Lifting Up Community Foundations to Elevate Communities

October 20, 2016

When I started working at Philanthropy Northwest last year, things like donor-advised funds, grant committees and financial advisors were a foreign language that I had to learn quickly while coordinating our Washington Community Foundations Convening. I'm still absorbing many intricacies that make community foundations special, but you don't need native fluency to see that they are, above all, leaders in our communities.

Some states, including Alaska and Montana, have one main community foundation serving as an umbrella for smaller funds throughout the state. In Washington, however, almost every county has its own community foundation. This allows each foundation to have a strongly place-based mission, focusing closely on its county's unique needs — but it also means each has to raise most of its funds from the community it serves, with a small staff and limited resources. Through Philanthropy Northwest's Washington Community Foundations Convening, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we connect all these foundations to discuss their challenges and opportunities.

This year's convening in Leavenworth, Washington brought together 60 leaders, staff and trustees from 27 organizations across our state, plus Idaho Community Foundation's new CEO, Karen Bilowith. For two days, we rolled up our sleeves and engaged in difficult conversations that resulted in breakthroughs, starting  with a million dollar question: How do community foundations work with their communities more effectively, so that the solutions are generated by the communities? 

Peter Pennekamp, Senior Fellow and Operations Manager, of Community Democracy Workshop, and Norma Schuiteman, CEO of Community Foundation of South Puget Sound (see photo) urged us all to think about the “why” when working with communities, challenging us to really think of our intentions when partnering with communities. We also learned about partnerships with community development financial institutions (CDFIs), reflective practices, capacity-building, legacy giving and storytelling.

Nancy Bacon of Washington Nonprofits and Erica Mills of Claxon Marketing lead a session on capacity-building at the 2016 WACF convening.

I'd like to extend a huge thank you to the Washington Community Foundation Advisory Committee: Alison Parker of Seattle Foundation, Beth Stipe of Community Foundation of North Central Washington, Hilary Canty of Orcas Island Community Foundation, Jennifer Rhoads of Community Foundation of Southwest Washington, Jim Hopper of Bainbridge Community Foundation, Maddy Metzger-Utt of Community Foundation of Snohomish County, Mauri Ingram of Whatcom Community Foundation and Norma Schuiteman of Community Foundation of South Puget Sound. Thank you for making magic!

I left inspired and charged with energy to continue to support our region's community foundations and find ways to lift up all the great work being done. As we move forward, let's work together to create spaces for fun experiences and difficult conversations to help elevate our communities.

Gloris Estrella is a program manager at Philanthropy Northwest. She can be reached at gestrella@philanthropynw.org. For more information, including resources and presentations, visit our 2016 Washington Community Foundation Convening event page.