Giving for a greater good
NNY Community Foundation plans Philanthropy Center, expanded mission
For nearly 87 years, the Northern New York Community Foundation has worked to strengthen communities across Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties by investing in efforts to improve the quality of life for all who live, work and play in the north country. Next year, the community foundation will move its offices to a historically renovated building that formerly housed the Black River Valley Club in the heart of downtown Watertown. The move will also open the doors to the Northern New York Philanthropy Center, a new endeavor for the community foundation that aims to put philanthropy within reach of everyday people. This month, we sit down with Rande S. Richardson, executive director of the community foundation since 2009, to learn more about the foundation’s mission and how it continues to serve north country residents.
NNYB: The foundation celebrated its 85th year in 2015. It’s not much younger than the first in the nation. What defines its mission?
RICHARDSON: Our community’s foundation was established in 1929, just 15 years after the first in Cleveland, Ohio. We were one of a few dozen, and now there are more than 700 across the country. North country residents were visionaries. They had great hope that the community foundation movement would have a tremendously powerful impact on the region and increase the impact of giving in a smart way. Our primary mission is fundamentally simple, working with donors to improve the quality of life for residents of Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties. Great communities don’t just happen. Some of the best things in our communities are made possible because residents have deep love for their community. Now, more than ever, we’ve been spending more time, thought and resources ensuring we continue to remain vibrant, energized and relevant. Without keeping our focus on that, we won’t be able to fully realize our potential, and we may miss the opportunity to engage more people in community philanthropy. I think all of us who have been in this role realize we are just temporary stewards of the community’s charitable endowment. I have great respect for the past leadership, board and staff who have brought us to today. The best way we honor that is to strive to do all we can to build upon that tradition during the time we are here.
NNYB: How healthy is philanthropy in the region?
RICHARDSON: There is a lot of speculation about the future of philanthropy everywhere. Although I have great reverence for the way we got here, I have a sense that it is not necessarily going to be what propels us forward in the future. I feel very fortunate to see on a nearly daily basis the willingness of local residents to be generous when they find value in their giving. It will continue to be important for charitable organizations to be attentive to the needs of their donors. One-size-fits-all philanthropy is less and less likely. The ability to tailor, customize and design philanthropy is something community foundations are uniquely positioned to do. We get to ask: ‘What do you want? How do you want to be remembered? What things matter most to you?’ The number of funds we administer has doubled over the past eight years. I think that demonstrates a positive trend, but we always must be mindful of being donor-centric and providing opportunities to introduce the joy of giving in unique ways across the generations. If we do this, our communities benefit in the end. We all benefit. Wherever you choose to spend your life, you never want to think it is ‘good enough.’ Mediocre is not a word we want to use in the same sentence as where we live, work, play, and raise our families.
NNYB: Some people perceive philanthropy as an action that’s not within their reach or an act that requires large-dollar donations. How have you managed to change this perception?
RICHARDSON: This has been a No. 1 priority. Community foundations were created to address this very misconception and return philanthropy to all. The fact is, if you look at our growth over the past few years, it has reflected a trend of more modest gifts from more donors rather than large gifts from a few. I think this trend will continue, and I embrace it. To me, being able to participate in helping others and your community is a vital component of a fulfilling life. We have concentrated not only on a message of inclusion and openness, but then also provided additional meaningful ways for participatory giving. We need to make sure that every donor feels that philanthropy doesn’t necessarily require great wealth, only the desire for a better community. Then, it is incredibly important to properly thank, appreciate and demonstrate the difference their gift made. Those who give us a try quickly see that today’s community foundation values the giving, not the amount, and sees every gift as a way to inspire others to do the same.
NNYB: In the past couple years the foundation has recruited a younger generation of civic-minded youths through its Youth Philanthropy Council. What was the driving force behind that program?
RICHARDSON: One of our top responsibilities is to encourage, inspire and nurture all forms of civic pride. This takes a conscious and deliberate effort to create natural settings where young people can become aware of their community. One of things I am most proud of is all the ways the Youth Philanthropy Council has planted the seeds for the future. Council members frequently mention it as one of the most transformative of their high school experiences. There are plenty of opportunities to portray the next generation in a negative way. I can tell you, though, that to witness the council in action, you would quickly have your faith renewed in our future. We all must do everything we can to make sure the torch gets passed the best way possible. It is not something we can just wish for or hope it will be transferred by osmosis. The best way we honor those who have gotten us here is to make sure there is a way for it to be perpetuated in a thoughtful, meaningful, deliberate way.
