When she joined the Heart of Illinois United Way as president last year, Jennifer Zammuto brought to the organization more than 24 years of experience in philanthropy, communications, strategic planning, consulting, team building and project management. Now at the helm of the largest non-governmental funder of health and human care programs in central Illinois, she provides innovation, collaboration, leadership and vision for a diverse team of high-performing leaders, volunteers and staff—all working together to address our region’s greatest needs. Her diverse life experiences and career path have primed her to be the perfect team player, leading the way to the greater collective good.
Tell us about your family and childhood. What were your hobbies and interests?
Growing up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago as the eldest of three children, I always cared about what anyone in a position of authority thought and never wanted my parents, teachers or coaches to be upset with me or my work. My Russian grandparents, who lived nearby in Chicago, were a huge part of my upbringing. It was the 1970s and 1980s, and my best friend and I ran around our neighborhood on bicycles until it was dark. We turned our parents’ pop (not soda!) bottles in for recycling so we had money to buy candy. We babysat, had a paper route and participated in 4H. It was there that I learned to do macramé, how to cook and sew, and hobbies like photography. Starting at age six, I took piano lessons and then decided to learn the French horn in sixth grade. My band instructor, Mr. Sanders, had high expectations. Since he was tough and fair, I cared about working hard for him.
Once I turned 15, my first “real” job was at Baskin-Robbins and I loved it! In high school, I swam competitively and was involved in marching and symphonic bands, student council, and every afterschool program I could join. As a teenager, I worked at both Marshall Fields and Lord & Taylor in the Woodfield Mall, where I learned about customer service, how to wrap gifts and the complex logistics of the industry. Even without cellphones, we had much more freedom than students do in today’s society.
Tell us more about your education and early career path.
When I entered high school, I started taking French with one of my all-time favorite teachers, Mr. Zafrani. Those four years studying French inspired me to major in international business. My dream was to attend the Thunderbird School of Global Management or Bradley University, but I didn’t have enough money for either. So, I enrolled at Northern Illinois University with a major in French – business translation. Partway through my studies, I took a year off to work at Citibank, which was an excellent experience. During my senior year at NIU, I had the opportunity to live in the south of France in a beautiful, walled city called Avignon.
After graduation, I pictured myself living and working on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. I applied for every job I could and landed an interview with L.R. Nelson Corporation in Peoria. Right away, I knew it was the perfect place for me since their head office was in France, near where I had lived during my senior year. L.R. Nelson needed someone who spoke French to manage exports and marketing. It was my dream job and I learned so much! One of the best pieces of advice I got was from my manager, David Ransburg, Jr., who taught me not to come to him with a problem, but with a challenge and possible solutions. It was great advice and has stuck with me to this day.
Like a lot of young professionals in central Illinois, I thought I would be in Peoria for a couple of years and then move on to a larger city. That was 25 years ago. I love what our community has to offer—the lack of a real commute, the ease of getting my daughter and son where they need to be, and the ability to give back through volunteering and philanthropy. After four years at L.R. Nelson, I spent eight years at Converse Marketing and had an incredible experience learning the value of great design and copywriting. Working with so many different clients from Caterpillar to Keystone to Biaggi’s and more, I loved how challenging and different every day would be. One day I’d spend running around a field getting cows to line up at the fence for a photoshoot, and the next morning I would be working on the copy and design for a restaurant menu. At every job I’ve held, I’ve learned how much I didn’t know.
Describe your work at Caterpillar and how those experiences inform your current role at the United Way.
My work at Caterpillar Inc. started in corporate communications, working in a business unit and then on the annual report and corporate reputation campaign. During the challenging time of the 2008-2009 downturn, the company moved me to the Caterpillar Foundation team. With an increase in funding requests from nonprofit organizations who were negatively impacted by the recession, and with less dollars to distribute because of the downturn, we turned to the Heart of Illinois United Way to help us develop more robust investment criteria. We worked with some great people who helped form our strategy to focus on the root causes of poverty, which also led to a sub-focus on leveling the playing field for girls and women at the national and global levels. I had the privilege of traveling the world and saw poverty firsthand, which was humbling to say the least, and helped us work with our partners better. We asked for a lot from our grantees in terms of data, outputs, outcomes and measurement—and they delivered. We learned a lot about being flexible while being fair and consistent. And again, I worked with an amazing group of people and couldn’t have asked for more.
What lies ahead for the Heart of Illinois United Way?
In two words: transparency and collaboration. There are not enough charitable dollars to go around, and people want to know the value United Way brings to their charitable dollar. We have to prove our value and worth. I always say it is like investing in the stock market. If you don’t understand the market trends of when to buy or sell, you call an expert to help. The Heart of Illinois United Way does the same thing for your charitable dollar.
