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Ken Saxon: A Year of Change in Our Local Nonprofit Landscape

In Santa Barbara, 2015 was a year of change in our large and varied philanthropic sector.  As I look back on the year just ended, here are a few reflections:​

Change at the Top

I don’t remember a year when there was more change at the top of local nonprofit organizations.

Just to name a few critical organizations that have hired new executives, there’s CALM, Community Environmental Council, Foundation for Santa Barbara City College, Fund for Santa Barbara, Girls Incorporated of Greater Santa Barbara, Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara, Storyteller Children’s Center and United Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Barbara County.

Some of these moves were the result of natural retirements, others caused by an executive director’s moving to a bigger organization, and some were leadership changes initiated by the boards of directors.

But in total, we saw a lot of movement of leaders who’d been at their organizations 10, 20, even 30 years.

One thing that surprised me is that of all the organizations listed above, only one (the Community Environmental Council) hired someone it already employed as its new CEO.

Over time as our local nonprofit sector grows up, it would be a healthy sign to see more organizations grooming succession from the inside. In the business world, many of the most successful companies intentionally “grow their own.”

We also saw several of these organizations successfully recruit high-powered talent from outside Santa Barbara County. That’s not easy to do in Santa Barbara, particularly given our cost of housing.

Welcome to Michael Baker, Candace Winkler and Marcos Vargas! We’re fortunate to have attracted your ample talents and experience base to our little corner of the world.

Succession planning has historically been a weak area for most nonprofit organizations. But over the past year I’ve seen some unusually high-quality work in organizations intentionally planning for executive transition work.

Standouts include CALM and the Scholarship Foundation, each of which planned thoughtfully for their executive transitions for a year or more. I’d love to see more organizations follow their example.

Farewell to the Orfalea Foundation

There are many different kinds of charitable foundations. Most are set up in perpetuity, and sprinkle out 5 percent or so of their assets each year to local nonprofit partners to support their good works. We need such donors to help sustain our growing nonprofit sector.

But we also need entrepreneurial donors with big vision who swing for the fences. And that’s what the Orfalea Foundation did over 15 years in the county. By choosing a limited life for their foundation, they were able to put out a lot more money (more than twice as much annually than if they were a perpetual foundation) and build a highly skilled management team to translate their intentions into impact.

Natalie and Paul Orfalea (who founded and built Kinko’s into a nationwide chain of copy shops) think big. They ambitiously decided to invest their money in changing big systems, not just trickle it out.

They wanted to make significant change on some of our community’s big challenges. Three of their areas of focus in Santa Barbara were:

» Improving the quality and accessibility of early child care

» Transforming the nature of the food that gets served to our children each day in their local schools

» Improving our county’s ability to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies

Thanks to the Orfaleas and their ambitious philanthropic vision, we who live in Santa Barbara County are better prepared for natural disaster, our young children are healthier and better prepared to start school, and our schools are better prepared to serve the nutrition needs of our youth.

The downside of a go-big strategy like the Orfaleas’ is that it can’t be sustained forever. At some point the foundation must shut down and let go.

Sustaining philanthropic impact without still being around to guide and fund the work is a big challenge, no question. But in thoughtfully planning for this transition, the Orfalea Foundation has left many partner organizations better capable to lead these initiatives going forward.

They also took the time to document their learnings in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, including an article sharing “Lessons from a Sunsetting Foundation.”

Thank you to Natalie and Paul Orfalea, and to the whole Orfalea Foundation staff team (led by Lois Mitchell and Catherine Brozowski). Our community is better, stronger, safer and healthier because of you.

Downtown Santa Barbara Children’s Library

Each year, positive changes in our community come about because of cross-sector collaboration between philanthropy and government and the private sector. A great example from 2015 was the opening of the Children’s Library in the beautiful old downtown Santa Barbara Public Library at 40 E. Anapamu St.

For many of us who work and play downtown (and especially for those of us who are book lovers), December 2010 was a bad month. Within a week, the downtown Borders and the Barnes & Noble across the street closed their doors.

Yes it’s true these were privately owned chain stores, but Borders in particular functioned as a de-facto public space. It vibrated with energy — young, old, rich, poor, diverse on many levels. I spent a lot of time there with my children and on my own.

And then it was gone and sat empty for a while. And then it became a Marshalls.

In the meantime, the downtown public library was suffering from lack of investment and changing technology. Its downstairs floor was closed off, and much of the building had a sad vibe.

A creative solution emerged from conversations between players from multiple sectors — including the library (a public agency), the City of Santa Barbara, members of the Junior League of Santa Barbara and Friends of the Library, and a cadre of local volunteers, philanthropists and business leaders.

A multimillion-dollar plan emerged to take the shuttered downstairs space and convert it into a state-of-the art children’s library, with four times the space of the cramped upstairs area that had been devoted to our youngest readers.

And in September, our new downtown Children’s Library opened. It’s hard to imagine a town like Santa Barbara didn’t have such a space before, and if you haven’t visited, go! It is a light, bright and thoughtfully designed space that is in active use all the time by children and families.

What a home run of a collaboration! Congratulations to all who were involved in making this happen.

One final note: I’m told the Santa Barbara Public Library Foundation is still working to complete this capital campaign. If you haven’t yet donated to this successful and critical effort, please consider learning more about what they need and how you can help.

Click here for more information about the Santa Barbara Children’s Library. Click here to make an online donation.

Ken Saxon is board president of Leading From Within and an instructor in its Courage to Lead and Emerging Leaders programs. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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