Chief Marketing Officer, The Chicago Community Trust
BA in economics from Oberlin College
Daniel Ash MPP ‘94 was a kid who didn’t know how he wanted to add value to the community, but always knew he would give back. Growing up in Youngstown, OH, (located 65 miles southeast of Cleveland) where steel was the backbone of the local economy, Ash saw firsthand what happens when a mid-sized city lacks economic diversification and the main industry disappears: unemployment, poverty, inequality, and economic instability. The experience was formative, sparking a desire to “deal with the tough issues [he] saw growing up, beginning with understanding how a place like [his] hometown could overcome the massive loss of manufacturing jobs.”
As a result, Ash pursued a BA in economics at Oberlin College, which he immediately followed with a prestigious Woodrow Wilson summer fellowship in public policy at Princeton University. The decision to pursue an MPP stemmed from that fellowship experience, interest in the “applied side of economics,” and the desire since adolescence to make a difference. Ash chose the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy over multiple other top-tier programs for one simple reason: UChicago had smart people working on problems of practice that mattered to him.
Ash explains, “The University of Chicago is a mid-western laboratory with fascinating scholars working on real problems.” He counts William Julius Wilson, who did much of his pioneering work in sociology at the University of Chicago, as the practitioner that most inspired him at the time. “Wilson and others were working on problems that continue to matter deeply to me, like urban planning and poverty. Their work pushed me towards Harris where I became doubly convinced that I was meant to commit myself to areas such as these.”
Since graduating from the Harris School in 1994, Ash has supported non-profits dedicated to a broad base of issues, including poverty, welfare, HIV/AIDS, non-custodial parent engagement, adolescent sexual health, and media integrity, all culminating in his present role as the Chief Marketing Officer at the Chicago Community Trust.
Ash’s path to that role was greatly informed by his time at Harris and his first job at the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health (ICAH), a small non-profit advocacy organization to advance welfare policies for teenage mothers. Ash became their “policy guy,” but quickly became frustrated that regardless of excellent research—decade after decade—that proved a policy issue didn’t work, the Caucus’s staff were still forced to fight the same misinformation. It became clear to Ash that policy wonks weren’t necessarily all that successful at communications and messaging. A career trajectory was born.
“I decided we needed to get good at selling our ideas if we were going to be successful,” says Ash. “I never imagined having a Chief Marketing Officer title, but people noticed that, ‘Daniel knows the issues. Daniel is committed to communicating the issues. Daniel can raise money for the issues.’ So, my organization swiftly became comfortable with my dual existence. I could out-wonk the policy wonks, but felt very comfortable speaking with those who could advance our campaigns and ideas. Then, that became a bridge to fundraising. Those three things differentiated me in the market.”
Embraced as a triple threat—policy wonk, master communicator, and skillful fundraiser—Ash moved from ICAH to the Center on Family Policy and Practice to the Chicago Department of Health to the Sargent Shriver Center on Poverty Law, and eventually landed as the Vice President of Strategic Communications at WBEZ Chicago (NPR affiliate).
“When I began at WBEZ, 90-92 percent of our listeners were well-educated and white, while most of Chicago had no idea who Ira Glass was. My feeling was that public media is too good of a resource to only be consumed by one segment of our community,” says Ash. “I became committed to the belief that every resident should have access to good, fact-based media. I didn’t work there just because I loved the content. I loved the mission.”
After almost nine years at WBEZ, Ash began at The Community Trust in order to touch multiple issues through one role. At the Trust, Ash leads strategic marketing and communications, development, and civic engagement programming for the foundation, which is dedicated to improving the region though grant-making, civic engagement, and philanthropy.
Ash says he learned the skills to be successful in his role at the Trust at Harris. “The pursuit of knowledge with other Harris students—working through problems and projects together—taught me how to negotiate and how to work in real time with other individuals. At Harris, some people were sociology majors or mathematicians, but we would all work together to solve a problem. I realized there’s a huge benefit to being in a space where everyone looks at something through a different lens. Those experiences help developed my ability to build personal relationships that are so necessary in the workspace. Because of my experience at Harris, I have the tools to be successful in any arena and with any audience.”
Ash closes with advice to those considering a public policy degree. “Getting a policy degree opens many doors, and closes none. Many people feel like they must make a choice that is going to lead them down a specific path, like business or law. Public policy is a discipline that can open multiple pathways to careers. The analytical rigor and quantitative skills you develop at Harris are tools that you will always use, no matter where you go or what you do.”