More than 60 years ago, Helene Foellinger stood before a crowd of people and reminded them that the most important thing for all of us was that we help people to help themselves and one another.
It was a simple collection of words that has since evolved into the primary mission of the Foellinger Foundation—one that is rooted in ideas of independence, self-reliance and community building. Today, as the Foellinger Foundation continues to serve as one of the largest sources of nonprofit grant funding throughout Allen County, its visible footprint throughout Northeast Indiana serves as powerful proof that a single passion truly can change countless lives.
“This year, the Foellinger Foundation provided $8 M in grants,” says Cheryl Taylor, CEO. She hesitates to say that aloud, knowing that on the surface, those millions seem like so much. But to anyone who has taken even a quick look into the needs of the community, it’s clear that Taylor isn't exaggerating when she says “It’s all just a drop in the bucket.”
And more than just a drop in the bucket, that $8 M is also just a small piece of the puzzle of how the Foellinger Foundation approaches change throughout the community. “Our grants can be challenging because we’re looking first at how an organization thinks and works,” she says. “Our expectation is that an organization is mission-driven, well-governed, and results-oriented. We want to know how you identify your mission and how you stick to your plan.”
To answer those questions, each applying organization has to show how it tracks and measures specific actions. It needs to be able to describe how its board operates, and specifically, the Foundation wants to know how the board carries out a strategic plan and what tools are in place to make the organization better.
“There’s a belief in the community that if you get a Foellinger Foundation grant, you’ve really got it together,” says Taylor.
Doing that, however, is much harder than it seems.
Equipping Leaders to Sustain the Mission
For nonprofits operating on lean staff and budgets, drawing connections between mission and outcomes can be a difficult process. One of the ways organizations can do this, says Taylor, is through storytelling—and that’s something that she says NeighborLink has done very well.
“Nonprofits have to distinguish themselves from everyone else if they’re going to survive in this competitive market,” says Taylor. Her mind immediately goes to the story of the Carpenter’s Sons—a group of NeighborLink volunteers who regularly take on NeighborLink projects. “I’m intrigued that these guys go to church together in the morning, or go grab breakfast, and then they get to work. They have a spiritual base that creates this social opportunity for them to reach out across their community and connect with people they wouldn’t typically intersect with.”
Although the Foundation has given NeighborLink more than $100 K in funding throughout the years, Taylor says that beyond good storytelling, it takes the right leadership structure to make any amount of funding effective. As she looks out across the nonprofit landscape, she anticipates some significant challenges on the horizon. Baby boomers are retiring, signaling a gap in nonprofit leadership, and she wonders if the younger generations will step up to the plate. “There’s so much opportunity for younger people within the nonprofit world, but they’re living busy lives, and many within the older generation haven’t figured out how to effectively mentor this younger generation into new leadership roles,” she says.
The Foundation isn’t the only organization talking about the challenges of leadership succession, but because it believes so strongly in leadership development, it has launched a program to help both new and seasoned leaders through concepts like strategy, negotiation, and difficult conversations. “So much of leadership is about finding your true peers and the connectivity that you gain from that. Being a leader of a nonprofit is a lonely job,” says Taylor. “There aren’t a lot of people who understand your challenges. We get that here at Foellinger, so the premise of our leadership program is to offer top-notch educational opportunities right here in Allen County. We believe firmly that if we invest in leaders, the organizations we support will be excellent.”
It’s a program that Taylor says NeighborLink has already benefited from, and as Andrew Hoffman makes his way through the Foellinger Foundation’s 18-month Executive Leader Program, he’s able to continue to focus his own vision on what’s next for NeighborLink.
“I want steward the NeighborLink mission well, and in order to do that, I must continue to grow as a leader,” says Hoffman. “The varied demands and challenges with running a small, grassroots nonprofit constantly push me on a daily basis, and this makes it hard to find the time to go deeper in a particular area of professional growth. The Foellinger Executive Leader Program has been a helpful way to carve out space to focus on organizational, culture-driven changes— both personally and corporately at NeighborLink. I consider it an honor to be selected and invested in.”