Practicing what we preach: Innovate or stagnate

Wichita Community Foundation CEO Shelly Prichard
Wichita Community Foundation CEO Shelly Prichard File photo

For 25 years, the Wichita Community Foundation took great care of our fund holders and facilitated gifting millions of dollars to nonprofits in Wichita. But as any good leaders should do, our board asked: Is that enough? The answer came back a resounding no.

While we had helped many agencies, we hadn’t solved any community problems. In fact, we hadn’t even asked any meaningful questions about what Wichita wanted or needed.

I’m not being critical. The WCF was following the very traditional community foundation model, one that had been in place for 95 years throughout the U.S. But just as business has to evolve and change to meet ever-changing market demands, so must nonprofits, including community foundations.

As we talked to nonprofits about their struggles to support their operations through the ever-increasing number of organizations, and the seemingly rapid decline in available funds, we challenged organizational leaders to think differently, to come to the table with new solutions, to find a new way to work, to improve their business model, and to innovate. (There, I said it: innovate. Possibly the most over-used word around here, but thanks to Wichita State University, and its work on the Innovation Campus, a word that rings true for what has to happen to ensure Wichita’s future viability.)

We realized we needed to apply those same standards to our work at the foundation. Were we challenging our long-held ways of work? Again, another no.

At the foundation, we started asking ourselves this question: Why is Wichita in the economic position that it is in, and how can we help change the trajectory? We investigated the idea of creating a community scorecard – a look back over the last 3-5 years – examining areas of strength, identifying challenges to address, and looking at those issues over time for trends.

Enter James Chung. He wouldn’t do that, he said, because his company, Reach Advisors, looks forward, through a process of predictive analytics. Reach Advisors assists companies as they navigate through issues that deter growth, and look for ways to effect real change. WCF hired Chung to do the same for Wichita, and called this initiative Focus Forward.

Then came the flurry of questions: Why is the Wichita Community Foundation hiring a world-class researcher? What does that have to do with supporting nonprofits in Wichita? Shouldn’t the Chamber, the City or others do this work? Why does WCF care about this work?

Here’s why: We are a place-based, public foundation that was created to focus on improving the lives of Wichitans. What better way to impact the entire community than by identifying and catalyzing efforts to stimulate economic growth?

As our co-founder, Mary Lynn Oliver, said: “The Community Foundation bridges generations. It gives each of us the opportunity to honor the foresight of our predecessors and to make our community better for our children … and our children’s children.”

Our goal with Chung’s work is to have a multi-generational impact on our city and region. But WCF is certainly not alone in this work. There are scores of other organizations working in this arena; Chung calls them Team Wichita.

We know much of this work has been going on for years, and is rapidly ramping up, in volume, frequency and impact. We hope WCF has helped create a space to talk about these issues by putting data on the table, keeping politics off the table, and convening people and organizations to move even faster toward solutions.

In 2017, WCF will launch two new initiatives: one focused on literacy, and the other working to improve nonprofit leadership capacity. Look for announcements in the coming weeks.

As we enter these new areas, we are committed to think about an exit strategy as we begin – we hope to avoid linking the word “annual” with our projects. We don’t want to create expectations or continue work past its natural life. A perfect example of how we look at this work is The Art Day of Giving (ArtDOG). In three years, this project raised more than $3.2 million for almost 60 arts organizations. But the business model wasn’t sustainable, and it wasn’t achieving the program goals outside of the pure dollar amount, so we knew it was time to bring that program to a close.

This isn’t easy work. At WCF, we are fortunate to have a board of directors who love Wichita. They have the vision to experiment and learn. They have the willingness to sit in some pretty uncomfortable space while we seek projects that have broad and deep impact. We have to do this work because we aren’t comfortable with the status quo. We hope you aren’t either.

Shelly Prichard is president and CEO of the Wichita Community Foundation.