Tonya Allen, CEO of Skillman Foundation, steps down to lead McKnight Foundation

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Tonya Allen, who has served as the Skillman Foundation’s president and CEO since 2014 and offered a critical voice in pushing for better education opportunities for children, announced Monday she is stepping down to lead the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis.

The Detroit native said she never saw herself leaving the city, but "when you are called, you must act," she told The Detroit News. She plans to step down in February.

The Skillman Foundation, a Detroit-based philanthropic organization whose primary mission is improving the lives of children, has played a critical role in Detroit and beyond, with a focus on quality education opportunities for youths, strong afterschool systems with enriching experiences and establishing career pathways.

Allen said her decision to move to Minnesota was driven by her commitment to advancing racial equity and "to do so from the site where our country lost George Floyd, Philando Castile, and so many others is something I could not turn away from."

"I'm leaving because I feel compelled to contribute to help that place create the kind of opportunity structures that George Floyd was looking for. And to make them available, and in proximity to all of the people who live in that city," she said. "I think if we can do that, it's not only just the transformation for that place, that it really does become trailblazing activities for our country."

Tonya Allen, CEO of the Skillman Foundation

Allen said while it's difficult for her to leave Detroit, she believes her departure will allow opportunities for others to lead.

"I'm really hopeful, in this moment, that people will lean in and our city to tackle our toughest challenges. Of course, we're in the middle of a pandemic, but at the same time, there are lots of disruption in our city, massive disruption in our state and our systems in general," she said. "I would hope that it creates an opportunity for people to look into that disruption to find opportunities to rewrite the rules."

In 2015, Allen was named a Detroit News Michiganian of the Year for her work at the foundation.

During Allen’s 16 years there, she designed and led numerous initiatives, including:

►  The Good Neighborhoods Initiative, a $120 million to improving conditions for children in six targeted Detroit neighborhoods, where nearly one-third of the city's youth lived at the time: Brightmoor, Chadsey-Condon, Cody Rouge, Northend Central, Osborn and Southwest Detroit. The initiative increased graduation rates by 25%, youth programming by 40% and youth victimization rated declined by 47% in those designated neighborhoods from 2009 to 2016

► The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, which advocated for $667 million for the Detroit Public Schools Community District, the return of an elected school board to the district and more charter school accountability

► The creation and expansion of Grow Detroit’s Young Talent, which increased summer jobs for youth from 2,500 to 8,200 paid positions

► The Detroit Children’s Fund, a nonprofit that has assembled civic leaders to make investments in schools and educators to ensure more Detroit children can receive a quality education

► Launch Michigan, a statewide partnership of business, education, labor, philanthropy and civic leaders advocating for a high-quality, student-centered K-12 education system

Preparing for successor

Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, escorts Naomi West to the float that was inspired by her award-winning drawing.

Mary Kramer, the incoming board chair for the Skillman Foundation, said the foundation will start the search for a new leader. Kramer said Allen has held a laser focus on the city's children and has a deep love for the city, which is what they hope to find in her successor.

“This is a big loss for us and for Detroit," Kramer said. "But we understand and support this important move. As we search for a successor, we will look for a leader who can build on her legacy and that overarching goal of creating an equitable future for children in Detroit."

Allen’s departure comes as the Skillman Foundation celebrates its 60th anniversary this month. Its founder, Rose Skillman, a fierce advocate for children, established the foundation with $60,000 for investments. As of December, the foundation has granted nearly $670 million in service of children.

“Tonya Allen stands tall among a long line of powerful leaders who have been at the helm of the Skillman Foundation," said Suzanne Shank, board member and chair of the foundation’s search committee for the next president and CEO. "It has been an honor to support her and the critical work of the foundation. Both will go on to continue to make a meaningful impact."

The foundation plans to appoint its vice president of operations and CFO, Maria Woodruff-Wright, as an interim CEO while a search takes place, officials said.

“We’ll have an aggressive search for candidates who represent the foundation’s relentless commitment to children, to Detroit, and to equity. We also acknowledge that Detroit is talentrich; we’ve had great success at finding local leaders,” Shank said.

Bill Emerson, board chair for The Skillman Foundation and vice chairman of Rock Holdings, said Allen's ability to build bridges is her greatest strength.

"She's a force of nature in Detroit with the ability to really move things," Emerson said. "Detroit clearly has a lot of philanthropic organizations, but Tonya's ability to bring people together and convince stakeholders across the board has advanced The Skillman Foundation to what it is today."

Skillman Foundation President and CEO Tonya Allen, left, 42, of Troy, meets Osborn High School senior DaZahnae Martin inside her apartment complex lobby.

Parting advice

What advice does she offer her successor? To listen to the city's youth, she said.

"They're not just leaders of the future, they're leaders of the present." 

And for Detroit, she said, "double down on equity."

"We have to close the gap on racial and economic equity in our city," she said. "Because if we don't do that. I don't think that we're planning for a generational change."

In 2013, the foundation's 20-year, $3.5 million pledge to a "grand bargain" fund was proposed to offset the post-retirement healthcare costs owed to former employees of the city of Detroit when the city filed for its historic municipal bankruptcy. Twelve other foundations, including Kresge, Kellogg, Ford, Mott and Knight, signed onto the pledge for a total of $369.5 million.

The coronavirus pandemic has stalled the city's financial comeback, and it's too early to determine if another philanthropic partnership will be required, Allen said.

"For now, we have to make sure that young people are coming out of school ready for college and career, that they have clarity about what they would like to accomplish, that they feel supported, and equipped to be able to do either of those things and to do them effectively," she said.

While the Skillman Foundation is most known for its work in K-12 education, it also has a long history of advancing equity, the afterschool system, youth employment, juvenile justice, neighborhood safety, parent supports and grassroots leadership.

Of all the initiatives Allen has helped launch, she said she's most hopeful for Launch Michigan because it has the most potential to modernize the education system and the state's education funding strategy.

"The pandemic really did create awareness of the inequities that exist in our state," she said. "And they're not just in places like Detroit and urban areas. They're in small towns, all across this entire state where children just are not faring well, and schools don't have the resources that they need to be able to ensure that children are going to be well educated. 

"We cannot leave that to chance. We as a state, we cannot leave that to the private sector and hoping that philanthropy or business is going to step into the extent."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_