Reflections from the Fall Conference

As a young professional and a newcomer to the field of philanthropy, the sessions at the Council on Foundations Fall Conference in New Orleans earlier this month offered a lot in the way of introduction. Not only an introduction to new colleagues from all over the map, but also to variations of the story of the community foundation.

The role of the community foundation, it seems, it amorphous—adaptable to its environment and dictated by the social, economic, and geographic specificities of its locale. For example, the economic development session gave us a look at how these roles play out in different communities, both urban and rural, during the economic crisis we currently face. After assessing local needs, a small community foundation in Appalachian Ohio decided to fill a glaring gap in its region—the lack of a regional economic development or business council to support small business and entrepreneurship locally. This was a new area for the organization and one that is not often taken on by philanthropic institutions, so it represented a big risk on the part of the foundation.

Staff members fundraised from individual donors and worked with their legislators to leverage state funds being offered due to the recent statewide privatization of regional economic development. The foundation staffed the effort—jumping head first into an area everyone initially knew little about—and learned as it led. It was clear that the foundation’s leadership was the missing piece that had precluded the formation of this community asset to date.

This particular model may not have worked in many other places, and almost didn’t work in theirs. It was the convergence of public partnerships, private businesses, and philanthropists in their region that made this small foundation able to support such a large undertaking. The most important role that the foundation played was as a convener, pulling together the human and financial capital needed to bring this issue front and center.

As a result, small business leaders have the opportunity to connect through facilitated roundtable convening, and a small-business incubator was planned so entrepreneurs can access startup capital. It is still in the beginning phases, but this is just one of the many examples I heard about community foundations taking risks to respond to community needs and serving as a neutral third party to support collaboration.

Our models and our focus areas may be different, but this is one common thread that highlights the value of community foundations in improving the quality of life in our communities. What are some other examples of risk taking and responsiveness that attendees heard about at the conference?

Caitlin Walker is program assistant for grants at the Oregon Community Foundation.

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