NNYB: Briefly share with us the vision for the former Black River Valley Club building.
RICHARDSON: With the growth of the foundation, there was a unique opportunity to move from a primarily transactional grant maker to a transformational civic leader and community institution. There are so many more things we can, and should be doing that go beyond grant making. Being simply an ATM is of no interest to me. While grants and scholarships will always be a core part of what we do, it has become increasingly apparent that we have a much broader role to play. We have been inspired by other community foundations that have made the shift to diversify the ways they serve donors, the community and nonprofit organizations. Like the foundation itself, the center will belong to the community. While it will accommodate our growth and provide us with a permanent home, it must be more than a building. As a tool, it will enable greater opportunities for collaboration and bringing people together to forge new partnerships and strengthen existing ones, to make connections and build alliances between the public, philanthropy, the private and business sector and government. We are particularly excited about the opportunity to unite some nonprofit organizations under one roof.
NNYB: When were the seeds for this project planted and how did it develop?
RICHARDSON: We have been thinking for some time about our next chapter. Recent growth accelerated that conversation. We are tremendously limited in expanding our programmatic work in our present office suite. A well thought out, mission-based move was at the heart of driving the decision-making. In the fall of 2014, we recognized alignment of many things, including the opportunity to preserve and enhance an important historic building and be part of Watertown’s ongoing downtown revitalization efforts. The third floor made it even more attractive, knowing it would help diversify the way we support nonprofits. Our primary inspiration was the Central New York Philanthropy Center, which made a nearly identical move four years ago. It transformed from a hidden-away organization to a visible community institution. After over a year of looking at all the various options, there was an amazing confluence of events and stars aligning that led us to embrace the opportunity at 131 Washington St.
NNYB: What will the Philanthropy Center focus on?
RICHARDSON: In addition to providing a shared services floor for four to five nonprofits, there will be enhanced opportunities to create a community space and natural setting to learn, share knowledge, find common ground and identify and address key community issues. We are excited to welcome the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired of Jefferson County as our first tenant. We envision working together with other groups to present educational seminars, speaker series, board development and training. It will also allow us to continue to expand upon our own programs such as Youth Philanthropy and Next Generation Leadership. We also feel strongly that we establish a permanent, active, visible, inspirational hub for charitable activities.
NNYB: How much support does the foundation provide to nonprofits in the region?
RICHARDSON: The foundation distributes between $1.5 million and $2.5 million each year in grants and scholarships throughout the tri-county area, depending upon funding cycles. The flexibility of the foundation allows us to invest not only in basic human needs, but in overall quality of life, including culture and the arts. Recently, we’ve also spent a lot of effort working with nonprofits to bolster their efforts for long-term sustainability. Presently, more than 50 nonprofits, churches and schools have established endowment funds with the foundation. In addition to helping provide a stable and diversified revenue stream, the partnership opens the door to donors to support their favorite charitable causes through the foundation. It is also a way for donors to have an additional layer of stewardship over the long term, and protection against future changes in the organization they support.
NNYB: What’s the No. 1 threat you face as a nonprofit whose mission depends on the generosity of others?
RICHARDSON: Giving has been a great American tradition, and the north country has long been known for its willingness to respond similarly. We believe there will always be a desire to give back, but it will likely require more attention and nurturing. Our biggest threat is real or perceived lack of relevancy. We must be vigilant in demonstrating value and remain donor-centric. Flexibility and adaptability is critical and that is a founding principle of community foundations. We must remain nimble and agile and continue to make ourselves more known.
NNYB: And your greatest opportunity?
