Commentary: Lessons from a Decade at the Door County Community Foundation

In February I celebrated 10 years working for the Door County Community Foundation. While this is the longest I’ve ever been in one particular job, I’ll soon be celebrating 20 years working the field of community foundations, and a whole lot longer working and volunteering for charity in general. While I usually prefer to look forward rather than back, perhaps it’s inevitable that a milestone anniversary causes me to reflect on the years that have gone by.

Lately I’ve been wondering what I’ve learned during my career in philanthropy this far. If I could somehow go back in time and talk with my younger self, what is it that I’d like him to know as he begins a lifetime working for community foundations?

First, I’d point out to my younger self that our endowments allow a community foundation to take the long view in a world with a short attention span.

An endowment is a fund that invests its principal in perpetuity so that it will forever generate an income stream to support charitable work. A primary goal of every community foundation in the country is to create and grow endowment funds. Because an endowment is designed to last forever, that gives a community foundation the ability to work on a longer time horizon than any other kind of charity.

At the Door County Community Foundation, we can and should attend to the current issues of the day, but our endowments call us to think not just in terms of the next five years, but the next 50. For instance, our COIN micro-loan program has made modest investments in multiple small businesses with the idea that in time a few might expand and provide more year-round jobs. Our initiative Discuss Door County brought the community together to talk about the challenges and opportunities we will face in the coming years because of our rapidly aging community. Our Women’s Fund is about to announce a major investment in women’s education that will one day improve the lives of countless women and girls in Door County. And in May we’ll be kicking off Celebrate Water, a yearlong series of activities to remind us of all that water means to Door County, the threats facing our water, and inspiring us to take action now so that we never find ourselves in a crisis situation.

The Door County Community Foundation needs to be patient and strategic enough to plant the seed of an idea today that might not bloom for a decade or more. We need to identify and invest in addressing the seemingly small challenge now so it doesn’t become a full-blown crisis 20 years from now.

Second, I’d explain to my younger self that as a community foundation grows larger, it should become bolder as well.

By its very design, a community foundation is meant to accumulate assets. The most obvious and easily measurable asset is financial – the money that has been generously donated to us. Less apparent, but equally valuable, are the vibrant relationships that a community foundation builds with individuals and institutions in its community. By doing its job well, a community foundation also earns perhaps its most valuable asset of all, a reputation for being worthy of the community’s trust. These collective assets give a community foundation a unique ability to enter spaces in civic life that other organizations dare not go.

At the Door County Community Foundation, our family of charitable funds have been the beneficiary of a remarkable level of generosity from the people of Door County – nearly $26 million in the last 10 years alone. That financial strength allows us to take calculated risks that other organizations simply cannot afford to take.

We’ve also worked hard to earn the reputation as an “interested third-party” when bringing groups together to work to improve Door County. We’re not “DIS-interested” because we are very interested in the outcome, but we are a “third-party” in that our funding is not dependent on that outcome. That gives us a freedom to search for the best solution to a problem without having to worry about how it impacts our bottom line.

Our Board of Directors and professional staff have spent an inordinate amount of time focused on ensuring that the Door County Community Foundation is a strong institution in every way. We do this not to selfishly protect that which we now have, but for precisely the opposite reason. Our organization’s internal strength gives it the ability to look outward and serve Door County in an increasingly bold and entrepreneurial way.

Third, I’d make sure my younger self knows that no one does anything worthwhile alone. People make all the difference in the world.

When I started working at the Door County Community Foundation, I was the first full-time employee taking over the reins from the retiring Jane Stevenson. That was 10 years ago, yet the community foundation still receives gifts from people who were first introduced to us by Jane. Dave Swender was our first part-time administrative assistant, initially as a volunteer, then as an employee. In the years since our professional staff has been joined by Christine Henkel, Kacie Mueller and Julie Haen, each of whom still plays a key and essential role in our work every day.

In the last decade, Dick Egan was the longest serving board chair, followed by John Herlache, Dave Eliot and Polly Alberts. They were joined by two dozen other talented people on the Board during their respective tenures. There are also hundreds more good people who have served on various advisory boards, committees, and task forces of the many component funds and initiatives that operate under our corporate umbrella.

Of course, all of this is possible because more than 10,000 people and businesses have generously donated to the Community Foundation during the last 10 years. Altogether, because of the hard work, generosity, and commitment of these giving souls, the Door County Community Foundation has been able to distribute $15.3 million in grants, scholarships, and other charitable projects in Door County. These good people working together are indeed making all the difference in our little world.

Bret Bicoy is president & CEO of the Door County Community Foundation. Contact him at [email protected].

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