For today’s post, we’ve asked two leaders to weigh in on topics of interest to young, growing community foundations. Their organizations—Kern Community Foundation and The Community Foundation of Mendocino County—participated in Community Foundations Initiative II, a multiyear initiative by The James Irvine Foundation to accelerate the growth and leadership of a group of emerging community foundations in rural parts of California.
Jeff Pickering: We are betting on a nontraditional staffing model
The Kern Community Foundation’s staffing model really starts with our vision to be a trusted philanthropic resource. With only 2.5 full-time equivalent staff, we’ve placed a big bet on our ability to be knowledgeable about the nonprofits in our community: We dedicated one full-time staff position—fully 40 percent of our staffing capacity—to our director of nonprofit outreach.
That position’s primary responsibility is to gather information about local nonprofits and put it online through a searchable database that features governance, finance, management, and program information. This community knowledge has substantially increased our credibility and also wowed the donors. My advice for other community foundations is to let go of assumptions about traditional staffing models and try something new, even if it’s risky.
Susanne Norgard: Slow and steady staff growth works for us
The Community Foundation of Mendocino County is a fiscally conservative organization, so we’re planning to expand our staff over time. For now, we have three full-time equivalent staff: My full-time executive director position, two part-time positions for office coordinator and director of grants and programs, and a part-time bookkeeper.
We manage the work by cross-training our staff. For example, our office manager can handle most other functions and is responsible for social media. Our director of grants and programs also supports our marketing efforts. And outsourcing for financial expertise has been great for us since we can’t afford an in-house CFO and contract for these services. We’re planning to stay the course until we have enough assets to justify the increased costs of more full-time staff.
Board involvement spells success—and requires continual learning
Jeff: One of our board members, Steve Sanders, talks about board engagement this way: “An engaged board is one that is always thinking about the community foundation, even when they’re not at board meetings. Through the course of their everyday business, they’re promoting the work of the foundation, they’re taking time to understand the issues, and they’re coming to meetings fully prepared.”
Susanne: To get to that point, they need to really understand and be inspired by the mission of the community foundation. We hope they can personally experience how the community foundation makes a difference for their neighbors, friends, and community. Our goal is for each person to find the thing or things that matter to them. Once that happens, they become engaged.
At every board meeting we have an opportunity to have at least one board member share how they talked about the community foundation with someone they know. In that way, they really model for each other the kind of engagement that we expect from them and that they expect from each other.
Jeff: We recognize board members as part of every board meeting, too. We identify specific members who have made connections between the foundation and prospective donors or professional advisers. Those connections ultimately generate growth in assets and more knowledge in the community about our foundation’s work. But it takes time for a board member to become fully engaged.
Susanne: I agree. I don’t think any board member walks into a community foundation fully understanding what we do and the impact we can make. I think it’s important to nurture that person to help them understand how they can contribute to our work and how really diversified our work is in the community. It takes a few years.
Jeff and Susanne: We’re interested in your thoughts. What is your biggest staffing challenge? Best practice or approach? How do you engage board members today? What keeps them from fully contributing to success? We invite your responses in the comments space below.
Jeff Pickering is president and CEO of Kern Community Foundation. Susanne Norgard is executive director of The Community Foundation of Mendocino County.
Staffing models and board engagement will be featured in upcoming learning events for community foundations. A June 20 webinar, “Sizing Up: Strategies for Staffing Emerging Community Foundations,” addresses how to staff at a small scale for big results. An August 8 webinar, “On Board: Engaging the Full Potential of Community Foundation Directors,” addresses how to fully engage board members to boost progress. You can register for both webinars at the Council on Foundations’ resources  page. In addition, Jeff and Susanne will help present an interactive workshop for emerging community foundations on September 9 as part of a preconference event at the Fall Conference for Community Foundations  in New Orleans; more info will be available soon.