Time to be thankful indeed

 Monday, November 30, 2015
Hugh Ralston


This time of year we are reminded of the many reasons we have to be thankful – not just to be alive, but to be living where we do and doing what we do.

My wife, Elizabeth, and I are profoundly grateful to be here in Fresno, as we celebrate a year of working with so many dedicated to making this a better place.

Many of you will not be surprised by the reactions of friends and family in southern California when we announced we were moving to Fresno to pursue opportunities with a community foundation poised for ambitious growth. “Fresno?” more than a few asked with doubt in their voices.

They don’t know Fresno. Our first year has been enriched by the friends, neighbors, colleagues and partners we have found here in the Central Valley, and by the warmth of the welcome.

World-class hospitality and bonsai, too

From the first home-cooked dinner as guests to enjoying the bounty of this fertile valley, we were warmly welcomed. From the richness of its produce and the depth of its cultural institutions, from a new world-class bonsai garden to the vibrancy of arts produced locally, this valley delighted us with its abundance of gifts.

As the new head of a community foundation, I’ve inherited all sorts of relationships —from donors to agencies, funding partners to community leaders, to colleagues, grantees, nonprofit leaders, advisors and elected officials. These, too, have been welcoming, and remind me of how much we achieve working together.

We discovered a vibrancy here that can be missed from the coastal perspective. We found it in the remarkable seasonal delights of Christmas Tree Lane in Old Fig Garden, to the variety of concerts, lectures, festivals, authors, poetry —including that of the new U.S. poet laureate — and the famed Shakespeare in the Park, not to mention the rich ideas and compelling futures emerging from universities across the valley.

Deeply rooted churches and faith communities connect across generations and boundaries, anchors in neighborhoods across the valley; from trunk parties at Halloween to music, worship and active mission outreach – around the world and in the local neighborhood, these folks try hard to live out their faith. We have found a welcome home here too.

Seasons happen, each with its own beauty

The Valley’s proximity to famed national parks is only one asset among many. It also wears its beauty well. It seemed as if my morning commute for months has been a celebration of the bounty of flowering fruit trees – white, pink, red and pink again; now it is seasonally attired in brilliant oranges, red, brown and sharp yellows. Seasons live here, in ways they don’t in California’s coastal climate.

And yes, the rumors of hot weather were indeed true. But so were delicious peaches, locally sourced ice cream and the welcome splash of a swimming pool.

Central Valley Community Foundation Board and Staff

And as for the Central Valley Community Foundation, formerly the Fresno Regional Foundation, I am thankful for the role it plays in this region, and for the wisdom of its founders almost 50 years ago to establish this institution, and those generous donors who have fueled and sustained its health over the years.

I am grateful to our board for bringing me here, and for their willingness to work together to examine, imagine and deliver a future worthy of our mission, our potential and our community. Each contributed personally to the new Center for Community’s launch, a tremendous vote of confidence.

I am thankful too for the work of my colleagues, and that of my predecessor, to build an institution with the promise and growth it is a privilege to harness, nurture and deliver, as we write the foundation’s next chapter.

The power of two words

I learned years ago the most powerful words in the nonprofit lexicon are straightforward: thank you.

So thank you for blessing my Thanksgiving with profound gratitude for all of this.

Add cranberries, a little rain and pecan pie – and how can I help to be anything but be thankful for the perfect long weekend?

Happy Thanksgiving.

Best Regards,

Hugh J. Ralston
President and CEO 
(559) 226-5600 ext. 101 

Helping veterans beyond Veterans Day

 Monday, November 16, 2015
Hugh Ralston


Last week, we presented a forum to hear local agencies and volunteers share insights about valley programs that help veterans, part of our donor engagement series to dive more deeply into issues so our donors and the foundation can explore how to be more effective in giving.

