Community Foundations Shine in CoF Awards to Philanthropists

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It should be no surprise that the Council on Foundation’s Distinguished Service Award and Robert Scrivner Award nominees are predominantly from the world of community foundations. Winning the Distinguished Service Award, to be presented at the COF Community Foundations conference in Cleveland next month, is Darcy Oman, since 1985 the president and CEO of The Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia. The Council named Shelley Trott, the Director of Arts Strategy and Ventures at the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, as the recipient of its Robert W. Scrivner Award for Creative Grantmaking. The story is about Oman and Trott to be sure, but more so about the dozen nominees overall and what they represent for directions in which philanthropy might want to go in order to live up to the goals of “distinguished service” and “creative grantmaking.” A good part of the explanation of the lessons from these awards might be in the increasing visibility and impact of community foundations and perhaps in the stories of foundations that may be in many cases relatively small, but in their communities playing disproportionately significant roles.

One hundred years ago, the first community foundation was established in Cleveland, Ohio. From its origins under Frederick R. Goff in 1914 to today, the Cleveland Foundation has produced individuals of stellar accomplishments—people with long careers at the top rung of the foundation, such as the widely admired Steve Minter (himself a Distinguished Service Award winner in 2003), and many younger and not-so-young foundation grantmakers whose grantmaking skills and creative problem solving were supported there. Among the former Cleveland Foundation staff who have helped educate the field—and this author—about the important nexus between philanthropy and social change nonprofits are, in our experience, India Pierce-Lee, Gita Gulati-Partee, and Jay Talbot, to name three.

In the Council’s approach to both the Distinguished Service and Scrivner awards, according to the manager of the awards program, Daria Teutonico, these awards highlight the work of individuals within foundations—“to personalize and humanize the work” of foundation executives and staff. With the energy in the community foundation world due to the centennial of the Cleveland Foundation, community foundation leaders are well reflected in the nominees for both awards.

There may be a reason beyond the fortuitous community foundation timing. For most of the public, the work of foundations and the people in foundations is murky. Institutional philanthropy in our society doesn’t stand out for transparency and accessibility, but community foundations and their leaders are generally on the other end of the continuum. Community foundation leaders like Distinguished Service nominee Paul Grogan of the Boston Foundation [full disclosure: this author worked for Grogan at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation] are locally visible players. Whether one likes the specifics of Grogan’s public interventions or not, there is no question that debates about the cap on charter school expansion in Massachusetts and overall questions of public school finance in Boston generally involve TBF’s Grogan in a major way. With fewer local opportunities for comparable press coverage, other community foundation leaders, like the Santa Fe Community Foundation’s Brian Byrnes, also show up with public profiles on important issues—in Byrnes’ case, also in the educational arena with the foundation’s active involvement this past year in trying to tackle Santa Fe’s school dropout problem. In the case of Distinguished Service finalist Steve Seleznow, that visibility came from the management of a significant evolution for the foundation.

That sort of publicity visibility is reflected in the character of the two award winners. Oman and Trott themselves present interesting qualities that might inspire their colleagues across the nation. In Richmond, Oman has been personally involved in much of the community foundation’s most important ventures into issues concerning the city and region, including the Richmond AIDS Partners, the Safety Net Fund (a $1 million commitment from the foundation that was matched by $2 million to help vulnerable families most affected by the economic downturn), and the Northside Initiative for Older Youth (assisting five community-based groups in a continuum-of-care approach for young people between the ages of 14 and 24). Trott’s distinctively creative grantmaking role could be seen in the Kenneth Rainin Foundation’s support for the Community Arts Stabilization Trust, working with the Northern California Community Loan Fund to help small arts organizations in San Francisco acquire (or lease) and maintain affordable arts and culture spaces for their operations.

We would guess that Oman and Trott, like the other nominees, would quickly acknowledge that their achievements were hardly theirs alone, but involved a team of colleagues who made their most important programs happen. That being said, we also know that to move foundations, which sometimes don’t move with much agility, inspirational leadership is necessary, and people like Oman and Trott were, if the letters supporting their nominations were on target, vital sparkplugs for making philanthropy responsive in their communities and with their constituencies.

They would also be willing to acknowledge the achievements of the other nominees. Sorting through the nominees’ backgrounds reveals examples of service and creativity worthy of emulation. At the San Diego Community Foundation, CEO Bob Kelly provided the leadership for the development of 10 community development corporations nearly twenty years ago, leading to a vibrant CDC environment that LISC helped maintain and support over the years. Through Kelly’s leadership, the community foundation was intimately involved in San Diego’s City Heights Revitalization Project. It is hard to imagine that San Diego’s current community development work in City Heights, as well as neighborhoods such as Colina Park, Logan Heights, and others, would have continued without the active engagement of the community foundation.

The Spartanburg County Foundation’s Mary Thomas was nominated for a distinguished service award, though she had previously been honored with the Scrivner creative grantmaking award in 2006, becoming its first African-American winner. Reflecting Thomas’s own background as a community activist, one of the foundation’s most distinctive programs is its Grassroots Leadership Development Institute, creating and training a cadre of alumni grassroots activists devoted to social change in a region and state that sometimes shows more than a little resistance.

