Mari Gallagher


Mari Gallagher is Principal of Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group, a national firm headquartered in Chicago. Clients and partners include grassroots community and civic organizations, government entities, foundations, and major international corporations. Mari and her firm have collaborated with the Institute of Medicine of the Academy of the Sciences, the Urban Institute, Harvard, MIT, the National YMCA, and many other organizations.

Mari was the founding president of the National Center for Public Research and also former Adjunct Associate Professor at the Institute on Urban Health Research at Bouvé College of Health Sciences at Northeastern University in Boston – although at the time, she still lived in Chicago. Mari visited Boston periodically to collaborate with colleagues, provide university lectures, and consult with students about their projects. Boston is also one of the many locations where she and her team periodically conduct commercial market assessments.

Mari has enjoyed a national reputation for diverse, high impact projects around the country for over 20 years of professional history. Her expertise includes quantitative and qualitative research projects; financial services; housing; community development; community planning and engagement; workforce issues; sustainable poverty reduction; the economy; small business development; immigration; food deserts; food assessments paired with community health and education outcomes; “Good Food” systems as an economic development driver; market analyses; commercial site assessments and hands-on redevelopment consulting; business strategies; mapping; expert testimony; facilitation; public forums; and more!

Publications include “Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago” sponsored by LaSalle Bank (now Bank of America), a breakthrough study that popularized the term “food desert” across the country. MG was the first to develop a block-by-block metric for “food deserts” and “food balance” linked with health measures and has since done similar work in Detroit, rural Michigan, Louisville, Harlem, Savannah, Birmingham, Los Angeles, Toledo, Ohio, rural Iowa, the entire state of Florida, and other locations. Mari’s work motivated Congressman Bobby Rush to address the problem of food deserts through the Farm Bill and through the mandating of follow-on focus by the USDA. Mari’s research shows numerous cases where residents of food deserts die prematurely more than they would otherwise from diet-related conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, controlling for other key factors. Under Mari’s leadership, MG has provided free diabetes screenings to school age children to help identify diabetic and pre-diabetic children and adolescents. The MG team has also been supporting ProMedica, a locally managed, nonprofit healthcare organization serving northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. This work includes a block-by-block food-and-health study of Toledo, Ohio, to help ProMedica and its Ebeid Institute for Population Health identify a high-impact location for its nonprofit grocery store. We also have assisted ProMedica with its grocery store business plan, community engagement strategy, and customer satisfaction assessment.

Mari’s career has been colorful. As the former executive director of a community development corporation, she led the co-development of a $75 million shopping center anchored by a full-service grocery store. The CDC secured a 5% ownership in the project and continues to receive revenue from it to support community programs. Mari also led a number of additional commercial, housing, and job development and training projects, many of which won prestigious awards. She was the president of a technology company. And before launching her own firm, Mari directed a major Washington-based national research initiative – again, while based in Chicago – aimed at identifying new ways to measure African American and Latino markets. Specialties include “below the radar” data on buying power, leakage, and new commercial opportunities, indexes, neighborhood report cards, and market analyses for undervalued and high-transition communities. In that capacity, she worked with top leadership from major corporations, such as Home Depot, State Farm Insurance, Bank of America, Crate and Barrel, Payless Shoes, and several leading grocery chains. Mari has taught retail classes at the Illinois Council on Shopping Center events in Las Vegas.

As a practitioner and later as a researcher, Mari has been active in community lending projects and policies. As executive director of a nonprofit, she oversaw programs to strengthen local business districts. Mari’s work included grassroots efforts: organizing merchants into business improvement taxing districts (called BIDs or SSAs), receiving 100% support (no detractors); organizing merchants and residents to participate in safety walks to reduce crime and improve local morale; assisting merchants and business owners with business plans and financing; and creating and implementing effective overall business district redevelopment plans and launching complementary real estate ventures.

