Donors connecting to learn more.

 Monday, February 23, 2015
Hugh Ralston


Donor engagement is the lifeblood of any nonprofit, for it reflects a deepening understanding of why donors support the organization, what they care about and what motivates their work. As a community foundation whose mission includes stewarding legacies, often from donors no longer here, our commitment to donor priorities is a fundamental responsibility. Often outlined in the specifics of a fund agreement, or a memorandum of charitable intent, these are the directions to ensure we understand clearly what is the donor’s intent.

As new opportunities emerge to address the challenges in our region, we can deepen the conversation, particularly with donors actively engaged in their grantmaking and philanthropic giving. The foundation’s competitive grantmaking program, launched now almost ten years ago with significant support from funding partners interested in the strengthening the Valley’s institution, peoples and opportunities, provides another vehicle for talking to donors about ways to give that makes a difference here in our region, and to share what we have learned about the work of local agencies, nonprofits and leaders.

That is why we have launched a new donor engagement series this year, with topics that range from our grants priorities to how to be more effective in giving, the importance of evaluation and how best to partner with other donors and funders to create lasting or substantive community change.

The first forum in our series was this past week, with a panel of arts leaders from three local counties to help think through common issues of addressing demographic change, evolving business models, the use and intermediation of technology and the importance of funding basic operations, new programs and new outreach. It was a chance for the audience of donors, nonprofit leaders and interested parties to dive into some of these ‘systemic’ issues, and learn more about how these organizations are evolving to meet new challenges, create new opportunities and develop new audiences. Each panelist shared insights into what makes their contribution to our local arts ecosystem unique, and how the arts build bridges across some of the most persistent divides all of us see – those between generations, communities, individuals and even ideas.

Throughout the coming year, we are planning more forums to focus on issues like effective evaluation, reducing teen pregnancy, issues around youth and children, what smart growth means and the opportunities to help veterans. We hope these sessions will help donors, and our colleagues in the local nonprofit sector, connect with some of larger social/community trends as they sweep through the Valley, as well as connect with each other as colleagues.

At the community foundation, we believe that our responsibilities to our donors lies not only in making smart and effective grants to further donor intent, it also involves understanding the needs of the communities and the challenges facing the local nonprofit partners. Whether through sharing research and information, engagement forums or individual conversations about particular grants, part of our work involves helping donors be more effective in their giving. Sometimes it is in funding a program, sometimes in seeding an organization. Sometimes it could be starting a movement – all are valid but each requires different strategies, and different tools.

We invite you to explore topics that are of interest to you, as we build the tools to become better philanthropists. In so doing, we are helping to shape a better future for more of us. Come join us in this good work, and let us know how we can help.

Best Regards,

Hugh J. Ralston

President and CEO

The Hammer or the Flashlight?

 Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Hugh Ralston


Thanks in part to the computer revolution and the internet, we are awash in data. It sometimes seems as if the more data we have, the more information we want. With the search engines making it easier than ever, those of us who are data hogs have entered a sweet spot.

We know that doesn't always make us the most popular people in the room, but I believe answers to the right questions help us become better at what we do.

As funders, we look at data from a couple of perspectives, one of which underscores a core element of our business: how do we know what we are funding is making a difference? Because we fund projects, organizations and people, the data needs to come from those who are helping the clients, doing the services, building the community and healing the brokenness.

Our board recently received a report that looked at our competitive grantmaking over the past seven years. This data helps us understand the impact of our grantmaking on the grantees and the community itself. One of the questions we ask: who are we helping and does that population have the greatest need? With over $7 million deployed over nearly a decade, that is an important question.

One of the benefits, and burdens, of developing a robust evaluation discipline is that it allows us to address impact, and to use that data as a way to strengthen and improve the next cycle of our work. Sharing this framework helps donors make better decisions about their chosen philanthropic investments, and helps us at the strategic level assess the impact we can make in our own grantmaking.

