Breakout #4: Understanding your organization’s role as a leader in the community


Facilitator: Mariam NolandPresident, Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan Scribe: Carolyn Torgersen, Vice President, Marketing and Communications, Community Foundation of the Lowcountry

The session was started with the following question:

Why are community foundations still thriving after 100 years? 

Some answers include:

  • We share values across the field, but are truly diverse and can change over time.
  • We are competitive as a field but also have a tradition in field of sharing.
  • We are leadership organizations.

What do the next 100 hold?

The Second Century Project, which is currently underway, will include a seminar series for leaders of community foundations to: 1) examine and reflect deeply on the challenges facing the field; 2) document current responses to those challenges; 3) formulate recommendations for securing the health of community philanthropy for a new generation; and 4) contribute to a body of research relevant to community foundations, anchor institutions, and urbanization. It will result in the publication of a book and multimedia content timed for the 100th anniversary of the community foundation field in 2014. 

Four key components were highlighted as conversation starters:

1.     Asset size doesn’t always matter.

      SE Michigan took on a youth obesity initiative early in its history with very few   assets.  It recruited community partners in order to accomplish the work.

2.     Don’t always have to be highly visible.

            Community foundations can engage its trustees and donors to be the visible     parties. 

3.     Community foundations are not always neutral conveners, and that’s OK.

            A community foundation can’t be a leadership organization without having a     point of view.  Doesn’t mean the community foundation is not inclusive in its             work.

4.     Digital progressiveness is imperative to grow and prosper.

Group discussion on asset size

Commentary related to this topic is covered in the other sections.

Group discussion on foundation visibility

Community foundation board members and staff, and other groups represented varied opinions as to whether or not their organization needed to be highly visible in its community.

The discussion ranged from an organization seeking a high level of visibility in all that it does by utilizing board members, strong CEOs and playing a large role as a community convener to an organization that felt many times it was a fine line between promoting work and community involvement and selling the organization (seen to be direct competition with nonprofits.)

There was consensus that an organization doesn’t have to be visible on every task, but should have a permanent level of visibility to move difficult issues forward.  By being visible, there is an inherent level of risk, but the cost benefit makes it essential.

Tools that community foundations use to increase visibility:

  • Branding initiatives so they tie back to the community foundation.
  • Know what it will take to make progress in your community.  Be the hub for community data.  The Boston Community Indicators Project was cited as an example.
  • Engage board members in initiatives and have them report back to the full board.

Board engagement remained a topic of conversation and all agreed that having boardmembers’ involvement was critical to the success of their organization.  Suggestions for building engagement included:

  • Encouraging board members to attend the MLS as well as other conferences.
  • Bring in experts to speak to your board.
  • Be strategic about board makeup.  Make sure you have who you need to have in the room.
  • Share real-life work with board members.  Have them lead task forces, attend site visits and report back to fellow board members.

Group discussion on foundation convening

Many foundations are less inclined to take a position on an issue not yet vetted in the community.  The role of convener is essential to understanding what the issues are in a community.

The group’s focus shifted to the funding/support of projects that result from community feedback. 

Several suggestions were made:

  • Engaging donor advised fund holders in the community foundation’s work might lead to project funding.
  • Establishing program funds for specific issues.  Boston’s Civic Leadership Fund was cited as an example that draws support from donors of modest means.
  • Business incubators.  A loan guarantee fund at the Community Foundation of Ocala and Marion County was cited as an example.

Group conversation on digital progressiveness

Investment is critical to building an organization’s capacity to perform in the digital landscape.  For some organizations, this may mean hiring staff or consultants with a strong background in digital literacy.

Several participants discussed how their organization made large investments in website redesign to better engage donors and community members.

The discussion led to further commentary on engaging gen x and gen y.  How can we reach them?  What resonates with them?

Several community foundations have youth advisory committees that develop philanthropic inclination as well as teach the youth how to conduct site visits and manage a grantmaking portfolio.

Central Carolina Community Foundation has a website – that has been featured in a NY Times article recently.  The site also features a card game with

questions about giving.

Other resources: