In the movie “This Is Spinal Tap,” a brilliant mockumentary about a fading English metal band, the group gets lost on their way to a Cleveland venue’s stage. They walk through a warren of underground hallways, unable to find their way.
It is a darkly comic and quietly soul-crushing scene: They are so close, and yet so far. Each step takes them forward, but not to their intended destination.
The audience waits in vain, its waning enthusiasm a nearly palpable presence on screen.
In a few months, thousands of my colleagues will converge on Cleveland, the birthplace of the first Community Foundation 100 years ago, to celebrate the centennial of our field.
They will say things I know to be true and important: that Community Foundations are the fastest-growing sector in American philanthropy; that we manage more than $60 billion in charitable assets for thousands of donors in 750 communities around the country; that we distribute billions each year to programs that make our regions stronger and more vibrant and more just.
And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that our moment in the spotlight will somehow be a letdown.
I am an ardent supporter of Community Foundations. I truly believe that taking action for the greater public good at a local level can have a positive influence on what happens on the state, regional and national stages.
I also believe that Community Foundations, like ours and others, are uniquely positioned to address the most pressing challenges and opportunities our communities face, on issues like growing inequality, immigration, public education and water, to name a few.
I just wish we could do this work with a brand that wasn’t invisible.
Nobody grows up in America knowing what a Community Foundation is, or how it works, or why it exists. Even the large, urban Community Foundation where I worked previously struggles with brand awareness. That foundation has $5 billion in assets and distributes $300 million annually, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one civic leader out of 10 who could utter the phrase “Community Foundation” if you asked them to name a charity that’s making a difference in the lives of Bay Area residents.
Why is this so?
The answer to this question is simple, and not so simple.
Community Foundations struggle to get brand traction because we are the behind-the-scenes gearbox that propels the charitable sector. What I mean is this: Napa Valley Community Foundation has never directly fed a hungry family, or helped a child graduate from high school. But, through our Community Foundation, 2,500 donors have provided $30 million in grant distributions to other nonprofits in Napa Valley in the last 20 years, and our grants have allowed these direct-service agencies to help tens of thousands of parents, children, seniors and teens as a result.
The problem with the Community Foundation brand is the lack of emotional proximity to the work we do. Because we are the connector between local donors and local causes, our work is less evident, and therefore less resonant.
Still, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the formation of the country’s first Community Foundation in Cleveland, I find myself hopeful that our field won’t miss a chance to step into the limelight and trumpet its achievements.
We will never win an Academy Award for Best Picture, but maybe we’ve got a shot at an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
(Terence P. Mulligan is president of the Napa Valley Community Foundation.)