RICHARDSON: That is the most exciting part. After seven years, we can see how during each phase of its evolution, the foundation has remained true to its core values, but has been willing to adapt when necessary. We are very much enjoying finding new and innovate ways to make giving a more engaging and fulfilling experience. We are reminded every day that many people still do not realize what an amazing asset a community foundation is in a region. There are many things that philanthropy can accomplish that government can’t, won’t or shouldn’t provide and that the private sector hasn’t found a way to make profitable. We’re just beginning to scratch the surface on a fuller understanding of the many ways we can work together with a variety of stakeholders for a better future. We need to continue to reach out to a whole new group of donors and be more inclusive. We need embrace what a community foundation is all about, by looking at what is going to make a difference in the quality of life in a more connected way.
NNYB: How do you decide which projects to fund?
RICHARDSON: People often say ‘it must be nice to give away money.’ Well, it can be rewarding, but the process can be agonizing. I think everyone at the foundation is very aware that we have 87 years of donors standing on our shoulders, trusting that we’ll do the right thing. It is sometimes hard to fully discern, but a lot of staff time is spent learning all we can about an organization, a project or an initiative. We also look for creative opportunities to partner with other funders and to make grants that leverage additional donor support or better position an organization for success. After a thorough review by staff, proposals go through a committee review before it reaches the full board. I am proud that our committees have expanded to include non-board members who bring a helpful and healthy perspective. It has been a good way not only to engage more of the community in grant making, but also to benefit from wider perspectives and diverse backgrounds and expertise. In the end, we look to do the right thing, even if it involves a calculated risk. Good instincts and experience helps guide effective grant making. Ultimately, we put a lot of trust in the organizations we fund, and hold them accountable to do what they said they would do with the grant.
NNYB: In recent years the foundation has brought together civic and philanthropic-minded people in specific communities to launch endeavors such as the Sixtown Community Fund, Clifton-Fine Community Fund and the River Fund. Why does the foundation forge such relationships and partnerships?
RICHARDSON: Every organization likes the unrestricted gift. I’m just not confident that there will be a collective desire on the part of donors to give without parameters. One way we’ve tried to be attentive to this is to give donors the option to give where they live. Geographic-specific funds seem to resonate well. I use the term ‘broadly specific.’ It provides direction by locality, but has long-term flexibility to fund things that haven’t yet been anticipated. A donor looking to make a difference not knowing what their community will need in the future now have a unique tool on a hyper-local level. I think we will see this trend continue. It is like a community foundation within a community foundation, and provides greater local input and engagement.
NNYB: When you hear about people leaving a lasting legacy, what does that mean?
RICHARDSON: Anyone who knows me will attest that I feel so strongly that individuals who have made a difference during their lifetime should have the ability to have that continue when they are no longer able to do so personally. Each of us can recall someone who has positively affected our lives. Perhaps it was a teacher, a family member or a friend. I think everyone deserves the opportunity to be remembered in ways that were consistent with the way they lived. When we have the opportunity to meet with potential donors, we always spend time listening and learning about what led them to consider a gift, making sure we know their story. It is amazing to think that our first bequest in 1932 is still working today. That is powerful. The cumulative effect of donors seeing value in their community foundation has touched nearly every corner of our community and legacies form connections with the north country’s future.
NNYB: Is philanthropy within reach for more people than those who actually give? Is any gift too small?
RICHARDSON: Many of the best things happen because of the collective will of the people to make them so, not by mandate or taxation, but by choice. That is what makes philanthropy so unique. Some have grown up with a culture of giving or have adopted giving as an important part of their lives. Others would give if presented in the right way. Some will never experience the joy of giving. We spend a lot of time on the first two. I suppose there isn’t any one thing that nurtures giving best, but we do know that the best giving results in great joy for the donor and the recipient. If the balance gets out of alignment, it can fall apart. It is the act of giving not the gift itself. I am a big proponent of participatory philanthropy. It has always been more important for me to have as many people as possible have ownership in the result. When the Gov. Flower Monument Committee raised money in 2003, we had gifts ranging from $1 to $30,000. We were insistent that every opportunity be given for participation. When the project was completed, it mattered most to me that every donor could say they helped make it happen.
NNYB: How do you create a sense of value for those who give and those who may consider giving?