Who else cares? I believe there is new sense of accountability in the land, from those who want assurances that public monies are being spent effectively to individual donors, who respect charitable dollars are scarce and should be spent wisely.

But the options are changing too, as an interconnected world opens more opportunity to invest in change. In an era when a $50 gift online to can change the life of a woman in the developing world by helping her buy a cow - and thus transform her life, her family's life and help lift her out of global poverty, the question of impact can take on new relevance, and urgency.

Nonprofits are dealing with this reality as donors ask about operating and program costs and third party evaluators rate nonprofits on (among other things) on the effectiveness of their business models. As we emerge from the worst economic contraction in decades, all of us look carefully at the funds we have to invest in charitable work. We ask more question than we used to, in part because we, too, have become “value investors”. A generation that grew up on Consumer Reports wants the facts before we make our purchases, and we now have realms of data at our finger tips to make us informed. And some of this data may be useful in making wise decisions!

Sometimes, the data shows the importance of keeping the doors open. In my prior job in Ventura, we found ourselves a weekend away from closing every domestic violence shelter in the County due to funding pressures. Folks stepped up, donations were made, and three of the five shelters remained opened.

Often the power of our gift is distinctly individual, and compelling. I will never forget a letter I received from a scholarship recipient, which started with: "you have no idea what it means to me and my family to say the following six words: I get to go to college. Thanks to the generosity of [the donor], I get to earn a living with my brain as opposed to my back." It is hard to think of a more potent example of the power of investing in a promising future than through a scholarship.

But when we think about systems change, or adjusting institutional priorities, it becomes murkier. I remember a conversation from the dean of an education school that was responsible for training teachers who remarked, almost offhand, that an easy way to ensure the arts remained in our schools was to add an art history unit to the required course load. He could change the curriculum because he could; that he considered it reflected the persistence of those who raised the importance of the issue, the impact of the change and the value of the outcome.

Changing institutions, programs and outcomes is partially about changing priorities, partially about changing people's minds, and partially about addressing my favorite question, “to what end?”

It is also about changing expectations, that change can come and, for some, that it must come. What are we trying to achieve? What can we achieve? How do we know we are making a difference? How can we tell? As funders, we seek these answers because we respect the stewardship of the monies entrusted to us, and we want to continue to earn that trust. Thus we focus on the results and impact, to ensure donor intent is protected; the answers lie in the data, data emerging from the right questions.

Earlier this month, I went to a convening of public and nonprofit groups, community and elected leaders committed to the wellbeing of our children, who were exploring the right tools to identify need and measure impact. The theme of the morning was that data should be a flashlight, not a hammer: a flashlight to help us look for the ways we can strengthen the future, not the hammer to drive home failure, shortcomings and the difficulty of change.

My father used to remind me that facts were stubborn things, something he learned in his newspaper days. Data is both dispassionate -- this is what happened - and incendiary -- this is what is happening, right here in our community, today (!) It can be both the hammer and the flashlight, a tool to inform and to ram home accountability, a means to measure progress and define the distance still to travel.

Many have heard the story about rescuing the babies in the river, and those that decided to move upstream to find out who was throwing the babies in the first place; their quest was to stop the problem at the source. It is compelling anecdote, but it also masks the challenge. There is a new wind blowing, in part a new generation who wants to change the status quo (“enough is enough”), in part those frustrated at the intractable problems and complex behaviors that continue to result in poverty, broken lives, wasted opportunities and unfilled potential.

Data measures these shortcomings, and can help measure change. If used thoughtfully, it can move beyond identifying and naming the causes to creating goalposts, encouraging strategies and developing tactics that can, in the lexicon of the moment, actually move the needle. We can also use tools like the Fresno Scorecard to help us understand better what is happening, where the challenges are and what can motivate change.

As a community foundation committed to place, and to this place, we can do a better job if we start with the facts and the current reality, ask the right questions and track progress. We believe we will increase the odds that smarter investments and solutions can create sustainable and meaningful change, particularly if we work together with those who are working on the same ends, sometimes on a parallel track and sometimes in direct partnership. It might be keeping open the doors to the clinic, opening the doors of opportunity for a better life to a student, or helping institutions become better at delivering their mission.

