Commentary and conversations about life in Richmond, Indiana

Community Life

Rebecca Gilliam on adapting community philanthropy and support during COVID-19

Rebecca Gilliam had only been in the Executive Director job at the Wayne County Foundation for a few months when the COVID-19 pandemic changed daily life for everyone in Wayne County. From helping not-for-profit providers of essential services to shifting day-to-day office operations to planning for the future of grant-making and philanthropy in our community, Rebecca and the staff of the Foundation have been busy.

In this conversation, we talk about some of those efforts, what to do when our initial plans don’t work out, and what kinds of shifts in thinking and priorities area organizations may need to consider moving forward.

Disclosure: I am a current donor to, and former board member at, the Wayne County Foundation.


The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions.

Chris Hardie: Rebecca Gilliam, thank you so much for joining me and I’m excited to talk with you.

Rebecca Gilliam: Oh, no problem. I’m very excited.

Chris: For those who might still be unfamiliar with it, tell us exactly what the Wayne County Foundation is and what it does.

Rebecca: We’re a county wide community foundation, and we work with donors who are interested in leaving a legacy and impacting their community today and into the future. So we’re working with them on charitable giving and how their legacy can be met. And then on the other side, we work with nonprofits and other community organization to better understand the needs that are in the community, and then, we match those funding sources with the community need. And really it’s … I feel so blessed to be able to serve in this role, especially today.

Chris: And you started in that role right at the end of 2019, if I am reading correctly, right as Steve Borchers was retiring. What did you notice? What did you learn about this community as you came into that job?

Rebecca: Well, first I was welcomed so easily back into the community. So I have a history. I grew up here, but like a lot of us, we went away to college, then we took a first job. I was in Indianapolis, sort of wound my way around and ended up in Muncie, Indiana. So coming back at the end of December, I really reconnected with some old friends, some family friends, and then was welcomed into the community through a lot of different organizations. The other thing that I noticed was the incredible reputation that the foundation had within the community of really serving through grants, the Challenge Match Program, the nonprofit support. It’s such an important institution in the community, and I am so pleased that I was able to come in at the end of the year and begin my leadership.

Chris: We know anyone who’s been through any kind of job transition, moving, and anything else like that, those things are full of learning and stress anyway, but then this pandemic just a few months into your tenure, what’s that been like?

Rebecca: Well, I’ve joked, so I came in as part of the hiring process. I had a hundred day plan and best made plans don’t always go according to your thinking. So the foundation was poised to do this work and I just had to catch up. So what I thought might be my work in the first three to six months has turned out to be very different. I’ve still had to learn all of the different moving parts of leading in this organization, but we’ve had to really shift and pivot our thinking in how we’re doing, grant making, additional response dollars that we can make available, and finding ways to fill those gaps in the community. So it’s been wonderful. It’s been hard. It’s been rewarding. It’s overwhelming. All of those things, but it’s a great place to be.

Chris: Yeah. Was there a moment in all of this kind of unfolding where you really knew that, “Okay, this is not going to be just a temporary shift in how we do things,” or like, “Oh wow, this is like a really big deal”? Was there a moment like that for you where it kind of crystallized or is it a gradual process, like I imagine it has been for some people?

Rebecca: Well, it was gradual. I was seeing two sides. So one was just the daily work that we do within the foundation, having to clean the office more frequently, think about how we were seated around the table. We all just sort of jumped into doing that. But very quickly, as we started … As schools … I think it was probably when schools closed and we realized all these children were going back into their homes 24/7, we started to see how food distribution and childcare was being disrupted and that became very real, and it was at that point that … And it timed out just fortunately perfectly that we had a board meeting and we were able as a board to really discuss ways that we could mobilize to very quickly address some of those short term needs.

Chris: And if you can, walk us through what some of those have been. I know that this has affected everyone in some way, but how has the COVID-19 pandemic affected not for profits and where there were already community needs that were maybe unmet or under met? What does that look like now?

Rebecca: So for some nonprofits, it means that they are seeing a higher volume. So your agencies that typically provide food and nutritional support, it is just increased exponentially the amount of need. You have other nonprofits that, this time of year, your cultural entities, they’re having performances. They’re expecting patrons to come and enjoy the arts. That’s not happening. You have all of your agencies that are dealing with the health and humanitarian side. Centerstone, they had to shift to telemedicine and be able to do support for children who need counseling services. They had to completely shift how they’re working with them, but there are other agencies that they still need to provide the services, but they had to completely change how they were able to go about doing that because they were not able to be face to face.

So there are all sorts of different needs. And then some agencies have simply had to just completely shutter for the time being because the services they provide, although awesome and wonderful, were not considered essential. So they don’t really have a mechanism for being open unless they were to shift the work that they were doing, which is in some cases not appropriate.

Chris: For the agencies that are having to really retool their programs and services, is a lot of the mechanics of it with communication online through the internet, through apps, whatever, or is it more, is it deeper than that? Is it a cultural shift for them? Is it a really kind of rethinking the nature of the programs themselves?

Rebecca: We’re seeing both, and I think we’re going to see more of the rethinking, the programming, in the future. So the immediate needs were how do we still stay in business, we still serve our audience, and do that either virtually or using approved practices? I think of all the Circle U, the ministries, and the churches that do meals. You have to do take out. So where they were not having expenses related to food service, they could wash dishes, reuse materials. They had to completely shift to all take out supplies, and that’s very costly, a much more challenging way to deliver their essential services. So yes, there has been an immediate retooling, but I think this crisis is going to force a whole lot more of the nonprofits, in particular and I’m guessing small businesses across the board, to really rethink how they’re doing business in the next six months, 12 months, even 18 months. It’s going to really make us rethink everything.

Chris: Yeah. Yeah. Now, tell us about there’s a Wayne County Cares fund that the Foundation has been a big part of. Tell us how that came to be and what that does.

Rebecca: Sure. So if I could back up one quick, to delineate the two. So we immediately did the COVID-19 crisis response grants, and that was an effort to quickly get resources out the door to frontline needs to keep those basic, essential services being provided as they had more pressure and more people to serve. So that was the first prong of our approach. More recently, we had a donor, who was very interested in pulling together a fund that could directly serve families and individuals that are impacted due to loss of employment and that really have no other backup. They were living month to month. They were making it, but a loss in income really puts them in a precarious situation. So that was the start of the thinking behind the Cares fund.

And with those dollars and conversations with the Township Trustee, Salvation Army, and other service providers, we were able to look at offering resources through those agencies to be able to directly impact the individual or the family. And since then, we’ve had First Bank Richmond come on board. We’ve had additional donors throughout the community, and we’re probably going to partner with some other agencies to see how we can pool resources and ensure that we’re filling that gap and those needs that families have that are not … They’re all just a little different. But how do we get resources directly to their immediate needs?

Chris: It sounds pretty amazing. And I get the sense that as our community begins to understand what needs are out there. As a community, we’ve really risen to those challenges, and people are asking how they can help, whether it’s at the individual level or the corporate level. If someone wanted to read more or learn more about that Wayne County Cares fund and what the opportunities are either to contribute or to benefit from it, what’s a good place for them to do that?

Rebecca: Visiting our website is probably their first place. We, of course, have been putting it out on all of our social channels and then conversations. We welcome any calls to the foundation. We’re really trying to help folks who want to find a way to do something, make that happen.

Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Great. I know that there’s always a conversation happening within organizations like the foundation and in the broader community about what the right mix is of how to meet community needs through … What’s the responsibility of public and government agencies? What’s the responsibility of a private, commercial interests? What’s the responsibility of philanthropic organizations? Does this pandemic and this situation bring into focus for you any sort of data points about our community in terms of where we rely too much or not enough on any one of those sources when we think about families who are right at that edge? What does it tell you or what can we learn from that?

Rebecca: Wow. That is a big question that … You’re right. It is a conversation happening within the Wayne County Foundation but also across the state. All the community foundations and other philanthropic organizations are really wrestling with that and it’s hard and we have a fairly low income community that suffers on a lot of levels and we have incredible individuals in the community that would give anything to help relieve some of those areas of need. So we are fortunate that we have folks who do want to support it. Yes, there’s absolutely a role for all of those entities. I fear that we are going to find ourselves even worse coming out of this than where we started, and we already see a lot of support from the federal, state, and county government in supporting a lot of the basic services that need to happen around here. I don’t know the answer. I think time is it going to tell, and at the moment, we’re needing inputs from every source.

Chris: Yeah, it’s a lot to ask anyone or any organization to solve that problem or tie that conversation up neatly. One of the things I appreciate about our community is that it’s small enough that you can make a difference in substantial ways and in visible ways. It’s really tempting when we talk about how to support people in need. The national conversation so quickly goes to these really big numbers and really big generalizations, I guess, about big parts of the population. And you can live in a place like Richmond or Wayne County and when you’re talking about thousands or tens of thousands of people, it becomes more human scale, I guess.

Rebecca: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chris: And that’s why it’s really neat to hear about something like the Wayne County Cares fund where instead of trying to solve that bigger problem in the midst of this crisis, it’s like let’s do that direct front line assistance and giving and make a difference now. And then we can worry about some of those bigger things later.

Rebecca: Yes. We’ll start sorting out some of those details later because we know that that’s … I was able to talk to almost all of the township trustees and there’s 15 of them in Wayne County. And I was so encouraged by their understanding of the families that were in their township and their needs and their concern. So we do. We have this wonderful community that wants to step up. We’re covering this short term need. It’ll be very interesting to see how it grows and how we’re all going to have to come together to really support a wide variety of industry and business and nonprofits and individuals in the coming months.

Chris: Yeah. I know that the foundation lists it’s kind of assets that it stewards is around 45 million, and I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the process that’s used to decide during grant cycles or other opportunities to decide how those funds are brought to bear for the benefit of the community. I’m sure there might be someone out there, again if they’re unfamiliar with the foundation, that says, “Forty-five million. Just write a check to local government or write a check to whatever entity.”

Rebecca: Right.

Chris: So how does the Foundation ensure that it is a good steward of those funds, and do you see that process shifting at all just in the light of current events?

Rebecca: So the funds, that we have, have been contributed by individuals and corporations since we were established in the late ’70s. Most of those were established with guidelines. So we’re really an organization that has a lot of funds that we manage, that we distribute per their fund agreement and/or using a spending policy. And why that is very important is that it ensures that we keep the principle, that original gift, and we are then only spending out of the interest and that way gifts can be made in perpetuity and impact the community.

So when we make decisions about grants, we are looking at the amount of money that we’re able to offer. And right now, it’s a four and a half percent spending policy, and our CFO does all of the calculations behind the scenes and we are very diligent about being very good at keeping all that in order. I have a great investment committee that evaluates our investments on a quarterly basis. We’re making decisions so that we preserve those assets that have been entrusted with us.

When we move into grant making, we have an approach to grant making that uses a general application process with guidelines and then we use a committee to evaluate all of those based on a scoring rubric that aligns with the guidelines and then there’s a pool of resources that we’re able to allocate each year. And so that’s one half of it. The other side, which a lot of people are very familiar with also, is the Challenge Match side, and that is an opportunity for organizations to seek funds for operations. So we partner with organizations and offer matching dollars so that they can really grow their annual support campaigns.

Chris: And yeah, do you think current events will shift any of that or does that all still seem all very relevant and a helpful way to approach it?

Rebecca: It already has shifted it. We immediately offered flexibility or the opportunity to change what organizations were wanting to do in the spring grant cycle. The spring grant cycle was underway right as all these events started unfolding. Because nobody could really see where this was going too clearly, we hated to completely shift the spring grant cycle. So what we did instead was reach out to the organizations who we knew were applying or had already applied and give them some flexibility in the type of application that they wanted to present. If they wanted to shift it, great. We’d offer that. If they need an extension on getting the application in, we made that possible, as well.

Rebecca: I don’t know where it’s going. I think as this continues and we see that organizations are still shut down or, unthinkably, if this summer we see organizations that are able to gather and have the events that they’ve planned, we’ve made a commitment as an organization and the board has supported being very flexible in how that grant making shifts again, if those organizations need us to shift with their changing needs.

Chris: Yeah, yeah.

Rebecca: So every day is a new day. We’re taking every case individually, and we want to be a good partner and ensure that funds are being used in a way that is most meaningful for the organization and the audience.

Chris: That’s great. I think of fundraising as an art and community development, as a general practice, as something, especially in Wayne County, that often takes place in person, historically. Meetings, gatherings, strategic planning sessions, workshops, and like all of us, this has forced us to work from home or to really change the way we think about getting things done. Do you notice anything so far about in terms of how the foundation is operating or just how you see nonprofits doing their day to day business? Is it working to do that over email, video chat, that kind of thing? Are there still big challenges to be solved there?

