Partnering and river crossings

Nobody wants to go alone--or at least, nobody wants to wade into a glacial river by themselves. To ford a glacial river, it helps to have companions. Each of you unbuckle your backpacks, put on some grubby shoes that can get wet, and take a place along a long thick stick before heading at an upstream angle to move forward. You support each other using the stick. Walking at an angle, you end up moving forward. With your pack unbuckled, you can discard things that would weigh you down if you were to fall on slippery underwater rocks. Those grubby sneakers? You leave them on the other side of the river with the stick for the next hikers.

 Funders, both public and private, benefit from partners. Whether their overarching missions are the same or not, if they share a common goal they know it is best to coordinate or collaborate. Partnerships are forged as trust develops. Partnership is not always easy, but it's necessary in order to push that river. Funders rely on their partners to maintain a forward progress. They prepare to release baggage if necessary. They know that their feet are going to get wet, and prepare for it. And they share their tools with the next group.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Rasmuson Foundation, Bethel Community Services Foundation have been partnering for over seven years to meet mutual goals by supporting the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and University of Washington's DENTEX program. Alice Warner, Tom Hawkins, and Chris Perez from the three foundations described their path at the Philanthropy Northwest Conference in Juneau earlier this month.

Trust, cooperation, and coordination at every level helps Kellogg, Rasmuson, and Bethel to not only ford the river but to push the river. High quality health care in rural Alaska, racial justice for Alaska Native people, and sustainable practice are the result.

Alice Warner, W.K.Kellogg Foundation; Tom Hawkins, Bethel Community Services Foundation; Chris Perez, Rasmuson Foundation. Photo: Kathy Reincke, W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Alice Warner, W.K.Kellogg Foundation; Tom Hawkins, Bethel Community Services Foundation; Chris Perez, Rasmuson Foundation. Photo: Kathy Reincke, W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Hiring the right Executive Director

Years ago, I helped Bethel Community Services Foundation (BCS Foundation) convert from being a supporting foundation to a community foundation. The Foundation serves the people of Bethel and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in southwestern Alaska, a place of great open spaces, rivers and lakes.

BCS Foundation has had a single Executive Director since 2004: Jerry Drake, the former business manager of the supporting foundation. He was a natural fit: he was trusted by the board, knew the board's priorities, knew the organization's assets like the back of his hand, has deep roots in the region, and is smarter than most people will ever be.

Jerry and his wife Anna decided to make a huge change in their lives, and moved Outside to start a business. He told his board chair, and the board chair called me that evening. 

Who could manage this community foundation: holding the trust of the board, the donors, and the community?  Who could know the assets--including 14 pieces of real estate and buildings? Who could provide the vision and leadership the foundation needed?

When done well, a transition period allows the organization's board to clarify its priorities. A transition requires the board members to become the face of the organization, and to look at its assets and opportunities with fresh eyes. BCS Foundation board members were going to take the time they needed to find the right fit.

Imagine how excited they were to find that right fit, right there in Bethel: Michelle DeWitt. Michelle has been in Bethel for 16 years, directing Tundra Women's Coalition. She is well respected in the region and around the state, understands the community, and has vision for the potential of the community foundation.

Michelle accepted the position in April, and will begin work in October 2013. The board continues to work the organization's transition, tweaking its asset base, and refreshing its programs.  We are all excited about next steps.