If we marry that role with the powerful desire to focus change, to make a difference, to help institutions that truly bridge the priorities of the public purse and the private wallet, we can also raise the confidence that community philanthropy helps shape our future to be a better place, even it occurs one painful step at a time.

The flashlights are most helpful when the light is dim and the pathway is uncertain; it points us to that better future. Come join us in this good work.

Best Regards,

Hugh J. Ralston

President and CEO

Connecting through the power of networks

 Monday, February 09, 2015
Hugh Ralston


It is said that we live in a networked age, linked by technology and other means, to multiple relationships. At the Regional Foundation, we belong to many networks, some local and regional, some national – collaborations between and among those who have common interests, goals and ideals.

One of the great value of these networks is they evolve to address new needs, accommodate new members and focus on new priorities. Networks bring to life one of our core values: that together we can do more than any one of us can do together.

A community foundation has many roles, and networks enhance the skills, talents and perspectives of our staff and deepen our mission. As a member of the Council on Foundations and the League of California Community Foundations, we learn, strengthen, broaden and deepen our skills, working with our peers to translate our missions to our specific regions and freely sharing best practices, strategies and program ideas.

Compliance with national standards is one way that community foundations define our work, our practice and our expectations. These peer developed and self-regulated standards uphold not only what we believe defines a community foundation but also ensures that foundations across the country sustain that level. We are very proud to be accredited in compliance with national standards.

As grantmakers, we have access to networks that sustain and support certain disciplines or areas of concentration – Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, Grantmakers in the Arts, Grantmakers in Health are all examples of networks of public, private, community and corporate foundations that work closely together to become more effective in their work, digest lessons learned and leverage scarce dollars to make a greater impact.

Regional associations are powerful tools as well, with FRF in the Northern California Grantmakers territory, close enough to take advantage of many of the resources available to grantmakers around the Bay Area. Southern California Grantmakers (on whose board I served) and San Diego Grantmakers are working with their Northern California counterparts to find ways to strengthen dialog, support programming and bring resources more effectively across the state, a local example of network evolution. CAN (California Association of Nonprofits) is another statewide resource.

Staff members are part of professional networks – from the Association of Fundraising Professionals to the Planned Giving Council, Estate Planning Council and other national organizations. Local chapters help gather resources and colleagues to serve the region, and strengthen dialog, learning and skills, as well as celebrate the good work in our region, with National Philanthropy Day a perfect example.

Service clubs loom large as networks of local leaders committed to service, engagement and giving back. From Rotary to Lions Clubs, social organizations provide important contributions to community leadership, charitable donations and work, fidelity to mission and recruitment of multiple generations to further the cause. They remain an important backbone to community, anchor institutions that raise and give money, honor service and make a difference in the lives of both members and those they serve. I valued greatly the relationships I developed when I joined Rotary’s Los Angeles chapter, joining years of service to the region.

Local chapters of national organizations – from the Salvation Army to the United Way, from Boys & Girls Clubs to the Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts – all have their own professional networks, bringing national resources, messages and programs to our region, each of which touches hundreds of local youth, adults and communities through our valley. These networks are important for sustaining important missions, training staff, building career opportunities and strengthening the capacity of community to be delivered.

We sometime overlook the networks that link faith communities, both within their denominations and across the spectrum, from interfaith councils to the networks that govern, moderate and support local denominations and churches. These networks also filter policy, doctrine, disciplines and practice, bringing local institutions into the national debates that can be both liberating and divisive, and help shape the direction and health of local congregations and the communities they serve.

Our lives can also be subject to the expanding social media networks, from the Facebook friends to broader networks that track Twitter feeds, online communities and interest groups. Working from our smartphones, tablets and computers, we are increasingly drawn together in online networks, joined by a wide variety of ties – common interests and passions, shared beliefs, communal experiences or platforms for learning, sharing and even oversharing. Some of these networks are self-sorting – identifying who we want to engage, and others are designed to bring other perspectives and experiences into our lives.