Rebecca: We’re all trying to make it work. It’s a challenge. What would normally be a face to face or a quick coffee with somebody, you’re scheduling, you’re doing it over video conferencing. Not only are there conversations you’re having in fundraising but you’re also just colleagues in the community. We’re trying to ensure that we’re all moving in tandem and not stepping all over each other and duplicating efforts. So it’s been interesting. It’s been hard. I’ve said that I think this is a much harder way to work than a traditional office.

Chris: Yeah, yeah.

Rebecca: But most folks are pretty resourceful and we’re figuring out ways to do it. I have a virtual chat with somebody tomorrow. We’re just having a one-on-one using Zoom. It feels a little weird saying that out loud, but I hate to not move forward.

Chris: Yeah, yeah. The work doesn’t stop. As some people have pointed out, it’s not really fair to ourselves to say that everybody is just working from home because for most people what’s happening is they happen to be at home trying to get something done in the midst of the stress and uncertainty of a global pandemic. And it’s a very different kind of situation in which to try to figure out those sort of processes and tools and everything else. But as you said, people seem resourceful about it too. So it’s neat to see what creativity comes out of that, as well.

Rebecca: Absolutely. I’ve heard some folks joke that so many people are working from home with new co-workers because a lot of children are at home with them and that that’s a whole different scenario. So many families are trying to work from home and school their kids from home and that is just unimaginable trying to make that work. I’m fortunate. I have support of some parents, who are willing to help me school my child while I’m doing work, but it’s a really hard way to work.

Chris: Yeah. Yeah. And it highlights that as a community … And I think this is being said at the state and national level too. Our ability to go back to work really does depend so much on what happens with childcare and with the school systems, and we already knew that Wayne County had some challenges with childcare availability and early childhood education. And so I can imagine that this situation, just again, brings those into focus, and hopefully, has some silver linings in it in terms of how we think about it. But I know that that’s got to be affecting a lot of people everyday, right now.

Rebecca: Absolutely. Most of the childcare in the county is closed. That’s been some recent conversations. Are we ready for when people go back to work and what’s going to happen with some of these organizations? Are they ready to do this?

Chris: Yeah, yeah. I know you already said that you have this concern that when we come out of this, some of the challenges we were already facing, we might be in an even worse place. Maybe it’s too early to be asking this question, but if a not for profit organization or really any organization, business, whatever is kind of looking ahead and trying to think about like how can they position themselves to come out of this in the best way possible … If they came to you for advice on that, what would you tell them? What kinds of things should they be thinking about or doing now that might set them up to be in a better place hopefully, not too far in the distant future?

Rebecca: Well, I can tell you that the things that I am trying to think through and do, and I’ll start with my own organization, is really looking at everything we do and the why behind what we’re doing so that if we have to prioritize what we do, we have a really strong reason for doing that and it aligns with our mission. So that would be the thing I would start talking with specifically nonprofits. I have much more experience in that area. Is really looking at all the work that’s being done and getting down to the why behind it and alignment with mission and then seeing what can be done as changing resources, changing audiences come to bear as we see what happens as the community tries to start to recover from this.

I’d also encourage folks to look at services that are duplicated. And I’ll say that loosely because there’s a lot of small groups who are serving very niche populations and I think that’s very valuable. But in general I think we’re going to have to look at how we can combine some resources and combine even some back office work perhaps to ensure that we’re serving needs and also doing that really efficiently. So I think those are some of the things. At least, that’s what I’m starting to talk with folks about, some of the things I’m thinking about.

Chris: Great. Well, that’s really insightful and I hope, yeah, I hope people listen to that and take that to heart because that sounds well worth doing. If someone out there wanted to be involved with the work of the foundation, either in the specific context of helping the community through our current situation or just in general thinking about philanthropic giving or being a part of some of the programs and services that you offer, where’s a good place for them to start, if they want to help out in some way?

Rebecca: Well, certainly we do provide resources on our website. However, these are the kind of conversations that I like to have, my staff love to have with folks to really better understand what they’re hoping to achieve, and we can help them understand all the different ways that that can happen. So that’s the best part of this job is really talking to individuals and understanding how we can help, how we can get them where they want to be in their charitable giving.

Chris: Great. Well, Rebecca Gilliam, thank you so much for your time and for all of the work that you’re doing to help our community in this time, and we wish you the best in all of that.

Rebecca: Well, I really appreciate you inviting me, and this has been great.

1 Comment

  1. Len Clark

    Really good interview, Chris. Rebecca is turning out to be a real gift for the community.

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