Trust and Leadership

Someone recently asked me this question:

“I’m new to the area, and I have an MBA. I’d like to help things change for the better, but I don’t want to spend time volunteering to stuff envelopes or walking dogs. I want to be a leader.”

I get it. Time is limited, and talented people with specific skill sets bring a lot to the table for struggling non-profits in need of strategic planning, finance, fund development, or marketing assistance. Why would we want to “waste” hours that could be spent tackling thorny management issues?

On the other hand, do you want someone to jump in and start offering you advice if they don’t know you at all? Imagine receiving parenting tips from someone that doesn’t know how old your children are or medical advice from a professional related to a disease you don’t have.

The “getting to know you” phase with a doctor, therapist, or any other kind of service is important. My plumber needs to know how old my house is. I have to explain the boundaries of my property to someone mowing my lawn. My stylist needs to know I look terrible with bangs.

Somewhere along the line, we move on from small talk to the heart of the matter. Once we feel comfortable with a provider, we seek out their advice. But not until we trust them.

The same is true for mission-driven organizations. They want lots of help with their website. They see their rusty old value statement staring at them like a relic from the ‘80s too. They are keenly aware that the traffic flow through their office/food pantry/day care center is cumbersome.

But they want help from trusted friends. They want board members and committee chairs that understand their brand, share their vision, and have spent some time navigating those cluttered hallways. They want to commiserate and laugh with you, rather than feeling scolded or put down.


So, here is my answer to that great question:

It’s okay to deal with some paper cuts or muddy dog prints on your pants. Find a cause that speaks to you, so the volunteer hours feel exciting and effortless. Get to know the people serving and served by the organization. Take your volunteer assignment seriously, which means being on-time and just as engaged with the task as you would be at work. I promise it will not take long for them to recognize your abilities and ask you to get involved in more strategic roles. But there are no shortcuts to leadership. Trust takes time.

Ice Cream!

Throughout 2017, we are celebrating our 45th anniversary here at the Community Foundation. If you are a frequent visitor to this blog, you’ve probably read some of the contributions from local non-profit leaders describing the relationship between their organization and the foundation, or if you follow us on social media you may be aware of our recent 45 Grants in 45 Hours experience.

As we planned the year, which will include a documentary premiere at the Clemens Center in September and a gala dinner on November 14 at the Corning Museum of Glass, we felt confident that our supporters, volunteers, board members, and other collaborators would have several opportunities to participate in the year-long celebration.

But what about the people who will be running the Community Foundation when it celebrates its 90th, 95th, and eventual 100th anniversary?

Realizing that everything we do is intended to make lives better for generations to come, we thought about the best way to celebrate the power of philanthropy with today’s children. It only took a few seconds to decide the answer was FREE ICE CREAM!

That’s why we visited Katy Leary Park last week with an ice cream truck for a full hour of sweet treat philanthropy. As kids lined up, they were stunned to learn that for an entire hour everything they wanted from the truck was free. No strings attached. No limits. Just ice cream and sunshine with the Community Foundation philanthro-crew.

This was a demonstration of cultural philanthropy in action. It isn’t enough just to be alive; as philanthropists we are always looking for ways to create moments of unbridled joy. Swing sets in parks, hiking trails along rivers, and murals on buildings are important signs of a community that is thriving, not simply surviving.

So where does an hour of free ice cream fit into the big picture? After all, it was only one hour. But for one of the kids in the park, this could be the most exciting thing that happens all summer. This could be the story they tell on the first day of school to their new teacher. If they are bullied a year from now and feel like no one cares about them, they might remember the time they had ice cream and someone took their picture as a “sweet treat selfie.” If nothing else, for an entire hour we reminded all of these kids that they matter.

45 years from now, one of those tiny ice cream lovers may be sitting in the office I occupy today telling someone the story of the first time they met the Community Foundation. It was a hot day and an ice cream truck rolled into Katy Leary Park back in 2017.

Take Care of Each Other

If you base your understanding of high school on American movies made in the 1980s, chances are you consider the bathrooms a scary place with bullies lurking in every stall just waiting to antagonize and embarrass smaller, less popular classmates.

Thanks to the students at Horseheads High School, we know those days are long gone in the building a few blocks away from our office. Recently, one thoughtful girl left a sticky note with some kinds words on a bathroom mirror. Soon other Raiders followed, and before long, the mirrors were covered in colorful, life-affirming, spur-of-the-moment collages.

When the news reached our office, we couldn't help but feel the love coming from these students. Philanthropy doesn't stop at writing a check or dropping off food at a pantry. With the root words literally translating to "loving people," philanthropy fills every space around us to offer help, guidance, encouragement, or anything needed to improve someone's life.

