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Michelle Dillingham's circuitous career path prepared her to lead Community Shares

Michelle Dillingham with Cincinnati Community Shares founding member Jim Lowenburg

Scene from last year's Gourmet Grub for Good fundraiser for Community Shares


Michelle Dillingham followed a circuitous path to Cincinnati.
 
Raised in Boston, graduated from college in Oregon and returned east for graduate work in psychoanalysis in New York City, she finally landed in southwest Ohio about 19 years ago, thinking Cincinnati was an interim stop in a career of social work and activism. But she found opportunities here that resonated with her personal passions, and now it’s home.
 
Dillingham’s new position as CEO of Community Shares of Greater Cincinnati is built on her varied career.
 
She intends to put a lot of energy into heightening awareness of the struggle for social and economic equity. On a bulletin board in the Mt. Auburn office she recently moved into is a sign that says, “Excuse me, could you spare a little social change?”


'Good work wasn’t enough'
 
Dillingham is the eldest of four daughters. Their parents were activists, her dad a beatnik poet in the early 1950s and her mom an ethnobotanist who traveled across North America for research and teaching, taking Dillingham and her sisters along.
 
“I learned the power of activism from them,” Dillingham says.
 
In the 1970s they were involved in the antinuclear Clamshell Alliance protesting the Seabrook Power Plant in New Hampshire. At Reed College in Portland, Ore., she demonstrated for animal rights despite the fact that she showed up at her first protest wearing a black leather jacket.
 
“I was a punk rocker type,” she says, laughing.
 
Nevertheless, Dillingham wasn’t a copy of her liberal parents. She thought about being a jazz pianist for a while, but social work proved to be the place where her career to blossom.
 
Her efforts on behalf of social change over the past 19 years led Dillingham to serve as case manager for Cincinnati Central Clinic and other social service organizations. She handled projects for the Freestore/Foodbank, served as chief of staff and legislative liaison for former Vice Mayor David Crowley and oversaw education programs for the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless.
 
Dillingham has been engaged in activities beyond earning a living. Her son has cerebral palsy, so she’s volunteered to help people with disabilities. Her family lives in Kennedy Heights, where she served on the neighborhood’s community council for a decade.
 
She ran for Cincinnati City Council in 2013, placing 12th in a field of 21 candidates. She intends to run again in 2017.
 
Completing a graduate degree at the University of Cincinnati’s school of social work in 2004, Dillingham saw that many nonprofits struggled to survive and serve their clients, a situation that only worsened with the economic downturn a few years later.
 
“These organizations had to start showing impact,” she says. “Good work wasn’t enough. They needed to demonstrate a measurable difference on outcomes.”


'We need to tell the stories of the organizations we support'
 
In her new role, Dillingham will help two dozen organizations engaged in building social and economic equity and a healthy environment to obtain funding from workplace giving campaigns. Community Shares raises awareness and support for its member organizations through these campaigns as well as helping them with professional enrichment, community education and a variety of innovative initiatives.
 
By giving to Community Share’s annual campaign, local residents of support social justice organizations such as GLSEN, Equality Cincinnati, Planned Parenthood and the League of Women Voters; economic justice organizations such as Faces Without Places, Living Arrangements for the Developmentally Disabled and the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless; and organizations focused on the natural environment such as Imago Center, Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, League for Animal Welfare and United Coalition for Animals.
 
Dillingham will put her communications skills to work on behalf of Community Shares members, too.
 
“Just because an organization doesn’t know how to talk about or demonstrate what they do doesn’t mean they are not doing good work,” she says. “Our job at Community Shares is about building our presence and recognition in the community.”
 
She intends to focus on coalition building. For instance, she’s already reached out to the Faith Community Alliance of Greater Cincinnati, an eclectic group that meets monthly at the Urban League to discuss topics ranging from education to health to criminal justice to housing. She’ll be sure that Community Shares is part of those conversations.
 
“We need to tell the stories of the organizations we support, but they and Community Shares are not broadly known,” Dillingham says. “Our job is to raise the money, of course, but also to build exposure and help more people understand their relevance. We need to help more people understand why they should be donors.”
 
She wants Cincinnatians who care about social and economic equality and environmentalism to know that Community Shares has identified and vetted local organizations addressing these pressing issues.
 
An enjoyable way to learn more about Community Shares and its member organizations is to attend its annual Gourmet Grub for Good fundraiser on Aug. 22. It’s an innovative event where up to 50 amateur chefs prepare specialties in one of six categories: appetizers, soups, salads, entrees, side dishes or desserts.
 
Admission is $50, and guests sample as many dishes as they wish, then vote for their favorites. There will also be silent auction, musical entertainment and a premium wine raffle.

The event is 7-10 p.m. Aug. 22 at the Mayerson Jewish Community Center, 8485 Ridge Road, Amberley Village. Tickets can be ordered online or, if not sold out, purchased at the door.
 
Since Dillingham just began her new role in late July, Gourmet Grub for Good will be her coming-out party.
 
“I hope to let people know that my arrival means a new era for Community Shares,” she says. “I intend for us to be in a growth mode.”
 

Read more articles by Rick Pender.

Rick Pender is an Over-the-Rhine resident with many years of writing, editing, fundraising and public relations experience. He is the theater critic and contributing editor at CityBeat and a regular contributor to WVXU's "Around Cincinnati." Follow him on Twitter @PenderRick.
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