Most donors do not have access to details on the health of nonprofit financials, how well their programs operate or what outcomes they are delivering. United Way volunteers, who collectively have more than 500 years of experience, are trained to ensure our community’s charitable dollars are invested in the most efficient, effective ways. Our goal is to help local charities do the best work they can and serve as many people as possible. Our community needs that to be healthy and have a strong economy. I do not see local charities as competitors because we are all working toward the same thing: a healthy, vibrant community. The only way we can do that is by leaning on each other and having honest conversations.
What is your secret to maintaining a balance between your community work and personal life?
I don’t think there is a secret. You have to enjoy your work and find a balance where you can. It will never be perfect. I have found that when you enjoy the people you spend time with at work and in the community, life is more fun. Once you accept that work sometimes takes over personal time and sometimes personal life takes some of your work time, you will find that flexibility is freeing.
What is your leadership style or philosophy?
Common sense and common courtesy combined with uncommon courage. I want my team and community to be successful—focusing on our collective success lifts everyone. This year, we have focused our philanthropic messaging on following your heart, trusting the data and investing in your community. Those core concepts hold true for effective leadership. We have to work together to build a strong sense of teamwork, and we must talk about our collective challenges in order to improve. By focusing on processes and determining if they are working effectively, we are investing our time and talents toward common goals.
What do you consider the most pivotal point in your career?
I don’t think there has been one singular moment. It is more about the realization that life is hard and it’s all about how you handle the ups and downs. I’ve seen my share of both. I’m certainly not perfect and wish I would have handled some challenges differently. But pushing through, leaning on friends and family when you need to, and knowing when to ask for help is important and humbling.
Did you have a mentor in the early stages of your career?
From teachers to music instructors and coaches to friends, managers and loved ones, I have tried to take a lesson from everyone who touches my life. The great ones encouraged me and had high expectations. They made me want more for myself and gave me the courage to work hard and ask for help when I needed it.
How do you unwind after a long day of work?
Spending time with loved ones and that includes my dogs. Is there a more understanding, compassionate creature in the world?
If you hit the jackpot tomorrow, what would you do first?
Make a donation to the Heart of Illinois United Way. That sounds forced, but it is the honest truth. I really believe in our work and our people! And then head somewhere warm.
What is your favorite food?
I love all food! Living and traveling overseas helped me appreciate all kinds of different foods, and growing up with Russian grandparents meant we ate some unique foods.
Who are some of your favorite musicians?
I love Depeche Mode, Peter Murphy, Violent Femmes, Silversun Pickups, Foo Fighters, RHCP, Cake, New Order, Bush, The Killers, Pet Shop Boys, Death Cab for Cutie and so many more.
What book do you think every woman should read and why?
Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. We all think we are successful because of the work we did prior to where we are now. That is partially true. Many times, we are successful in spite of ourselves. As you grow, realizing that not every skill you learn translates into future success is important.
What’s the hardest life lesson you’ve had to learn?
It is so easy to see the world from only our own perspective. I learned early in life that hiding a mistake never makes it better. Admitting your errors right away, learning from them, and fixing the process or root cause of the problem turns a mistake into a lesson. Giving someone a sincere apology goes a long way, too.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
Listen more. I’m still working on that.
What advice would you give to a young, up-and-coming female professional?
I would say this to every young professional: Embrace what makes you unique in every situation. In my first job at L.R. Nelson, I worked with municipalities in Europe and didn’t see many other women in those roles, but I found that you can find something in common with most people. If you learn from everyone, are honest and open, and find ways to celebrate everyone’s differences, you will make your life and work much more enjoyable. Always do your job to the best of your ability and don’t worry so much about climbing the ladder. Appreciate people and the work they do. Don’t be shy if you see a system or process that can be fixed.
What do you want your legacy to be?
Over my career, I have been the luckiest person when it comes to meeting and working with the most amazing people and teams—and I am lucky to have built lifelong relationships as well. Really caring about your team members’ success is the key, and it comes with a lot of hard work and honesty. No one of us is more important than another. I have learned so much and continue to learn every day from the incredible people I have had the honor to work with and call friends.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
In thinking about a theme around my life and work experience, I always come back to people. Doing amazing work with people you appreciate is the greatest joy. Getting along with others in a team environment is critical to success. There are very few jobs where interacting with other people is not a requirement. And as I have always told my kids, good grades are important, but I would rather see a straight-B student who can communicate well than a straight-A student who can’t. Learning every day is critical. I make mistakes every day and hopefully get better from each of them. Don’t wish away those mistakes in life—that is the only way we grow. PM