On a given day, someone might need bright notes offering anonymous friendship in a high school bathroom to get through an especially hard time. This kind of philanthropy can reach beyond the scope of even the highest-quality grant-funded anti-bullying program.

One staff member in our office was particularly touched by this group act of kindness. Penny Lane, Chief Philanthro-Paw Officer, sprang to action and asked Katie McConville, our youth philanthropy and scholarship manager, to send some special treats (fortunately not mice or catnip) over to Horseheads High School. On Friday, May 26, every student will receive a little something special in the cafeteria with their lunch.

Horseheads Blue Raiders... we are proud of you. Thanks for taking care of each other. It is great practice for the day when you are in charge of taking care of all of us.

Can philanthropy solve one of its biggest problems with...philanthropy?

The US is in a bit of an employment conundrum that continues to be a drag on GDP growth and, by extension, investment returns. Statistically, we are at the point economists call “full employment” and in numerous job markets (including the one right here in the Southern Tier), employers have unfiled openings due to a lack of qualified applicants.

Meanwhile, we all know people that are un/under-employed. Seriously, what is the deal? We hear about all these jobs, yet we see poverty rates stay stubbornly flat (or worse, increase) over time.

Researchers at Goldman Sachs[1] have suggested that the drag on our labor force can be attributed to three dimensions unique to the United States: higher rates of painkiller/opioid abuse and the corresponding middle-aged mortality rate, the Unites States’ high rate of incarceration compared to other countries and the employability-challenges that creates for former inmates, and sluggish retraining systems for people left without the necessary skills for new work when their job goes away due to globalization or automation.

Philanthropy typically talks about these problems as they relate to our grantmaking. We nibble around the edges with grants aimed at tackling these issues on a community-level. We might fund a new roof at a drug treatment facility or half-way house for people leaving prison. When a community college asks for equipment to improve instruction in a nursing program, we are happy to help.

But do we ever really address the massive issues propping up the clearly broken systems? No, we don’t. We admit that.

But what would happen if we really, truly solved these problems? What if a bunch of foundations and other philanthropists focused our energy for a decade or so on the disconnect between skills required by job-creators and the skills missing from job-seekers? What if we eradicated the school-to-prison pipeline and put an end to opioid addiction and gave our community colleges the resources they need to train people in advanced manufacturing and other 21st (or even 22nd!) century jobs?

It is highly likely that these actions would nudge those GDP growth figures up above 3% - maybe all the way into the 4% or 4.5% range. And guess what would grow along with the economy? Our endowments.

With those enhanced returns, we would have more money available to grant. By solving a few key social problems, we would end up creating a climate that would produce the investment returns we need to support all the other essential programs in the arts, environment, education, health care we care about… you name it, we could fund it.

Farewell social problems. Hello economic growth.

[1] If you would like to receive a PDF of the original study, “The Decline of US Participation Rate in Global Perspective” please send me an email at

Sometimes, we can do it all.

Lately a lot of chatter on social media has focused on distraction. (Which is pretty ironic considering how distracting social media is to most of us!)

People are saying don't pay attention to that issue, the real problem is over here. Or, while people were busy reacting to that news, this much more important thing happened. For years, we have grown accustomed to the concept that social capital is a finite resource, so if too much is spent in one area, there will not be enough left over for other needs.

What if this way of thinking is just... wrong? 

Sure, there is no unlimited supply of money in the world. Like the really big bag of holiday M&Ms, eventually we can reach the bottom of the treasury.

But it takes more to solve problems than money. It takes ideas. It takes conversations. It takes a bunch of different people considering the problem from every possible point of view. (And, when I'm deep in problem-solving mode, it takes M&Ms.)

Those resources are far more abundant, and with new faces joining the dialogue either on-line or in real-life spaces, our social capital reserves grow deeper by the minute.

What will sap those resources faster than we can replenish them, though, is a constant state of scolding. When someone is new to the community-building world, we risk losing them forever if the first message they hear is "your thing isn't the Really Important Thing, but you can sit over there and wait for us to tell you what matters." 

First of all, what if we never knew about "their thing" because the folks most impacted never had a chance to get involved? What if "their thing" really IS the Really Important Thing? We have to be aware of our blind spots and fallibility, even after years at the table.

What's more likely, though, is that there is never going to be one Really Important Thing. Do you want to live in a society with a working economy, safe neighborhoods, high quality schools, clean water, and robust arts offerings filled with healthy, loved citizens leading dignified lives from cradle to grave? Then get to work on your Really Important Thing and support (in every way you reasonably can) the people around you working on theirs.

(Don't forget to bring the M&Ms. To me. Please.)




Welcome, 2017! We are so happy to see you.

The staff and volunteers of the Community Foundation tend to be a pretty good-natured, optimistic group. It seems like that kind of person is naturally drawn to our line of work.