Our businesses are also parts of physical and commercial networks, which link us to the home office; to franchise partners and trade associations; to clients and vendors; as well as to the customers who increasingly share their views of service, product and value. School networks link us to past friends and colleagues, and often to the wide body of alumni who are linked by common experience, passion and relationships across multiple generations. One need only attend a game at Bulldog Stadium or the SaveMart Center to see the passion and power of the Fresno State network, just one local example that has become a local presence.

These networks provide us with links to something larger, a broader community than the world we inhabit daily. For thousands of years, the horizon of experience was often limited by the hours you sustain on a horse or by walking; many lived and died within 100 miles of their birthplace. Now thanks to the power of the networks that connect us, often through a smartphone we carry with us, we can experience the full force of our globalized world, even as we sort and manage information and the people in our lives.

I have been impressed since coming to Fresno how deep the connections are that link many to this region, from family, from business and generations of hard work to build the communities in this valley. Our networks broaden the resources we can bring to our lives – by learning online, experiencing online, by engaging across boundaries beyond geography, ideology or experience – and make 21st Century Fresno a more connected place through the networks between and among communities throughout the San Joaquin Valley.

At FRF, we look forward to deepening the networks that help sustain our work – in building community, in strengthening nonprofit leadership and effectiveness, in deepening the impact of donor investments, in investing wisely for the long term and in partnering with others to shape a better future for more of us. We can leverage the power of these networks to bring the work of building community to a stronger platform, confident that we really can do more together. It is good work. Come join us.

Best Regards,

Hugh J. Ralston

President and CEO

The Tax Plan for 2015

 Monday, February 02, 2015
Rico Guerrero Dear Friends of the Foundation,

We may be at a pivotal moment in time with tax reform discussions in the Congress. There are many speculating about how it will unfold and what reform will look like. But there are pieces that we do know and can plan for in 2015. So what can you do to prepare for the 2015 tax environment?

Well, many donors, gift planners and advisors are finding ways to reduce tax liabilities through charitable giving by using planned giving tools such as a Charitable Remainder Trust, Charitable Gift Annuities, Donating Appreciated Properties, Charitable Lead Trusts or the IRA Charitable Rollover. More and more donors are using these tools because over the last two years many taxpayers have seen substantially higher taxes and more modest itemized deductions. Tax rates for upper-income payers in California can be as high as 43.4% and capital gains tax could be up to 20% for top-bracket taxpayers.

As an indispensable partner for philanthropic giving, the Fresno Regional Foundation can help donors and advisors by providing the skills and local knowledge to help achieve charitable and financial goals.

We are also working to assist local organizations and advisors with the most up to date information about the tax environment so that they can assist their donors with planned, deferred or legacy gifts. As the president of the San Joaquin Valley Planned Gifts Council, a professional association dedicated to bringing estate planning to philanthropy, I am working with professional advisors and gift planners to provide educational opportunities for others in the field of planned giving.

Our first workshop, “Tax Planning for Donors and Nonprofits in the 2015 Environment” will be presented by respected local CPA Robert Price of Price, Paige and Company. The workshop will be on Thursday, February 5th from 4:00pm – 5:30pm at ValleyPBS. This free event is sponsored by Fresno State Office of Planned Giving. To register  Click here. 

Contact me to learn more about how partnering with us can ensure that your planned gift leaves a lasting impact and legacy for the community you care most about. I hope you can take advantage of the tools available to strengthen your giving, this year and in the future. 

Best regards,

Rico Guerrero
Donor Relations Coordinator 
(559) 226-5600 ext. 110 
[email protected]

Giving through the Foundation

Fresno Regional Foundation helps donors achieve their charitable goals, and we serve as a bridge connecting philanthropy to community-based organizations that provide programs and services throughout the San Joaquin Valley.

Learn more about giving through the foundation.

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