From Asset-size to Impact-size: What I learned about the future of Community Foundations from facilitating a CEO retreat

April 29, 2024 | 
10 minute read

“We must change the language of how we describe ourselves to fit why we’re here.”

These words were spoken to me by Simeon Banister, the CEO of the Rochester Area Community Foundation

We recently facilitated a series of impact-driven leadership workshops for CEOs of community foundations from across the country at the CEONet spring retreat. I have to tell you that I went into this retreat ready to facilitate and pour into these CEOs. And in reality, I ended up learning more than we taught. And so I can’t help but share it with you. 

We believe the next normal of leadership is here… now. And this retreat brought a whole new meaning to that, especially as it relates to community foundations.

To us at THRIVE IMPACT, the “next normal” looks like:

  • Leadership that prevents burnout by modeling impact from the inside out, starting with ourselves
  • Confronting complex challenges with innovation and a willingness to embrace risk
  • Listening to others in community in order to make the changes needed to get where we want to go
  • Leaving a legacy of real, measurable positive change that we are making in ourselves, our organizations, and our communities.

So here are my reflections from this retreat and the stories that illustrate what “next normal” means. 


The retreat kicked off with a walking tour of a hyper-local project in a neighborhood called Barrio Logan with the San Diego Foundation and the local nonprofit, Environmental Health Coalition. As we walked through the neighborhood, the tangible effects of local engagement and the power of community ties were undeniable. Seeing (and feeling) these in action brought a whole new level of importance to grounding our work in hyper-local realities to foster trust and effect real change. Physically experiencing this project and neighborhood vividly illustrated how community foundations can play such a vital role in catalyzing local positive change.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results

The following day started with a talk from Lucy Bernholz, a Stanford scholar who publishes a “blueprint” every year since 2010 about the forecast for philanthropy and digital civil society. 

She shared her insights on the future of artificial intelligence and its implications for societal trust. Her presentation was very fear-inducing… She talked about how Community Foundations need to be significantly more careful about their donor data. About how AI is eroding our free speech and fair elections. About how it only takes 3 seconds to capture your voice and replicate it, so phone calls shouldn’t be trusted and we should have code words with our families so we know it’s actually them. 

This year was the first year she has not added predictions to her blueprint about what she thinks might happen because of the exponential speed of change that is happening. Instead, this is how she opened this year’s blueprint:

“I hope to show how our current efforts at understanding the present and future are failing—largely because we’re using out-of-date data, built on assumptions that no longer hold, and with models that can’t account for the kinds of dynamics we think are coming but have yet to experience.” 

As the tension in the room rose, I asked myself, what is this really saying about the future of community foundations? 

If you know ONE community foundation CEO, you know ONE CEO

Immediately following was a CEO panel of three dynamic community foundation CEOs with varying approaches to the work. We witnessed a dynamic showcase of three distinct approaches to community foundation leadership. 

Mark Stuart, CEO of the San Diego Community Foundation, emphasized some innovative approaches to leveraging “blended capital” with grants, donor-advised funds, impact investments, and success grants—all focused around specific areas of local impact. During the walking tour the day before, one of his staff shared with me that they took a bold approach years ago in their strategic plan. They decided to not be beholden to what a donor specifically wanted, but to invite them along for the journey. A journey towards leveraged impact with their dollars through more targeted work in the community. 

Where Mark’s presentation was focused more on external strategy, Simeon talked about creating change inside the organization in order to have more impact outside. He shared candid reflections on the internal challenges of shifting operational norms, of decelerating to “learn how to learn together” as a team, and slowing down to create a faster speed of trust. He shared an anecdote about one employee’s resistance to changing their workflow that highlighted the delicate balance between innovation and maintaining stability: “I’m really excited about all of this change; just don’t change what I’m doing.”  

At one point, Simeon shared the movie poster of “TWINS” with Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger, highlighting how deep relationships and impact data seem to look very different, but are actually two peas in the pod of driving positive community change from the inside. His entire approach underscored the necessity of creating inclusive environments inside the organization, allowing diverse community voices to contribute to shaping the foundation’s direction.

The third panelist was Rose Bradshaw, CEO of the North Texas Community Foundation. She provided insights into the strategic communication that’s essential for navigating contentious issues within her Texas community. One compelling story she shared was about a board member who shared his extensive risk analysis on initiatives they were planning around contentious education and racial equity issues. She was saying that it almost sounded like he was making the case for not embarking on these innovative programs until he ended with this statement: 

“The cost of doing NOTHING is incalculable.” 

Wow. Rose’s narrative reinforced one of the key features of leadership for the next normal: confronting complex challenges. Challenges like this require community foundation CEOs and boards to take risks their predecessors didn’t, an area community foundations are uniquely suited to do. Rose ended her time by saying, “We’re experiencing tough problems which require new ways of thinking and operating.” 

She couldn’t be more accurate. 

A leadership operating system for the next normal

It wasn’t only Lucy’s talk and the CEO panel that stirred a deep reflection among us. The arc of the retreat was fascinating. Starting with the hyper-local walking tour, then going broad and meta with Lucy’s talk, and then back to local with the CEO panel. Then, it was our turn. And our focus was on internal. 

I asked an intentionally obvious question: “How many of you are here to not just do nice things, but to create positive change?” Everyone raised their hands. Then I asked, “How many of you want to NOT burn out while doing it?” Guess what… everyone raised their hands.  

When Rose said we require  “new ways of thinking and operating”, what was she referring to? What we saw in the CEO presentations—and what we know through our work, confirmed by experience and impact data—is that CEOs leading in the next normal are impact-driven leaders who don’t burn out. And they achieve this by creating impact from the inside out, starting with themselves. 