She served as Treasurer and Nominating Committee Chair for the Woodstock Institute, a national think tank specializing in fair lending research and advocacy. Her clients have included the Community Assets Unit within the Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, which she supported with strategic planning, staff accountability and management, and asset building policy and program consulting. She analyzed the immigrant loan portfolio for Second Federal Bank for submission to its regulator, mapped national immigrant loans and the banks that cater to them for the FDIC, led a board strategic planning session and developed a written business plan for Pan Am Bank, and conducted surveys and focus groups for the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank and National Federal Reserve Bank. The project for the latter, which took place in Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida, won a consumer award. Additionally, Mari has worked as a hands-on consultant for a number of community development financial institutions (CDFIs), including TELECU Community Capital in Los Angeles. For TELECU, Mari conducted an analysis of the pipeline potential for various loan categories for small businesses throughout LA. Similarly, she analyzed a Vermont loan fund and provided strategic planning services. For the Chicago Community Loan Fund, she conducted key informant interviews and a general market analysis to help them craft their long-term plan. For the MacArthur Foundation, which invests in nonprofit loan funds, Mari led a project that assessed and mapped their internal data (all Chicagoland nonprofit loan fund data which investees were required to submit to the Foundation). For the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Mari conducted a needs assessment based on her internal expertise and 20 external key informant interviews to assess top civil rights opportunities and needs. Mari was retained by the Center for Economic Progress five different times to lead similar projects on Earned Income Tax Credit patterns, asset building and savings, and workplace retention. For the Woods Fund, she developed a thought leadership paper on asset building: how to help low-income families step up out of poverty, programs that help them save and build assets, and how to build systems that support healthy, productive, and prosperous lives. Mari has written numerous articles for the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank on community lending which have been published in their magazines. This includes articles on her research on how banks were assessing undocumented immigrant mortgage loans to multiple borrowers using ITINs (individual tax identification numbers) in place of traditional social security numbers. Mari was one of the first researchers to nationally document and quantify this practice, which included ways to verify the incomes of immigrants who were typically paid in cash. At the time, these types of loans were unprecedented (and, in some cases, controversial). By detailing underwriting steps and standards, participating banks were able to adopt best practices.

Mari has led a number of sensitive projects. For example, she facilitated a project called “Breaking the Silence,” which consisted of moderating dialog between descendants of survivors of the Holocaust and the Japanese Internment to identify common threads and new ways of experiencing healing. She is an expert at focus group methodology and facilitation, and has led dozens of focus group projects in Chicago and around the country. Mari led a research project to help seniors cope with the loss of their driving abilities. Recently, Mari moderated a focus group on end-of-life issues for Life Matters Media, which aims to be the premiere provider of information, resources, and support for all involved in difficult and often unexpected end-of-life decision-making.

Aside from those already mentioned, Mari has received dozens of addition awards over the years for her leadership in community improvement projects from the University of Illinois, where she earned her Master’s in Public Policy and Planning, the Boy Scouts of America, the American Heart Association, Concern Worldwide, and many other organizations and institutions. She was a founder and president of a soccer association that served Hispanic youth, a founder and volunteer for a homeless support network and food pantry, and active in other volunteer efforts. One of her initiatives years ago to develop a community garden in a vacant lot where a man was beaten to death received 32 media placements including House Beautiful and won an award from former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. The project included a “fantasy mural” designed by former gang members.

Mari’s work continues to be covered by USA Today, National Public Radio, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and many other venues. Mari previously wrote for the Huffington Post, which at the time had 14 million unique visitors daily. She has been a guest speaker for various high-level forums across the country, including the National Community Reinvestment Coalition and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. She continues to be a well-received facilitator and presenter on many diverse topics. In addition to public forums, she provides executive briefings to the heads of major corporations.

Personal: Mari lived and studied in Latin America, speaks Spanish fluently, plays chess and tennis, and enjoys animals, baking, meditation, gardening, the Cubs, and, of course, her clients, friends, and family. Mari is married to Northwestern University economic historian Joseph Ferrie. They live in Chicago with their dog and two cats.

Mari has enjoyed a national reputation for diverse, high impact projects around the country for over 20 years of professional history.