The Challenge of Staffing Growth – One Community Foundation’s Story

When I first came to the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne in 1995, we had two-and-a-half staff – a full-time executive director (me), a full-time program officer, and a half-time receptionist.   (We had assets of about $30 million in 18 different charitable funds.)  That, of course, meant that I wore many hats:  Finance, development, marketing and communications, and occasional housekeeping. 

Complicating it all was the fact that 95% of our assets came from one donor (in a donor advised fund and a supporting organization) who was actively involved with the community foundation.  Furthermore, this donor was very frugal, and the administrative fees he had negotiated were quite low.

I knew right away that my first hire needed to be a financial manager.  Financial activity was tracked via spreadsheets – and, no, not Excel or even VisiCalc (remember that one, kids?) – we used pencil and paper spreadsheets which needed to be updated each month.  Bringing on a high-quality financial manager --  who implemented our new database software package --  was one of the best staffing moves I ever made.

The next staffing challenge came when our largest local bank decided to get out of the scholarship business, and we negotiated the transfer of those trusts to the community foundation.  Scholarships are a lot of work, but the fees from those trusts allowed me to bring on a half-time scholarship manager.

We had some strong growth in the late 1990s – a soaring stock market helped a lot – so my next step was to upgrade the half-time receptionist position to a full time executive assistant, with responsibility for maintaining our database.

By the early 2000s we continued to grow, and I was finding it difficult to both grow and steward our expanding donor base.  Around that time, Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis launched a program to strengthen fund development at Indiana community foundations.  I used the funding to hire our first full-time fund development officer, and a half-time manager of marketing and communications.

By 2007, I was feeling pretty good about our staffing – assets had gone over $100 million, and I thought we were fully staffed to continue the Foundation’s growth.  But, there is an old Yiddish saying which says, “Man Plans, and God Laughs.” 

I had stretched our budget aggressively to get to what I viewed as full staffing.  But between late 2008 and early 2009 our investments fell close to 30% -- which meant the budget approved by our Board in November 2008 was shot to pieces.  Not wanting to lay off anyone, we all took a salary reduction.

The reduction, thank goodness, was temporary.  By the time the 2010 budget was put together we were able to restore those cuts.  But if there was one lesson I took from my blunder it was this:  Make sure you have a strong cash cushion to help you get through stock market declines.  I’ve lived through several of them, and they will happen again.  So be prepared.

Well, that’s my staffing growth story.  You, of course, face a different set of circumstances.  As Brian Fogle of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks is quoted as saying, “When you have seen one community foundation … you have seen one community foundation.”  Your situation is different, but hopefully you can learn from my mistakes.