Like many leaders in the community foundation field, Deborah Ellwood’s professional life often overlaps her personal life.
“What keeps me up at night is wondering how CFLeads can harness the energy, enthusiasm and eagerness of community foundations across this country to strengthen their communities,” said Ellwood, executive director of CFLeads, a nonprofit infrastructure organization dedicated to promoting community foundation leadership.
Since adopting a new name in 2006, CFLeads has been broadly charged with educating, equipping and inspiring community foundation professionals to adopt strategies and practices that help build vibrant, healthy places to live.
To date, about 300 community foundations in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean have participated in the organization’s activities either under its current name or its previous one — the Coalition of Community Foundations for Youth, a nationwide network of community foundations established in 1991.
Today, CFLeads’ office is virtual; staff members work in several cities in different parts of the country. Through its day-to-day activities, CFLeads aims to strengthen individual field leaders’ skills and effectiveness, while helping build specific organizations’ capacity to address critical community issues. Its staff, board and volunteers use a variety of vehicles to effect these changes, including webinars, conference sessions, face-to-face meetings as well as online and print publications.
CFLeads, which has received $5.14 million in grants from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, also taps the expertise and experiences of recognized field leaders via a “Visiting CEOs” program in which seasoned community foundation leaders provide hands-on, practical assistance to peers who seek it. They discuss ways to empower boards, strengthen local leadership roles and improve impact. Visiting CEOs hail from all points of the compass: from the Baltimore Community Foundation in the East (Md.) to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation in the West (Calif.) and from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo in the North (N.Y.) to the Black Belt Community Foundation in the South (Ala.). Additionally, there are several CEOs in the nation’s heartland who share their skills.
“Infrastructure organizations like CFLeads help community foundations advance their own practices, and learning from peers is key to that,” Ellwood said. “Community foundations are much more than grantmakers. They are community leaders who take on tough issues by engaging residents, working across sectors and marshaling resources from public and private sources. Often, a successful practice from one community can be adapted for another.”
One of the newest ways CFLeads provides services to the field, she says, is through its Resident Engagement Community Leadership Network. Started in mid-2013, this year-long, intensive project aims to expand and improve the way community foundations involve residents in their work.
Currently, nine teams from around the country — each with up to six team members consisting of community foundation staff, board members and community partners — are learning best practices from each other and from experts in the field. The teams meet face-to-face three times during the year in retreat-like settings for two-day sessions and also interact frequently through electronic exchanges.
They continuously assess their organizations’ strengths and weaknesses in the area of community engagement and then adapt their organizations’ culture and practices, Ellwood says.
The teams generate “palpable energy,” she says, partly because participants share a common goal: to build vibrant and resilient places to live. For Ellwood, few organizations are as well positioned as community foundations for improving lives, neighborhoods and communities.
“Today, the needs in communities are great, and yet we’ve seen the huge impact community foundations can have in improving people’s lives,” she said. “The promise of what community foundations can achieve is enormous. CFLeads provides them with learning opportunities that can help them live up to that promise.”