inequality and Political Power in America.” Or maybe I’d get around to doing an Ironman.

How do you get news about issues such as civic engagement, economic development and entrepreneurship?

L.W.: My Facebook and Twitter feeds provides me with a good stream of news. I often catch myself reading articles that my friends, with similar interests, post on Facebook.  On a daily basis, I will get my news from the New York Times, TechCrunch, NPR and the Miami Herald. It’s really important to me to know what is going on in Miami. I also get my news from, of course, Knight’s blog! We’re posting so much content every day that’s related to the work we’re funding.

You traveled to Chile over the holidays. What prompted the trip? What was it like?

L.W.: My husband, Elan, and I got married last April so it was our delayed honeymoon! The trip was amazing. Chile is a fascinating country, especially when you look at it from the lens of better understanding successful communities. I found the cities there to be very livable; there were lots of green spaces and great public transportation. That made it an easy place to travel. It’s also an extremely beautiful country with every type of landscape you could think of, from deserts to mountains to rolling hills to lakes and more.

By Elizabeth R. Miller, communications associate at Knight Foundation