$25,000 challenge grant announced

At the session, I was proud to announce a $25,000 challenge grant from our board of directors, to be matched by community members that would be used to establish a new grants cycle to help local agencies who are helping veterans and their families readjust to civilian life, to cope with lingering effects of combat and duties in dangerous parts of the world (including PTSD), as well as ways to translate the extraordinary leadership skills and talents developed by our troops into sustainable jobs, businesses and communities.

In issuing the challenge, we wanted not only to highlight the importance of helping veterans at a time when we as a nation celebrate, honor and remember their service and sacrifice, but also remind ourselves that the work of helping veterans takes more than a day of attention. Veterans from conflicts prior to the Gulf War also seek help, although we recognize that the last dozen years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan - the longest sustained conflict in our nation’s history, have created needs that will stretch for decades ahead. That many of our veterans served multiple tours – some as many as 5, 6 or 7 times, only adds to the burdens being carried back into civilian life.

Help local agencies do their good work

Our priority is to challenge the community to raise funds to help veterans, so that through our grantmaking we can let local nonprofits do their good work – as educators, health professionals, therapists, job trainers, colleagues and friends – work that helps returning veterans and their families come home.

Help them come home

Helping veterans come home is a task fraught with opportunity and hope. Helping them come home from service to their country, service they volunteered for but service to war zones that exposed them to the horrors of modern warfare. Helping them come home because home is not just a place, but a state of being as well. Helping them come home to a life they and their families treasure as much as we do. Helping them come home to lives that may never be the same, but which have value – to them and to us.

Echoes of war around us remind us of the cost of military service

We find many echoes of war in 2015 – some in faraway lands accessible on television and some as close as our streets. It is a close as the Ukraine where national boundaries and identities are being fought over, as close as airliners being blown out of the sky, where casualties are no longer limited to the battlefield, but to the town, the city and the neighborhood. Our televisions are filled with images of refugees escaping years of civil war in Syria and sectarian strife in Iraq – risking life and limb, and those of their children, to escape to a better future in Europe and beyond. Their welcome, their journeys, and deaths along the way raise profound questions – for policymakers, politicians and communities.

The echoes are as close as the commemorations we celebrate: Armistice Day, the Great War that began 101 years ago and convulsed Europe in a true first world war, to the Second World War, and the conflicts since – wars that marked the last century as one of the bloodiest and costliest in lives, and which has shaped the national, territorial and political struggles we deal with. Veterans from each of these conflicts have not only served, often in far away and hostile places, but also brought back profound gifts to the nation they served.

Volunteer military is made possible by 1% of the citizenry

We live in an era that is relatively new in our history – that of a volunteer military, which is less than 40 years old. Our nation’s military consists of those who have chosen to serve as a matter of principle, honor, duty, or as a matter of social and economic opportunity, and/or for a period of time in their lives in common causes. Less than 1% of our nation serves in uniform, and the burdens of service (which are defined by our national leaders in the Congress and the White House), fall on that unbelievably small percentage.

We don’t forget that disproportionate burden. Nor should we forget to appreciate the distance that separates our military from the daily lives of their fellow countrymen. We believe this new effort we have launched is one way the 99% can give back to help those 1% who have served us honorably, well, and in some cases multiple times. We can help them readjust to civilian life, to help them translate what they have learned into skills to benefit our economy, our country and our communities, to help their families with the transitions, to bear the wounds and help the broken.

Lincoln’s call for caring for veterans and families

As Lincoln reminded us in the midst of the greatest military conflict in our nation’s history:

Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have born the battle, and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

We believe we can do our part with the Veterans of the Central Valley Fund, so that it may distribute grants to our region’s agencies helping veterans with medical, therapeutic, educational and training needs. We look forward to engaging the community in the coming months, and to distributing these funds next year. Come join us to find a way you too can help veterans come home and to step up to help the 1% who have carried our collective burdens so well.

Best Regards,

Hugh J. Ralston
President and CEO 
(559) 226-5600 ext. 101 

Working together is what we are all about

 Monday, November 09, 2015
Hugh Ralston


We have a great privilege at the Community Foundation to invest in the hard, persistent and sometime visionary work of our grantees, work that is focused on creating a better future for our children.