RICHARDSON: Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. While it is important to show people what you did with their gift, I am very serious about showing appreciation. It is non-negotiable. Every donor must feel valued and truly recognize that we know them as human beings, not as dollar signs. Valued relationships are not transactional. This continues even after the donor is no longer here. I feel a tremendous obligation, responsibility and honor to be able to speak for donors when they cannot speak for themselves. That is the sanctity and stewardship of community foundations and binds us to all the ways donors change their communities and the world.
NNYB: What has best prepared you for this job?
RICHARDSON: Doing grassroots fundraising and volunteering with various nonprofit organizations and boards provided great empathy and insight. I think above all of that, though, 15 years working with families after a loss gave me perspective and conditioned me in ways no other experience could. It also gave me an underlying sense of urgency, knowing how fragile and short life can be. In many ways, I feel I spent the first part of my career preparing for such a wonderful opportunity to have a front row seat to witness the best in the human spirit. I think it is incredibly valuable, too, having grown up here. The north country is in my DNA, and I have intense love of the region’s history and heritage. To do this effectively you have to love the area to your core and feel a deep personal connection to the way it has shaped your own life.
NNYB: We all get a lot of advice in our lives and our careers, but we don’t always follow it. What’s the best advice you’ve ever followed?
RICHARDSON: I would say there’s probably two main pieces of advice that really have driven a lot of the decisions I’ve made. One was instilled in me very early by various people who have mentored me to really trust your instincts. In the work I do here a lot of it is experience and knowledge, but in the end, ultimately, it’s having an instinctual sense of doing the right thing. That’s sort of been one of my guiding philosophical principals throughout my career. The other thing is being secure enough in your own abilities to surround yourself with people who may be better than you in certain functions of what they do. I’m a big proponent of building a team. Certainly we all share the core values in the culture of the organization. I think it’s really important to be willing to take advantage of the best abilities and strengths and talents of those with whom you work.
NNYB: How do you prioritize the work you want to do to leave your organization in a better place than when you arrived?
RICHARDSON: I feel tremendous responsibility to make sure that all the work that has been done up to this point has relevancy into the future. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we continue to keep this organization relevant and meaningful and of value to the community. If I’m not doing that, then all the rest doesn’t matter. We spend a lot of time making sure we’re not looking in the rearview mirror a decade from now and wondering what happened. So, as far as prioritizing, every organizational decision we make goes back to how can we continue to make sure we’re evolving, growing and providing value to all of our stakeholders.
NNYB: You work with people every day, helping them to leave positive legacies for their community. Have you ever thought about what your legacy might be?
RICHARDSON: I do think about it. It’s a good exercise because you can get caught up in the work function of what we do. When you think of it by yourself and you personalize it, that’s what really makes it real. When I think about legacy I immediately think about what were the things in my life that were transformational? What were the things in my life that positioned me to do what I’m doing today? I also think about not just personal legacy, but what’s my legacy to the organization I serve. Every director thinks about that in terms of ‘this is the period of time I’m being entrusted with this organization’s future.’ A lot of what we’re doing now has been geared toward what I view as long-term objectives as far as legacy, and that is for the community foundation to still be as relevant and meaningful as it was in 1929 on the day I walk away from it.
NNYB: What is the missing link in our communities that you feel the foundation could help see to fruition?
RICHARDSON: There are a lot of good things that go on in our communities. One of the things that we’ve learned over the past few years is that we could do a better job actually knowing what each other is doing. The foundation’s role is as a convener and a place to bring together people to help solve community issues. That’s something we’re going to continue to explore more fully and it allows us to also be a bit more proactive and strategic in our grant making. We’ve traditionally been more of a reactive grant maker. I’d like to see us move down the path to being more proactive. To do that you need to bring together people and you need to listen to the people who are doing that work each day.
The Rande S. Richardson file
Job: Executive director, Northern New York Community Foundation
Family: Sons, Evan, 12 and Braeden, 7
Education: Watertown High School,
Jefferson Community College, SUNY Canton, Columbia College
Professional: Executive director, Jefferson Community College Foundation, 2005-2009,
and licensed funeral director, Reed & Benoit Funeral Home, 1992-2005.
Last book read: “The Inspiring Leader,”
by John H. Zenger & Joseph R. Folkman and
“We Make a Life by What We Give,” by
Richard B. Gunderman
— Interview by Ken Eysaman. Edited for length and clarity to fit this space.