Triangle Community Foundation’s O’Keefe seeks to be more responsive to local needs

Lori O’Keefe
Lori O’Keefe

Jill Warren Lucas

Lori O’Keefe achieved a significant career milestone in December when she was selected to serve as the new president of the Triangle Community Foundation (TCF). The organization had been stunned last fall when its last leader, chosen through a national search, quit after just two months on the job. Its previous president left unexpectedly the year before.

“I’ve been with the organization for eight years, so in one sense I just feel like I moved down the hall and picked up where things left off,” says O’Keefe, a 20-year nonpr
ofit veteran who was formerly TCF’s vice president and chief operating officer. “I’m in this weird place of being the new guy, but I’m not. I recognize the importance of how I build my capacity as a leader, and how I develop a very intentional direction for the organization.”

O’Keefe, who assumed her new role on Jan. 1, is already deep in the process of revising protocols for grantmaking to community-based nonprofits. While the available “discretionary” funds that support community grants accounts for less than $1 million of TCF’s $13 million in annual awards, O’Keefe is very aware that it represents the public face of its mission to support local agencies that strive to serve specific community needs.

The full plan will not be rolled out for a few more months, but O’Keefe credits interim president Phail Wynn for making it possible by strengthening the foundation’s infrastructure during the bumpy transition. Wynn, immediate past chair of TCF’s board of directors, served a similar role after the previous president resigned.

“His focus on our core functions meant that our day-to-day operations were not affected by the transition,” O’Keefe says. “Grants continued to go out the door and gifts continued to come in. It was pretty much business as usual.”

In fact, O’Keefe says that TCF gained momentum in the closing months of 2012 with new and renewed gifts. She is building on that by working with a task force of community leaders to identify the most urgent needs of citizens in the foundation’s Piedmont service area – and, as a result, discover additional nonprofits that are qualified to meet those needs.

“Last summer we started reviewing the community programs we had in place the last five or six years, especially youth leadership and development, and civic engagement,” she says. “We looked at new ways to match the specific parameters identified by our donors to better serve actual needs identified by key community leaders.”

After considerable deliberation, the task force identified five key fields in which TCF would focus future community grant funding: art, human services, youth and education, healthcare, and the environment. Collected data is being studied to further refine the topics for recommendation to TCF’s board.

“The goal is to expand to have more opportunity to reach nonprofits in these issue areas, and also to build our own knowledge base,” O’Keefe says. “It is important for us to build our knowledge of who in the nonprofit sector is doing best practice work that we can be supporting. It is a core aspect of our role as a community foundation.”

O’Keefe is optimistic that the final plan will be rolled out before the end of the current fiscal year. She adds that quality nonprofit programs which don’t easily fit into the new categories – especially those that are currently or previously funded – should not be concerned about future opportunities. “Most if not all of the organizations that have been supported through our discretionary program have also received awards through our donor-advised funding,” she says.

Other TCF projects in the works include planning for the foundation’s 30th anniversary in 2014 – which also will mark the 100th anniversary of the Community Foundation model.

“Part of that celebration of milestones is recognizing our key legacy donors, and those who are still with us, who have helped to build the foundation to where it is today,” O’Keefe says. “Because of them and our dedicated board, we are a strong operation. And we are building from within to be even better prepared for the future.”

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