Change, Growth and Impact: Jim Williamson Reflects on Nearly 13 Years at the Helm of the Community Foundation
Later this year, Jim Williamson will retire after nearly 13 years as president of the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain. During that time the Community Foundation has seen its endowment grow 64 percent to more than $40 million, has boosted annual grantmaking to more than $1 million, has adopted the First Years First early childhood development initiative as a primary focus, and has broadened its mission to include not only grantmaking, but community leadership. Jim took time out recently to look back at his tenure, the Foundation’s impact and its place in the communities it serves.
Looking back, Jim, how has the role of the Community Foundation – and community foundations in general – evolved during your time here in Greater New Britain?
What a community foundation can and must be for any community it serves has been evolving for the last decade or two. I think community foundations have learned that they need to be accessible to people from all walks of life, and that you don’t need to be rich to have high aspirations for your community, to be engaged and to be philanthropic. And we can help with that. We can also do much more than just make grants or throw money at a problem. We can foster new conversations on issues, act to convene other organizations concerned with those same problems, and help create a new common agenda which focuses everyone’s efforts and improves the long-term results we all want. That requires us to be out in the community, roll up our sleeves and get deeply involved in the most critical issues. As one of the community’s “anchor institutions,” we are in a unique position to facilitate that and here, with our Community Foundation, I think we’ve made great strides in learning how to play those new roles.
Take us back to the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain you joined in September, 2004.
Just a few years before I came on board, the then-New Britain Foundation for Public Giving merged with the A.W. Stanley Charitable Foundation, tripling its assets to more than $24 million. Up until then we didn’t really have two grant nickels to rub together, and that’s when we truly became a Community Foundation – with a capital C and a capital F. Instead of standing by the transom four times a year, waiting to see what grant requests would come in, the board was placed in a unique position to assess the challenges facing the four communities we serve and ask itself, what is most important? How can we play a bigger role? What is OUR agenda for the community? So, when I arrived, a lot of grant dollars had been freed up, and we had a great opportunity to chart a future course of real impact. I was fortunate to be the beneficiary of that timing.
So, the door was opened to a bright new future of possibilities for the Foundation. How did you, and the Foundation board, manage that opportunity?
It was really from those seeds of opportunity that the First Years First early childhood development initiative came about. We talked a lot in those days about developing an intentional plan of grantmaking that moved the needle in some measurable way on a critically important issue for all of our communities, about taking a stand and saying, “Of all the things we could do as a grantmaker, this is most important.” Based on a series of “Community Conversations” and a lot of research, we chose early childhood development. And what have we done over the years? Through our funding, through our emphasis, through our leadership, through our partnerships, we have helped to shape a conversation and effect tangible change in the quality and availability of early childhood education programs, and helped to remove barriers – and there were plenty – between our schools and available programs.
Talk a little bit more about First Years First and the kind of impact it has had.
When we first got involved in this, school system kindergarten teachers never even talked with early childhood teachers. Now they do. Today in our communities we have more children involved in early childhood education programs, and higher quality programming with better-trained teachers. We have helped create an environment in which a higher percentage of children arrive at kindergarten ready to learn. When we first started out, only 38 percent of New Britain children arriving in kindergarten had any kind of formal early childhood learning experience. As of last fall, that percentage is up over 80 percent. We’ve seen similar success with reducing chronic absence. There aren’t many foundations that will provide grants directly to school systems because they are afraid of replacing tax dollars and doing the job that tax dollars do; we aren’t afraid of that. We know school districts can’t do everything with the limited tax dollars they get, and we have helped build bridges that everyone knows need to be built. Did we do it all by ourselves? Of course not. But I take great pride in our having taken a stand, stimulated the conversation, funded key new programs and in having played significant part in making change happen.
As you assess your tenure here, what are you most proud of and what will your legacy be?
I am very proud of the fact that we are about something important here at the Community Foundation. We are putting somewhere in the area of 25-30 percent of our annual discretionary grantmaking into early childhood development, and some difficult choices had to be made to accommodate that. We had to be strong and say “we think your program, whatever that might be, is important, of course, but we think that helping to prepare our children for success is the most important thing we can do with the limited funding we have.” Our board has stuck to that stance, and today, I think we have greater visibility and respect as a result.
I think if I have a legacy, I hope it would be that the integrity and professionalism of this community foundation are its distinguishing characteristics. If we can maintain ourselves as a trusted partner and opinion leader speaking on behalf of the community we serve, and if we can use that privilege to bring together the presumably disparate parts of our human service or arts or health-related community in order to stimulate productive conversations and spur action that makes quality of life here better, that would be the legacy I would want to leave.
I also feel very blessed to have worked with, on our board, our staff and in the community, some of the best, brightest and most passionate people I’ve ever known. I have a pretty rich history of moving from town to town, place to place, and nowhere have I found the kind of passion that people here have for the things we are trying to do. Of all the things that I will miss about this career, it is that. It’s a true honor to be able to call up our board members, or to get through to the president of this company or the mayor of this town or the superintendent of that school district, and to know that together, we care about the same things. There just isn’t any better work than that.