Jackie Downing ’98 has never been a bystander. Early experiences witnessing injustice and intolerance kindled what would become a lifelong passion for helping others. Today, Downing is a powerful force in philanthropy. Her recipe for making a real impact in the world? Get really good at something you enjoy doing and make it your passion. If you want to change the world, it’s not enough to care. To make a meaningful impact, you have to make a concrete contribution. How? By getting really good at something you enjoy doing.
That’s the advice that helped propel Jackie Downing ’98 from a student activist at Govs to an accomplished philanthropy and nonprofit leader known for building large-scale partnerships and creating social change. “That advice from an African American Studies professor encouraged me to try everything—to take computer science and psychology courses, to read manuals on social justice, to get involved in different organizations,” Downing said. “It took a while to figure out that I’m good at fundraising. I decided to make that my specialty because every cause needs resources.”
Today, Downing helps donors find their passions, build strategies, distribute grants, and launch initiatives across a range of issues, including education, racial justice, civil rights, climate change, democracy, housing and homelessness, and emerging needs such as COVID-19.
“A big priority for me is to use my privilege and skills to help communities in need access resources and opportunities,” she said. “I play an intermediary role where I connect wonderful organizations that lack ready access to capital with donors who genuinely want to support these communities.” Downing’s career in philanthropy is rooted in activism and advocacy, which she said began during her ninth grade year at The Governor’s Academy.
“Shortly before starting school, my best friend was sexually assaulted. It sparked in me a deep sensitivity to injustice and a fierce need to do something about it,” Downing said. She joined the cast of Hitting Home, a play about date rape and domestic violence, which was performed in high schools and colleges throughout Massachusetts. As Downing learned about the challenges facing women and girls, she also became concerned about homophobia. She started to connect with student activists at other schools who were organizing to tackle these issues. Before graduating, Downing formed the Gay-Straight Alliance and helped kick off the annual day dedicated to educating students and faculty about diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“Drawing attention to these issues and educating other teens gave me a sense that I didn’t just have to be upset. I could do something about it,” she said.
This drive to “do something about it” followed Downing through higher education and into her career. She moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2004 and worked in the nonprofit sector before switching to philanthropy. Along with this work, she has helped launch several initiatives addressing homelessness, immigrant rights, and education.
One of those initiatives is Oakland Promise, created by Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. The program provides college savings accounts, counseling, scholarships, educational support to Oakland public school students with the goal of tripling college attendance among low-income students. (When the organization reached its $50 million fundraising goal, Vice President Kamala Harris returned to Oakland to honor the leaders who made it happen—including Jackie.)
“As a financial aid recipient myself, it brings me great joy to support a program that will provide college scholarships to more than 30,000 students,” said Downing.
Downing also co-founded the citywide homelessness prevention program Keep Oakland Housed. “Our goal is to prove that it is less expensive and more humane to prevent homelessness before it starts,” she said. The program has distributed more than $27 million, which has prevented more than 7,200 households in Oakland from losing their housing and beginning the downward spiral into homelessness.
“Individuals of my generation, and those that follow, don’t want to have two separate lives where we’re doing good in the world in one space, and excelling in our professional life in another,” said Downing.
“We want more synergy. We want to be living our values more of the time.”
One way she finds this synergy is by advising leaders interested in increasing their impact through her consulting business, Vibrant Strategies. She recently helped Title Nine, a Bay Area company that makes clothing and outdoor gear for women, and its founder Missy Park, build their social impact program to create opportunities for women and girls.
“Title Nine is a great example of a company that is built as a reflection of the founder’s values, and it prioritizes women and girls at every opportunity,” she said. “They are trying to do good in the world one hundred percent of the time.”
As Downing prepares to return to the Govs campus in June to celebrate her twenty-five-year reunion (and 50 Years of Women at Govs!), she has advice for those students who may be interested in similar philanthropic pursuits.
“Get as much paid work and volunteer experience as you can. Intern at a nonprofit, serve on a board, run for student government, write for the school newspaper, organize events, try raising money, take finance and marketing classes. Figure out what you enjoy and get really good at it,” she said. “Whether you’re amazing at building websites, or you’re a great writer, or you love to organize events or give speeches, you can find a way to transfer your skills to any given cause that you care about.”
Another piece of advice: avoid getting into debt. “If (like me) your family can’t afford your tuition, go out of your way to apply for scholarships and financial aid, do AmeriCorps, and work while you attend school,” she said. “The less debt you graduate with, the more freedom you have to follow your passions.”
Downing has made a career out of activism and advocacy, but she said taking action doesn’t have to be an extravagant event.
“Taking action simply means participating in some way—and the most important way to do that is to vote. Not just in the presidential election, but in every election. It’s something that is all of our responsibility,” she said. “I think we used to take our democracy for granted, but we learned in recent years how important it is to truly participate.”
Downing brings these lessons home. “Like I tell my kids, ‘If you see a problem, try to solve it. If you’re upset that something’s broken, try to fix it.’”