Blog: Amplify

Small California Community Foundations Get Big Results

Over the past six years, I’ve had the privilege of working closely with a set of small, young community foundations in under-resourced parts of California as they aim to grow faster, smarter, and increase the positive impact they are having in their communities. With Irvine’s Community Foundations Initiative II (CFI II), I have learned one indelible lesson from these small but mighty organizations: take a deep breath and try it.

The “it” can be whatever you see that has the potential to change your organization and your community. Try new ways of engaging donors. Be bold and ask board members to give more. Bring people together to talk about thorny issues. Experiment with social media.

Through CFI II, we invested $12 million over six years in the growth and leadership of seven small California community foundations, with impressive results. Between 2005 and 2011, the group grew their collective assets 12 percent annually (going from $73 million to $131 million), compared to seven percent for their peers nationwide. At the same time, they increased their grantmaking, awarding $4 million more in grants each year for projects in their communities.

What are they doing that you can learn from? These impressive numbers signal that a greater transformation has happened at these community foundations. They have built incredibly engaged boards of directors. They have pioneered new ways of staffing their organizations and maximizing the impact in their communities with fewer resources. They are thinking creatively about community leadership – how to do it well and how to pay for it. They haven’t been afraid to change courses, to learn as they go, and to nimbly try out new policies, structures and strategies. In short, they have taken a deep breath and tried bold ideas.

Their lessons – and a host of tools and templates – are presented in three new papers for the Community Foundations Series, released today from the Irvine Foundation and also available through the Council on Foundations. Learning to Lead addresses how community foundations can lead meaningfully with limited resources. Sizing Up presents staffing principles and a range of models in use today. And On Board describes roles and techniques for helping directors strengthen their involvement.

Also, new to the series is a set of three brief videos featuring chief executives and board members of this group describing community leadership, staffing strategies and board engagement. A fourth video features Irvine President and CEO Jim Canales and myself describing the initiative itself. We hope that these papers and videos will help fuel dialogue and ideas at other community foundations, with funders and among those of us who are interested in the community foundation field.

The Council on Foundations and The James Irvine Foundation will co-host a series of free webinars that present each topic and include examples and additional insight from leaders of community foundations featured in each paper. The first of these is Learning to Lead, which is scheduled for May 2; Sizing Up will take place June 20, and On Board is scheduled for August 8. You can register at the Council on Foundation’s webinar page.

Please join us at a webinar, read the papers, and try these ideas in your own institution and community.

Anne Vally is senior program officer for special initiatives at The James Irvine Foundation. This article is also posted at The James Irvine Foundation’s blog, News & Insights.

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