By MAGGIE JARUZEL POTTER
- Serving as vital community leaders has replaced building endowments as the No. 1 priority at many U.S. community foundations.
- Community foundations are increasingly sharing information and creating positive change via partnerships — with people in other sectors within their geographical areas, and also with professional peers nationwide.
This article is part of an occasional series about the community foundation field and the Mott Foundation’s role in supporting and strengthening it. The series reports on what is occurring in Mott’s major geographic focus areas — Central/Eastern Europe and Russia, South Africa, and the U.S. — as well as providing information about how the field is expanding globally. Mott’s goal is to inform the public about the latest trends in the community foundation field in advance of its 100th anniversary year in 2014.
“Our mission says we connect people, ideas and resources to improve lives in our community."
— Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, president and CEO of Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo
Gone are the days when community foundations could operate primarily as grantmakers and keepers of the community’s purse strings, many field leaders say.
Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo (CFGB), says community foundations need to be well-educated on a variety of community issues and take the lead in addressing specific challenges. Her hands and heart are committed to a variety of local projects.
“Our mission says we connect people, ideas and resources to improve lives in our community,” she said. “Community foundations carry out significant leadership activities that are highly contextual and very nuanced, given the unique nature of each community.”
Increasingly, an engaged leadership style like Dedecker’s is identified as an essential ingredient for a U.S. community foundation in the 21st century. Her involvement has not gone without recognition. In 2011, Dedecker was named one of eight “Outstanding Citizens of the Year,” by the Buffalo News, and in early 2012 she was recognized as one of the “125 Most Influential People in Western New York” by Buffalo Business First.
An example of CFGB’s community leadership came in late 2011, when it launched “Say Yes to Education,” a long-term initiative that brings people together across sectors — from government, education and philanthropic institutions to businesses, citizen groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
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Graphic courtesy of Gulf Coast Community Foundation
Their shared goal is to increase post-secondary completion rates for students in the urban school district. The program has three key components: school reform, a comprehensive support system and the promise of a post-secondary tuition scholarship for every student to some type of post-high school training or educational institution.
Just as the Buffalo community foundation played a leadership role in the “Say Yes to Education” initiative, community foundations — working with local residents and other sectors — are creating positive changes throughout the country. Examples include current and past initiatives, such as the Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s successful effort to revamp Florida’s 911 emergency response system in 2010.
Meanwhile, community foundations also have spearheaded quick responses to national and local disasters by setting up funds to help affected families. The New York Community Trust established The September 11th Fund with the local United Way after terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation created the San Bruno Fire Fund after a gas line ruptured and exploded in a residential neighborhood in 2010.
“Community foundation leaders have to be the ones there for the big, bold community initiatives,” said Kevin K. Murphy, president of the Berks County Community Foundation in Reading, Pa.
“We have this permanent endowment that insulates us from the downside of risky decisions. There is a certain independence that goes with having an endowment.” [Murphy also is chairman of the Council on Foundations’ (COF) Board of Directors.]
Promoting volunteerism is an area of focus for the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.
Photo courtesy of Gulf Coast Community Foundation
Those endowments, many of which were established three or more decades ago, give community foundations sustainability and enable them to focus on building their in-house strength in areas such as governance, management and grantmaking practices, says Emmett D. Carson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, located in Mountain View, Calif.
With a solid infrastructure, and national standards for the field, he says, it is now time for community foundations to be proactive leaders in addressing entrenched community problems such as persistent poverty, unemployment or underemployment, lack of adequate education and preventive health care, and environmental damage.
As community foundations spring up around the world — in Central/Eastern Europe, Africa and elsewhere — they don’t place as much emphasis on endowments, which were considered essential in the traditional U.S. model, Carson says.
“These newer community foundations are not thinking about their [asset] size; they are thinking about their value to the community,” he said. “They are dealing with tough community issues. We need to do more of that.”
Carson, Murphy and other leaders highlight the importance of learning from fellow funders operating in similar circumstances. Sometimes called “communities of interest,” these discussion groups can be between leaders working in post-industrial communities with declining populations, or those with low high school graduation rates or high unemployment. They can even be as specific as those communities with significant Amish populations.
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Data courtesy of Foundation Center.
Dedecker of Greater Buffalo also serves as chairwoman of CFLeads, a nonprofit group that supports community foundations in their role as local leaders taking on tough issues, working across sectors, and gathering resources. From her experiences, she recognizes the value of shared knowledge, including learning via partnerships within one’s geographic region of service.
These partnerships can be time-consuming and risky, yet they are worth the effort, Dedecker says. For example, under her leadership, Greater Buffalo in the past five years has forged more than 200 local partnerships — partnerships in practice, not just on paper — that are engaged in creating better systems to address challenges.
In fact, Greater Buffalo’s Green and Healthy Homes Initiative includes a county-paid employee who works in the foundation’s office. Selected as one of 15 pilot sites in the nation for this public-private program, the Buffalo initiative has more than 50 partners across all sectors. Together, they have developed an integrated system to address housing-related issues, such as lead poisoning, asthma, weatherization and energy efficiency for low-income families, Dedecker says.
Genuine partnerships like this could not be possible, she says, without having a strong and well-functioning board of directors to encourage an organizational culture in which “community transformation” is expected. That kind of support, Dedecker says, empowers community foundation staff members to be fully engaged in the community they serve.
“This is system change through partnerships. We’re still a grantmaker using grants to carry out our mission, but we’re using a collaborative model that involves a lot of connecting within the community,” she said.
“Community foundations have the ability — and the credibility — to build healthy relationships that are defined by trust and have shared objectives, ultimately resulting in stronger communities.”
Teri A Hansen, president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation in Venice, Fla., says one word best describes how community foundations should determine whether they obtained their shared objectives:
“Impact — that should be what we are measured by. But it is easier to rank community foundations by the dollar amount of their assets.”
Hansen also is chairwoman of COF’s Community Foundations Leadership Team, a group charged with serving as a strong voice, advocate and resource for community foundations nationwide. She says there seems to be a shift in the community foundation field. [See related publication.]
In the 1990s, Hansen says, community foundations were in an “arms race” with for-profit businesses, such as Fidelity or Vanguard, to secure as many donor-advised funds as they could. But in today’s tough economic environment, she sees less of that and more community foundation leaders seeking ways to reduce their overhead, including choosing to link with other community foundations to consolidate back-end office duties, such as accounting, data processing, etc. [See related article.]
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Map courtesy of Council on Foundations
In addition to these changes, Hansen says, many community foundations leaders now understand they have a niche that is different from other NGOs. While most NGOs focus on one or two specific issues or populations, community foundations work with the entire community. They need to know the community — its strengths, weaknesses, non-monetary assets, challenges and opportunities.
By working with local residents and not for them, community foundations can use democratic decisionmaking processes to empower people and strengthen communities, says Carson of Silicon Valley.
But communities today look different from those in the past and also those in the future, he says.
So, as the community foundation field nears its 100th anniversary in 2014, Carson poses a thought-provoking question: If journalism and higher education are both undergoing fundamental changes in the way they conduct their daily operations, why should the community foundation field remain static?
“The U.S. has different challenges today than it had in 1914,” he said.
“We’ve done heroic things since then. Let’s celebrate that, but let’s also remember that seldom does any field or industry do something exactly the same for 100 years.
“Community foundations need to change. We need to be relevant, especially during this economic downturn. This is our time to shine.”