Growing philanthropy

Association head builds funding capacity throughout U.S.

By Ret Boney

After witnessing the power of nonprofits during a semester in Bogotá, Columbia, Ellen Barclay built her career in the sector, and now sets her sights on building more philanthropy.

Last February, Barclay took the helm of the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, a Washington, D.C.-based network of funding associations from across the country.

“It got started as a way for CEOs to come together to share notes,” she says.  “We help our regional associations serve their members better.”

Today the forum has 30 regional funding associations as members, representing almost 4,000 U.S. grantmakers, including independent, community and family foundations, corporations and other groups that make grants in their communities.

With a staff of 11, the forum provides training, information and resources and coordinates grants to strengthen its members, and works to create more and different kinds of philanthropy.

Keeping her members well educated and informed is at the top of Barclay’s agenda now, she says, especially in the wake of several high-profile management scandals in the grantmaking and nonprofit sectors.

                                 Ellen Barclay

Job: President, Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, Washington, D.C.

Education:  B.A., Latin American studies, College of Wooster; M.A., Latin American studies, University of Florida, Gainesville

Born: Rochester, N.Y.

Hobbies: Flower gardening, novels, attending classical music performances

Currently reading: “The News from Paraguay,” by Lily Tuck

Favorite piece of classical music: Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings

Inspiration: Experience as exchange student. “Whenever you learn or have new experiences, it gives you the opportunity to see the world in a different way.”

In response, the forum is educating member about effectiveness and accountability through tools like teleconferences and seminars, and by urging regional associations to help their members develop guiding principles for their organizations.

It also co-sponsored Foundations on the Hill, an event in which 175 foundations spent the day in Washington, D.C., meeting with senators, congressmen and their staffs

“We’re hopeful that foundations better understand they’re more under a microscope than they used to be,” Barclay says, “and that it’s an opportunity to tell the stories about the good things they do.”

Late last year, the forum hosted a conference call led by an attorney to discuss the pitfalls of Form 990 information returns filed with the IRS, says Barclay, and help its members understand that those documents are not only reporting tools, but information sources for people wanting to learn more about grantmakers.

Two more calls on 990s are scheduled for April, similar sessions are planned on compensation issues, and the forum is in the process of raising money to provide grants for regional associations to help their members draft guiding principles and provide training on effectiveness and accountability.

Through its New Ventures initiative, started in 1998, the forum is trying to find and involve new donors, and to date has invested $14 million, contributed by donors, in 41 community efforts that have led to the establishment of an estimated $570 million in new endowments.

“The forum is in a good position to help members grow philanthropy in their regions and help connect established philanthropists with new philanthropists,” Barclay says.

One of its most recent efforts was a national media rollout on the growing trend of giving circles, in which individuals with similar interests pool their funds and together decide how and where to make charitable grants.

The forum is also developing a series of “knowledge labs,” or collections of information and best practices available to members, on topics like rural philanthropy and giving among racial, ethnic and tribal minorities, and is in the process of developing an online knowledge-management center to house the data.

“The goal is to have a central place where this information will go where people can learn how to grow philanthropy among non-traditional communities,” she says.

Barclay, a native of Rochester, N.Y., began her career with a brief stint at a New York City ad agency, but the job didn’t hold her interest, she says.

Remembering her experiences in Bogotá, where she saw nonprofit groups attempting to confront the region’s immense challenges, she embarked on a career in the nonprofit sector.

She spent 13 years with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, directing the group’s professional education efforts and conferences.

A French horn player and lover of classical music, she then served as executive director of the American String Teachers Association, where she worked to expand opportunities for students to study string music and taught teachers how to advocate for music education in the schools.

Most recently, Barclay served as deputy executive director of the Fulbright Scholars program, which identifies professors and professionals to do research abroad with the goal of expanding mutual understanding.

And now, through her leadership of the forum, Barclay has the opportunity to build the sector that has meant so much to her.

“Why you do your work, and the focus, is so much more interesting and has so much more meaning for me,” she says of life in the nonprofit sector.  “It’s nice to feel you’re working with people who have similar values and commitment to a certain cause.”

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