The nomination explanation describing Marla Tofle’s qualifications is particularly striking, given the dynamics of the past year concerning the nation’s immigration reform impasse. At the Napa Valley Community Foundation, Tofle spearheaded the creation of the One Napa Valley Initiative. As the documentation explained:

“Three years ago, Napa County was quickly becoming a place that was not welcoming, sometimes downright hostile, to the estimated 11,000 immigrants who call our community home, and residents of Napa became US citizens at a lower rate than people in the rest of the state…In just three months, Marla identified the types of services that would be needed to help more people become citizens and active in civic life, brought nonprofits together, and established a plan…Since last July, ONVI has helped almost 400 people with legal naturalization services, approximately 100 have submitted applications to become US Citizens; and nearly two dozen have actually become US Citizens.”

It isn’t simply a foundation task for Tofle, as she apparently is a regular volunteer at Citizenship Legal Services, funded by the Community Foundation to provide access to immigration attorneys at a low cost (and no cost for seniors) to help people become U.S. citizens.

For community foundation leaders in particular, much of their careers in philanthropy, if they merit consideration for having performed distinguished service, have been conducted in the public arena, with more transparency than most of philanthropy. Take that as a hugely positive statement about philanthropy. With these leaders, philanthropy isn’t a back-room deal negotiated among elites with starched collars. Rather, it is a part of the public context that’s increasingly transparent in terms of the beliefs, good or bad, of the foundation directors. Whether it comes to debating whether to lift the charter school cap in Massachusetts, deciding if generating investment dollars for the Homewise rehab loan program in Santa Fe is a good idea and worthy of more widespread support, or bringing together the International Institute, Legal Aid, and On the Move to provide legal assistance for immigrants at CLS, many of this year’s nominees are engaged in philanthropy in the public arena, on the public’s radar screen. More should be following their lead.

Teutonico and her colleagues at the Council on Foundations made an explicit effort in this year’s awards to “to increase transparency and to engage Council members more” in the awards process, she said. The new steps in the awards process included the insertion of an opportunity for Council members to vote for nominees who had been listed as semi-finalists, as opposed to simply handing the nominees to Council task forces for vetting and decisions. Teutonico reported that 1,500 people from member foundations voted for the various nominees, though that does not mean that votes were registered from 1,500 foundations; in many cases, several people from member foundations might have voted. Allowing for the possibility of some campaigning, as people are wont to do, this nonetheless added more transparency to an awards process that in the past might have been perceived by some to be limited to the perspectives of an inner circle elite.

While acknowledging the impressive contributions of these individuals in their foundations, nominated and largely chosen by their peers within the Council of Foundations membership, some aspects of philanthropy didn’t make it into this awards cycle. Despite the primacy of many issues in the international arena, grantmakers supporting NGOs in their humanitarian work overseas didn’t seem to show up much in the list. The voting for the nominees started in April and ended in July, but the noteworthy work of some truly visionary grantmakers whose efforts galvanized President Obama to launch the My Brother’s Keeper initiative addressing the challenges facing young black men, which preceded the voting window, wasn’t particularly evident. In fact, only one of the Distinguished Service nominees and none of the Scrivner nominees appear to have been persons of color. In a year when the Council played a leadership role with the White House’s Joining Forces initiative to promote foundation grantmaking to assist the community reintegration and employment of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, none of the creative work of foundations working on veterans issues seemed to emerge in these awards.

Teutonico pointed out that this year’s approach to the awards, “engaging the membership and allowing its voices to be heard,” reflects the Council’s overall direction in favor of what she called a “networking approach,” which she characterized as, “Let’s make sure that the Council listens [and] partners, and that’s how we move forward.” The Distinguished Service and Creative Grantmaking awards are not perfect reflections of what may be happening in and around philanthropy, but they do shine a light onto the people who a diverse mix of grantmakers see as inspirational models for their own work. There is much in philanthropy that needs to be addressed and fixed to make foundation grantmaking more effective and significant in addressing community needs here and abroad.

Let’s hope that expanded participation by Council members leads to an equally diverse mix of award winners going forward. One hopes for a slate of nominees who call on philanthropy to increase its (distinguished) service to communities and to expand its (creative) grantmaking—and in line with this year’s awards, lift up concepts of transparency and engagement. That would be a fitting legacy for the Council’s honoring of inspirational grantmakers in the year of the centennial of the community foundation movement.

  • Eric Buch

    I certainly do not want to take anything away from this year’s Council on Foundations award recipients – as professionals in the foundation realm, they clearly have contributed a tremendous amount over many years to their organizations, to their fields, and, most importantly, to the communities and people they serve. Over the years, its been my good fortune to work with several extraordinarily talented and committed community foundation executives in both Maine and Massachusetts. That said, I am puzzled at why the author would be surprised that so many of the award nominees were affiliated with community foundations. To begin with, community foundations represent a substantial share of the Council’s membership. They also function as a large network, more so than other types of foundations, and their leaders naturally know and support one another. It only stands to reason that community foundation CEOs would be particularly active in nomininating candidates from their own ranks and later voting for their colleagues.