Tonya Allen is president of the McKnight Foundation, a Minnesota-based family foundation that seeks to advance a more just, creative, and abundant future where people and planet thrive. McKnight annually grants about $100 million in support of climate solutions in the Midwest, an equitable and inclusive Minnesota, the arts, neuroscience, and international crop research. Allen heads an all-women, majority people-of-color senior leadership team and a diverse staff of about 50.
Dynamic Change Agent. Allen has led successful philanthropic, business, government, and community partnerships that catalyze fresh thinking, test new approaches, and advance public policy. Throughout her 25-year career, she has been a bridge-builder and a civic diplomat. Allen has been lauded for her results-driven and highly influential collaborative approach by the Chronicle of Philanthropy (Five Nonprofit Innovators to Watch), the Funders Network (Nicholas P. Bollman Award), Detroit News (Michiganian of the Year), and Crain’s Detroit Business (Newsmaker of the Year and 100 Most Influential Women).
Philanthropic Leader. Allen chairs the Council on Foundations, is co-chair for the Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, and has served on many other philanthropic boards. Prior to joining McKnight in 2021, Allen served as president and CEO of The Skillman Foundation, a private foundation in Detroit dedicated to improving schools, neighborhoods, and the well-being of families in Southeast Michigan, and as a program officer at the C. S. Mott and Thompson-McCully foundations. She is a co-founder and architect of Detroit Children’s Fund—a nonprofit that aggregates and invests capital to improve schools—and the founder and former director of Detroit Parent Network.
Equity Driven. A champion of diversity, inclusion, and equity practices, Allen is driven by her passion for justice. She has collaborated with numerous cross-sector partners to advance individual, institutional, sectoral, and community-wide equity strategies. Allen’s efforts to make institutions more equitable are considered best-in-class, and she is a national leader in the philanthropic sector on this topic. Allen is a member of General Motors’ Inclusion Advisory Board, an independent director of Sun Communities, and an advisor to numerous corporations regarding inclusion efforts. Corp! Magazine honored Allen with a Salute to Diversity Award.
Public Sector Partner. Allen’s leadership and advisory capabilities extend to the government sector. She collaborates effectively across political parties. Her work has included chairing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Return to School committee during the Covid-19 pandemic; advising former Gov. Rick Snyder on education reform; co-chairing the Detroit Public Schools reboot; advising on former President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance; hosting both Democratic and Republican presidential and cabinet visits; and successfully advancing bipartisan public policy.
Community Organizer. Allen started her career working with residents, parents, and faith-leaders in neighborhoods, an approach still central to her ethos. Her leadership is grounded in two principles: “None of us is smarter than all of us” and “power is organized people and organized money.” She is passionate about bringing unlikely allies together—prioritizing community voices and ideas at the center—and co-creating solutions where people and planet thrive.
Thought Leader. Allen is a well-regarded and thought-provoking public speaker, author, media contributor, and advisor. She served as a scholar-in-residence at the Clinton School of Public Service, where she penned Radical Love: The Responsibility of Community Philanthropy in Enabling Social Change, Promoting Equity, and Sparking Transformation.
Engaged Learner. Allen’s desire to learn from others is insatiable. She holds master’s degrees in public health and social work and a bachelor’s in sociology, each from the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. She is a board member of the university’s alumni association and received a Bicentennial Alumni Award for her impact and contributions. She chairs the board of Oakland University. Additionally, Allen studied global affairs and governments as a German Marshall Fund Transatlantic Fellow and at the Harvard Kennedy School. She earned fellowships at the Aspen Institute (Pahara), American Enterprise Institute, and BMe Community.
New Minnesotan. Allen is an enthusiastic new Minnesotan. She is drawn to the North Star State’s values, people, and philanthropic promise. She is devoted to her family, which includes her husband, Louis, and their three daughters, Phylicia, Brianna, and Alanna.