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Keep Your Objective in Mind: North Carolina Foundation for Nursing

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NCFN President Catherine Gilliss

NCFN Executive Director Tina Gordon

By Jack Ahern 

Membership organizations have their own unique purpose. They support professionals in a shared field by offering credentialing, continuing education, and networking. But what happens when an organization’s members want to do more for their profession? What happens when they want go beyond the role of a typical 501(c)6? For the North Carolina Nurses Association (NCNA), the answer was simple: start a foundation.

“We never have enough nurses,” says Tina Gordon, who holds dual roles as the CEO of NCNA and Executive Director of the North Carolina Foundation for Nursing (NCFN). While NCNA focuses on the present needs of its members, NCFN directs its attention to the future of nursing. The organization raises funds for education to train more nurses and to prepare existing nurses for the changing healthcare landscape. The foundation also funds research to identify the value of registered nurses in the health care delivery system. While NCFN and NCNA serve similar populations, their varied approach illustrates the different needs nonprofit of varying classifications can address. Over time, the foundation has learned that there is an important balance to strike between working with the parent organization while also remaining true to its own mission.

Created in 1988, The North Carolina Nurses Foundation works very closely with the North Carolina Nurses Association. Their closest tie is that the organizations share staff, with foundation compensating the parent organization for its time and resources. Catherine Gilliss, president of NCFN, says ultimately, they “operate as the charitable arm of the organization.” This means that the large organization can focus on the providing member benefits, while the foundation can fill its own niche. Often this relationship allows the foundation to generate more attention to themselves, to “do better and to do more” says Gilliss. For example, the foundation can leverage the association to find students to apply for the scholarships or generating funds and publicity at a silent auction at the NCNA’s annual meeting. 

However, the foundation operates separately from the association in its primary functions. NCFN’s main program is to provide scholarships to educate nurses, pre and post licensure.  The foundation currently provides six different scholarships ranging from $1,000-$10,000.  Funding for these scholarships comes from a number of different sources such as vanity license plates, bequests from former members, partnerships, or other revenue sources. This diversification allows the foundation to remain consistent in its scholarships. The varied funding also illustrates that the organization is “open to different ways and different opportunities to pursue our common goal,” says Gordon.

Although the parent organization has substantial resources,  they are not necessarily the best avenue for all projects. For example, the leadership realized that their nurses’ leadership academy was a better fit inside the foundation. Not only did it better fit their mission of educating the next generation of nurse leaders, it also made more financial sense. NCFN was better able to secure funding for the leadership academy as well. As Gordon describes, “Outside contributors would care more about the program and would be more willing to support it.”

The foundation succeeds most when it operates within its mission, explains Gordon. That means knowing when to say ‘no’ to certain opportunities. “There is a lot of money in nursing, often times we will be presented with related programs and projects that can seem like opportunities,” Gordon says, “those opportunities can often mean shifting the mission of the organization.” Although the foundation would love to welcome more funding, its existing varied sources affords them the ability to move on from opportunities that do not fit their organization’s mission of educating nurses.

Diversified support also means that the foundation does not have to rely on the donations of members of the parent organization to function. This opens up other meaningful ways for the members to contribute, often through volunteer roles. One of the biggest roles that volunteers play in the foundation is through the scholarship selection process. Last year, around 40 volunteers formed the committee reviewing and selecting the winning applicants. These members provide meaningful feedback to staff, accumulating information on trends in applications and giving suggestions on what information could be included in next year’s application process. Gilliss says it is “another way to raise visibility for the foundation and for members to create contributions.”

NCFN structures itself to fit its needs as well. This includes remaining nimble and close knit in leadership. Recently, the foundation reduced its board from 24 members down to just seven. While the organization does not want to make a board position a time consuming job for its volunteers, reducing board size made each position more impactful. With a high number, it became easy for members to miss a meeting or not fully engage with the work of the organization. Gordon hopes this will create a more stimulating volunteer experience while also staying consistent with strategic engagement for the organization.

It could be easy to overlook the North Carolina Foundation for Nurses as an “organization within an organization.” However, through the foundation’s dedication to its mission, it is able to distinguish itself. Despite the closest of ties to its parent organization, the NCFN continues to operate independently. Leadership continually evaluate what is the best course to take for both organizations, and although they can leverage one another that need not always happen. When asked what keeps the foundation focused and successful, Gilliss says it is most important to simply, “keep the objective of your organization in mind.”


Catherine Gilliss, Helen Fuld Health Trust Professor of Nursing at Duke University, currently serves as President of the North Carolina Foundation for Nursing.  A nurse educator for over 40 years, Gilliss previously served as dean at Duke University (2004-2014). Her experience in higher education has strengthened her commitment to developing scholarship support for students.  She has served as President of the American Academy of Nursing and the National Organization of Nursing Practitioner Faculties and will shortly assume the deanship at the UCSF School of Nursing.

Tina Gordon is the CEO of the North Carolina Nurses Association and Executive Director of the North Carolina Foundation for Nursing.  Gordon joined NCNA in 2006 after a diverse career in association management, government/political affairs, and leadership development.  She is responsible for leading a team of twelve and working with the Board of Directors to spearhead all NCNA strategic initiatives to benefit the 6000+ members of NCNA. She holds a B.A. in Environmental Policy and Political Science from Duke University and a Master of Public Administration from North Carolina State University

Jack Ahern is a Masters of Public Administration student focusing on nonprofit management at NC State University.  

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