This past week, we distributed $800,000 in grants from our High Impact program, funded by the James Irvine Foundation and contributions from our own Bee Fund and a generous gift from the Central Valley Foundation. The fourth and final grant cycle in this four year initiative, these grants are to local institutions in Fresno and Tulare counties that are assisting parents in helping their children get ready to learn to read at grade level.

High Impact to sustain ways out of poverty

Our focus emerged from a year-long effort to determine how high impact grants could help families find the most effective way out of poverty, with the belief that education for children remains a critical pathway. Helping children read at grade level is an important step, particularly as they transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Single year and multi-year grants have been distributed since 2012 and we are already digesting lessons learned, opportunities to focus more tightly on strategies that are effective, and how to develop ways to articulate the progress made by these organizations.

This ability to synthesize and draw conclusions from grants invested in communities will become an important contribution to the community’s ongoing discussions about expanding opportunities for our children, a set of priorities deeply embedded in the new Cradle to Career Partnership being organized by leading institutions.

Collective Impact changes how we approach solutions

Each program funded – 6 out of the original 42 seeking support through letters of interest – has its own characteristics, goals and objectives. Measurements of success are included. But I think the spirit of the enterprise was captured most succinctly in remarks by Galen Quenzer, from the Boys & Girls Club of Tulare on the “Lea Conmigo/Read with me” effort underway in Farmersville.

In accepting the grant, he stated, and I quote:

“Several years ago several of us became students of this approach called Collective Impact. For the past two years now, under the leadership of Alice Lopez, past school board member, and Deborah Lagomarsino, health care, education, youth development, literacy programs, the library, the Child Abuse Prevention Council, city and county government, and businesses have joined residents of Farmersville with a vision to help kids in Farmersville read well by the third grade. We have acknowledged this isn’t just the schools’ responsibility. We have an expectation that increasing numbers of Farmersville’s kids are going to be good readers by the third grade.

Creating Community is joint work

Second, we’re creating community in Farmersville, around the most important thing in a community: children. Our intent is to bring in an increasing number of Farmersville residents – so that, for example, it’s not Darla or the City opening the new library, it’s the people of Farmersville opening the library and helping develop and market the programs and helping staff the library with volunteers. It’s through the development of community that we are going to create a culture of literacy in Farmersville.

Learning new ways of doing business

Third, as public and private organizations, we’re learning new ways of doing business together. Agencies and CBOs have a long history of working well together in Tulare County. But we’re taking it to the next level as students of collective impact. Our hope is that we can admit that the big challenges we face in the Valley need a comprehensive approach; that progress will take place when we tamp down our egos, resist competing with each other for the dollar, understand the complexities of our challenges, admit that no one agency can solve our problems and begin to come together in trust to develop effective strategy. So we are starting in Farmersville. Our friends in Woodlake and Cutler-Orosi are doing the same and together we will spread this new way of doing business throughout Tulare County.”

I am not sure I have heard a more accurate description of collective impact, nor a more elegant listing of the benefits of working together, or what can happen when the goal is clear, and each organization and person understands what needs to be done to strengthen the community and what it/he/she can do.

Building on traditions deep in our history

The good news is that this is not the only example of such collective action in our region, and it is always good to be reminded that the muscles of collaboration, cooperation and an ability to think ahead – deeply embedded in the narrative of our country, are alive and well here. While rugged individuals always play a role in the history of the Central Valley, it was folks working together that built the institutions, nurtured the communities and helped shape our future.

It is still true today. What role can you play? How best can we move this agenda forward to benefit not only our children, but strengthen the future of this place we love. Come join us.