“If we want to lead well in the world, the first place we need to lead well is within ourselves.” – Dr Daniel Friedland, neuroscientist and author of “Leading Well From Within” 

We immediately went into an exercise inviting personal reflection by asking the question: “What qualities or characteristics do you display when you are a MOST & LEAST effective leader?” 

Normalizing the struggle that all of us have these least effective leadership traits struck a chord. Being honest about where we were—and that WE ALL HAVE THEM—made people realize they’re not alone in their struggles. And it helped to unearth the wisdom that already existed in the room. 

Something fascinating happened in this reflection exercise. The most common “least effective” leadership trait shared was IMPATIENT. And the most common “most effective” leadership trait shared was LISTENING. The polar opposite responses here were eye-opening. It’s hard to ignore when it’s put so plainly by so many people. 

Perhaps the wisdom around these “new ways of thinking and operating” and how to approach this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (“VUCA”) world was already there in the room.  We just needed to excavate it. Here are all the least and most effective traits people shared. 



Creating Impact From the Inside Out

Our leadership workshops on “Conscious Leadership” and “Co-creative Leadership” revealed a tremendous hunger among community foundation CEOs for more human approaches to leadership and to being in community with each other. As Lucy eluded to earlier, the speed of change is happening at an exponential rate. We must lead differently if we’re going to accomplish what we all set out to do—creating positive change. 

If we break down our sessions and the amount of time where we were speaking and sharing versus how much time CEOs were reflecting and sharing with one another, it was more than 60% reflecting and sharing.  

Among a myriad of positive feedback in our post-session survey, two different CEOs shared what brought it all home: 

  • “I’m not going to lie. I really needed this. Thank you.”
  • “This was a room full of type A personalities, most of whom have attended more sessions like this than you can possibly imagine. Unquestionably, this was in the top 10% of any that I’ve ever attended.”

The point here isn’t to share about the quality of our work. It’s to share how leaders in the next normal must create space to pause, reflect, and share with others in community in order to get where we want to go. 

I saw a group of CEOs who didn’t need more content. They already have people telling them all the “right” things to do. What they needed was more learning. And one of the best ways for us to learn as humans is not by someone talking at us, but by inviting us to reflect through appreciative questions and share with one another in generative conversations. 

The juxtaposition of the heaviness from Lucy’s vivid portrayal of the challenges of artificial intelligence to the positive energy of our leadership workshops was palpable. What Lucy shared was important to understand. AND, the learnings generated during our workshops provided tools and strategies to move forward, as well as reaffirming the collective knowledge and experience each brought to the table.

The shift community foundations must make

After the retreat, Simeon and I went out for lunch, where he shared a poignant story with me. He recounted a conversation with a veteran CEO of a well-respected community foundation on the east coast with hundreds of millions of dollars in assets. This CEO shared that despite decades of service, they struggled to identify even ONE solid accomplishment around impact during their tenure. I’m guessing they’re not alone. 

When community foundations describe themselves, they usually lead with the size of their monetary assets. They are grouped that way in conferences and introduced that way when brought to a stage, as if to say that their asset size means something substantive.

This CEO’s confession was a sobering reminder that the default of being Donor Advised Fund (DAF) service providers or having large endowments and assets under management isn’t why community foundations exist (plus you can’t compete with the big DAF service providers anyway). It’s not to say that assets aren’t important. They are. However, the role and legacy of our community foundations must be about the real, measurable, impact we are creating from the inside out — within ourselves, within our orgs, and within our communities. Not simply the size of assets.  

And perhaps donors are already paying attention to this and are ready to have more leveraged impact. One CEO at the retreat shared with me that a donor gave her a $500,000 check and promptly said, “I want to make sure this isn’t going into an organization that has a burnout culture.” 

The future of Community Foundations

I keep coming back to the question I posed earlier: “What is all this really saying about the future of community foundations?” The biggest conclusion I came to during this whole retreat experience—from the walking tour, to Lucy’s fear-inducing clarion call, to the CEO panel, to the response to our impact-driven leadership workshops—is this… 

The time of “asset-driven” community foundations is gone and the time for the “impact-driven” community foundations is now. 

Humans will always be humans. By nature, we are communal beings. Which also means that we want to trust in something. We want to believe the best about something, even if we have justifiable fears about it. If what Lucy was sharing is true and so much of our digital civil society that proliferates our lives is full of misinformation, deep fakes, and stealing from our very democratic principles, what can we trust? 

You, as community foundations, are uniquely positioned to (re)build local trust and to be conveners and catalysts for positive community change. It is time to courageously step into the local fray of the specific tough issues in your community and invite your donors on the journey.  Some may fall away, but most won’t. 

You are positioned to innovate and take societal risks that others can’t. 501c3 nonprofits can’t because they don’t have the capital and operate in scarcity much of the time. Businesses can’t because they have investor return requirements. Municipalities can’t because it’s too politically risky. You are uniquely positioned to drive this change that is so desperately needed.

The true measure of your success is reflected in the depth and breadth of how well you listen, understand, respond to, and enrich the lives of those in your communities.

So I ask you… 

  • What would our communities look like if community foundations were measured by the size of their impact—both inside their organizations and outside in their communities? 
  • What if every time a community foundation CEO was introduced to a stage, we heard their impact size—not their asset size—because that is what they’re focused on? 
  • What if the percentage of your dollars and how they were put to work was prominently displayed everywhere? 

Perhaps what is needed is better language, better measures of success, and to live into the “community” of your names. Perhaps our communities would be far better off if you became impact-driven community foundations instead of asset-driven. 

THIS is the Next Normal.

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