But every five years, we really turn up the volume as we celebrate an anniversary, so get ready for some all-caps.


For anyone who has been following us on social media since 2012, you may recall our 40 Grants in 40 Weeks surprise grantmaking program. That was when Sara Palmer and I (along with help from the board of directors and community) surprised a different grant recipient weekly with a $1,000 award. Each unexpected grant award moment was caught on video and shared with all of you via social media and through a partnership with WETM-TV.

(Here is a link to all those videos in case you missed them the first time around, or if you just want to remember Sara’s changing hairstyles or my embarrassing jazz hands.)

For fans of 40 Grants in 2012, we promise that 2017 WILL NOT DISAPPOINT.

We have some brand-new 45th anniversary tricks up our sleeves. If you don’t follow us on Facebook or Instagram yet, this is a great time to make that happen. Keep an eye on our blog, too!

Lastly, flip ahead to NOVEMBER 14 and write 45th ANNIVERSARY GALA on your new Community Foundation calendar.* Our year-long celebration will culminate with a dinner event at the Corning Museum of Glass honoring trend-setting local donors, a very special non-profit partner, and four-and-a-half-decades of forward-looking, community-building, quality-of-life-enhancing philanthropy. You will want to be there.

I’m going to sign off now, before I give away any of our big plans months ahead of schedule. All that is left to say (for now) is 45 IS THE NEW 40!

*You may have read this and wondered, “What calendar?” Our annual report/calendar is mailed to donors who gave $50 or more, non-profit organizations in our four-county area, and professional financial advisors. If you would like one, please send a quick email to Katie  with your mailing address, and we will send one to you right away. It is a beautiful piece featuring local poets and photography. Plus, it is free!

National Philanthropy Day

Something is celebrated officially each day. For instance, if you are a Parks and Recreation fan, you might want to join Ben Wyatt in spirit for National Calzone Day every November 1, or to skip the shower and take a soak instead on National Bathtub Party Day on December 5.


But around the Community Foundation, we look forward to November 15 - National Philanthropy Day - the most. The timing, right between Halloween (AKA candy-philanthropy-night) and Thanksgiving, a day dedicated to gratitude, is perfect. Before the hustle of December hits, and after everyone has settled into the school year routine. It isn't even that cold yet in the Finger Lakes.

Ever since President Ronald Reagan* proclaimed November 15th to be a day dedicated to celebrating giving, volunteering, and other charitable engagement, communities across the globe have paused to reflect on all the good works they accomplish together.

As professional philanthropists, we plan to make our celebration more personal this year. Sara wrote letters to share with people she loves, Katie crafted some surprises for people doing great things, and I am donating stuffed animals to the Sexual Assault Resource Center for their comfort kits.

Please join us in celebrating in your own way this year too! Food pantries are looking for help with holiday baskets. Your favorite museum would love for you to give the gift of membership or visit their shop to find the perfect present. And nothing makes the loving staff at cancer treatment centers or domestic violence shelters smile quite like a quick note and a check - no matter what the amount - telling them you care about their work.

Afterward, please take a moment to tell us about what you did! Comment on this post, tag us on Facebook, or reach out to Penny Lane, Philanthro-cat, on Instagram or at

It would be an honor to share your National Philanthropy Day story! Keep an eye out for lots of Community Foundation posts from November 15 through December 31. We love watching all of you care for each other and our community... every day of the year.

*I can't wait to tell my favorite aunt, a staunch Republican with a heart of gold, that her beloved President Reagan started this whole thing. That will be my ultimate act of kindness for the day!

Can a Community Foundation be too generous?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself lately. Interestingly, generous isn’t a word you hear often in conversations about philanthropy. Measurable? Sure. Return on investment? Yep. But we shy away from the concept of generosity.

After 14 years in the field, I think I understand why. We want to ensure our donors and the community see our commitment to only funding the most efficient, well researched, and most importantly, effective programs. Our focus on metrics and accountability is crucial to the profession and quality grantmaking.

But once that has been established, why not acknowledge the fact that philanthropy is fundamentally generosity in action?

If plans, proposals, ideas, models, case studies, and data are philanthropy’s oxygen, then generosity is its carbon dioxide. We take all of that critical analysis and synthesize it into an exact dollar amount and funding strategy. What happens next – the grant, scholarship, or donation – is an expression of trust in and respect for the recipient of the funding. That’s a pretty generous thing to do.

As a community foundation, we provide a place for generous people to make arrangements to continue giving money away forever. Every year, we set up more funds and see more people come through our doors with great ideas and plans.

So, no, I don’t believe thoughtful philanthropists can be too generous. As long as we continue to be deliberate as we breathe in, we should be grateful we’ve been gifted with the opportunity to be part of our generous community that only gets stronger when we breathe out.