Best Regards,

Hugh J. Ralston
President and CEO 
(559) 226-5600 ext. 101 

Taking the Valley Story to Sacramento

 Monday, November 02, 2015
Hugh Ralston


In a room squarely at the center of the State Capitol building in Sacramento, a briefing this past week on the impact of the drought brought together local residents, academics, public officials, staff for legislative leaders and philanthropic & community leaders from around our region.

Brought together by The California Endowment and others, it was a way to bring the impact and needs of the drought to the center of our State’s political leadership.

The message is clear; the impact is real.

The message remains focused and straightforward: people in our valley are hurting – due to economic dislocation, changing agricultural work and patterns, stress and other components that come with four years of drought. For many, water is expensive, work is scarce and families are hurting.

The drought is both an issue of immediate need, and a call to adapt to new realities.

Residents from communities that have run out of water, or where the work for local farmworkers has been reduced, spoke eloquently of the impact on their communities, on the schools, families and neighbors.

Others spoke about the need to pay attention to health needs – some tied indirectly or others more directly, like valley fever’s prevalence in drier times, to the impact on economic livelihood of small cities struggling with the changes wrought by the drought.

Foundation’s study presented to highlight nonprofit needs

I had a chance to present our recent study - Beyond Almonds and Blond Lawns – which was funded by The California Endowment. It looked at the impact of the drought on local nonprofit agencies, many of whom are coping with the realities of families and communities in need, and crisis. They are on the front lines responding to direct and indirect needs.

I outlined some of the key findings –

• the impact on agency programs is real, and reflects growing needs 

• many nonprofits are already stretched thin and are struggling 

• in addition to funds to meet the growing need, many nonprofits also need help in expanding capacity – skills for leadership, engaging donors, telling the story more effectively – as well as funds for things like new equipment. 

 • Donors are encouraged to support local organizations which are providing direct help, as well as to think how donations could be more effective and focused on addressing these social challenges.

Legislators, aides and public officials recognize that these disparities have a real impact, and are as frustrated that it is sometimes hard to get information about who is providing what services. The chance to connect the dots is always a good byproduct of such gatherings.

Adaptability will be important as California agriculture evolves

One presentation – from an official at USDA Rural Development - made an interesting observation: many in the ag community have adjusted to the impact of the drought by smarter and more effective use of water, skills that will serve the sector well in times impacted by global warming – more rain vs. snow, more drought than not, volatile weather patterns and more extremes. With adroit use of scalable technology, water use is going down and yields are going up – success in facing the adversity of a less benign climate. And the cost of such technology will help the smaller farms as well as the large.

We know this slow moving but very real crisis raises questions, particularly given the evolution underway in our ag sector. How can we strengthen our workforce in light of these type of seismic shifts remains a challenge. What remains encouraging is the willingness of groups to listen across boundaries, to help understand both the policy and human implications, and to think about what can be done next.

Visalia and Bakersfield join the conversation

In presentations earlier in the week in Visalia and in Bakersfield, we shared the results of the study with local audiences, exploring implications for donors and nonprofits, and the areas that we have identified where moving forward with focus and deliberate intent can help address the immediate needs, as well as engage the longer and likely more stubborn challenges. These issues will last beyond the next rainfall, and lasting solutions are likely to require collaboration, coordination and some imagination.

Throughout these conversations, we remain guided by our core mission and priorities, of exploring how community philanthropy can address an issue of import ../../../../css/onnecting_solutions_with_needs__and_telling_the_stories_that_reflect_why_this_drought_matters__ndash_x3fq2ua2amgk2ztc8gz0m5.css; these are all part of the opportunity to move forward.

Investing in the sector is one response

We hope to launch training sessions for applying for federal/state grants to municipalities, nonprofits and small regional districts in December, and to engage in more workshops through our Center for Community that will focus on addressing some of the needs raised in the study. Working together, we can make a difference – not only in the lives of those that struggle, but in taking the Valley’s story to the heart of our state Capitol. Come join us.

Best Regards,

Hugh J. Ralston
President and CEO 
(559) 226-5600 ext. 101 

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