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What's So Special About A Community Foundation?

When I think of community foundations I think of flexibility and impact--the chance to help transform a region.

What is a community foundation?

Simply put, these are organizations designed to pool donations into a coordinated investment in our communities. They are primarily focused on social improvement in a given geographic area. There are about 1700 existing in the world with about 700 right here in the United States.

Community foundations are very different than private family foundations which are supported/funded by one individual or family.

There is a Community Foundation National Standards Board that requires community foundations to maintain certain standards and focus on six key areas within their organization: mission, structure and governance; resource development; stewardship and accountability; grant making and community leadership; donor relations; and communications. If a foundation meets these standards they can display the National Standards Seal and many community foundations have done this.

The first community foundation was set up in Cleveland in 1914 and now operates as The Cleveland Foundation. Others soon followed including the California Community Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust, and The Pittsburgh Foundation. The largest community foundation in the United States is Silicon Valley Community Foundation with total assets over $6,500,000,000 and annual distributions of almost $1 billion. Comparisons show that community foundations tend to be larger than corporate foundation in both assets and grants given.

A community foundation attracts tax deductible donations to its funding base, which could be described as its perpetual corpus, to provide a permanent and growing source of funding. That funding is then designated by the Board of Trustees to particular initiatives within the community or it is restricted by the donors themselves and directed to particular programs of their own interest. Donors can contribute outright cash, trusts, bequests or real property. Again, a key factor is that these community foundations are organized to benefit a particular geographic area.

Flexibility of community foundations:

One of the distinctive and special factors of a community foundation is it's flexibility, offering many options--this is very different than in most private or corporate foundations. It expresses itself in so many ways:

  • Multiple sources/donors and levels of funding.

  • Multiple goals within the community to create sustainable resources.

  • Multiple staff members focused in areas like medicine, the arts, social justice issues.

  • Multiple strategies for distribution of grants.

  • Multiple grants throughout the community, highlighted in annual reports and websites and special presentations to promote understanding of the mission.

  • Multiple cultivation and stewardship strategies with donors.

  • Multiple board members reflecting the community makeup, bringing unique expertise to the issues confronting any foundation.

  • Multiple task forces for even broader community input.

  • Multiple professional advisors who can help in making an impact growing the funding base.

  • Multiple community partners who help to inform the board, the staff and advisors.

  • Multiple funding partners from other private foundations, from other community members, or the local and federal governments.

The impact of community foundations:

With these combinations of approaches foundation can be very responsive to new challenges or opportunities that present within the community.

  • Every community foundation would have responded in the face of the corona virus. Whether it was to provide bridge funding for organizations that could not continue to support themselves fully, or contribute to the community food bank, or provide a lifeline for vulnerable residents who are homeless or incarcerated, or support essential workers, or provide relief for small businesses, or advance education for children...the foundations had the infrastructure to help many in the community. And they did.

  • For communities hit with catastrophe--like the destructive fires in the west, hurricanes, storms and floods, earthquakes, the foundations would be there.

  • Combatting systemic racism through advocacy, programmatic support, school based programs...foundations must respond for the good of the communities.

  • As health care challenges arise, foundations are able to respond to those, whether the work is focused on premature birth and mortality/morbidity consequences, sickle cell anemia, BRCA screening, Alzheimer's, development of vaccines in the face of a pandemic, etc.

  • Support for the arts is a very important part of community foundations as is education, the environment, and human services of all types like immigration or combatting violence, etc.

  • Many other programs related to issues focused within certain geographic areas are all in the purview of these special foundations.

A few more points:

Community foundations are armed with knowledgeable, influential, thoughtful board members...skilled administrative professionals who work to advance the mission...and resource development staff members who can see the possibilities and craft strategies to help the team get there. These individuals can not only make an important impact and help philanthropy within the community grow and thrive...through their efforts, they can help our communities literally soar.

This also means that a community foundation can ease the administrative burden of establishing a family foundation within their structure--and these days, who wouldn't want to avail themselves of such an advantage? At the same time, the staff can help families and individuals create a genuine legacy for the future, growing the corpus of their own funding and targeting it to resolve issues of particular importance to them and to the foundation.

Community foundations have their eye on the bigger picture as well and use their influence very strategically. I have watched community foundations use their resources and their influence to lead other private and corporate foundations to make contributions that can change educational dynamics in various cities...I have watched community foundations provide challenge grants that when met and matched with private contributions created jobs and provided important economic benefits to the community...I have watched community foundations support groups of individuals who were then able to organize and help to support other groups of individuals with problems such as addiction.

Final words:

With such a constellation of strengths, every day in hundreds of ways the board, the administrative team, and the resource development staff are making a remarkable impact on people's lives and in the overall community. Every day they are ensuring a platform for success. This has to be a very reinforcing situation for all involved.

Community foundations are powerful resource centers...the staff members can lead with integrity and serve as genuine advocates for progress. As a result many people want to participate...and the work they do and the impact they have become a critical part of the very fabric of the community. Indeed, they create a sustainable advantage for the community, making it stronger, helping to shape the next vital regional transformation.


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