Karen Bilowith in Her Own Words
A conversation with the new Erie Community Foundation president
While she grew up in Vermont just outside of Burlington along Lake Champlain, Karen Bilowith's path so far has led her through Massachusetts, Colorado, Washington, D.C., Upstate New York, and, most recently, Idaho. The 54-year-old's next stop: Erie, Pennsylvania.
On Oct. 1, Bilowith will take over the helm at the Erie Community Foundation. As she closes out her chapter with the Idaho Community Foundation, where she's served as president and CEO since 2016, and gets ready to begin the next leg of her 20-plus years working with nonprofits and in philanthropy, I caught up with her on Zoom to talk about her vision for community foundations in the 21st century, what she sees as the greatest challenges, what she'll miss most about Idaho, and what she's looking forward to in Erie.
Ben Speggen: In six words, who is Karen Bilowith?
Karen Bilowith: I am a collaborator, a learner, community-minded, place-based, outdoorsy, a dog-lover.
BS: For an outdoorsy person, who's community-minded and a learner and a dog-lover, what drew you to work at foundations?
KB: The connection happened pretty early in my career. I went to graduate school for public policy and administration and got connected into the nonprofit community and really saw nonprofit organizations as a way to partner with government and private sector organizations on community building projects. But also, sometimes, the role is to make up gaps or make changes when there are failures in our market economy. What I love about community philanthropy and community foundations is that we really sit in a sweet spot between donors and community needs, and it's our job to be the matchmaker — to help people really make an impact in communities.
What drew me to the Erie Community Foundation and to the Erie community is that there is true partnership happening now, and evolving and growing, to really move Erie forward in a way that's very strategic and planned. And that doesn't always happen in communities. This is a really special time in Erie, and the Erie Community Foundation has the history, the credibility of the position to really be a big partner in that change.
BS: What did that specifically look like to you? What was the "a-ha" moment where you said, "I see this, and I want to be a part of it?"
KB: When I first met with the search committee, both the questions that they asked me and the way that they answered some of the questions that I asked them showed me that they really understood the important role of philanthropy. And also, we're taking pretty bold, or making bold moves, to be a real partner in the community.
Since I am currently in the same role, in a different place, I can understand that there's a difference between the talk and the walk. I felt immediately that the board and the staff that I met with understood that as well.
But really, I think the "a-ha" was when I visited Erie for my interview, one of the things I did was a tour with the Erie Downtown Development Corporation to see some of the projects that were happening. I was able to go to the ribbon cutting at the new downtown marketplace. I could just feel the sense of community but also community pride.
BS: You're on the first floor and you have until the fourth to answer somebody who asks: "What do foundations do?"
KB: Foundations — and in particular community foundations — have a lot of flexibility in terms of you can be just a straight grant maker, meaning you're helping great programs; or, you can be more of an impact philanthropist, thinking about the big changes that we want to see in our community and how can we help that. So, the Erie community is looking at all the tools in our toolbox that we can use. And it's more than just these grants that we can give, or scholarships; we can also make investments in big projects and be a partner to help spur those forward. One of the other things that was exciting to me about your community foundation is that they are willing to think about all of those different tools and how they use their assets for the benefit of the community and not just think about the role of a traditional foundation where you have your endowment and you spend a little bit of that every year for grants.
BS: Looking at the EDDC, I can't help but think that it is in the most impoverished ZIP code not just in Erie, but in the state of Pennsylvania — the 16501 ZIP code. What do you see as the role of community foundations in addressing poverty in their communities?
KB: There are a couple roles that we can play. One is with direct investment. Philanthropic dollars can often fill gaps in funding equations. A good example of that is if you're trying to build affordable housing, or to do something to revitalize the housing in a downtown area, there is a gap between all of the layers of investment that you can get through traditional sources and what the developers are going to need, and a lot of times philanthropy can fill that gap.
But the other role that I think is really important is ensuring that the people, the residents in Erie, are benefiting from the economic growth. That is really at the grassroots level, like getting out and talking in communities and understanding by asking: 'What is it that you in this community need in order to benefit from this growth — Is it housing? Is it education? Is it jobs?" — and really helping to support those organizations in the community that are focused on that.
BS: It's also an exciting time in the area with the launch of the Erie County Community College. What do you see as the connection between foundations and education at the community college level?
KB: It's really just figuring out within that framework, what investments make the most sense, and the Erie Community Foundation has already made a big commitment to the community college in terms of infrastructure and also has a program that they're currently raising money for to support scholarships. So, let's find a way that people from the community can benefit from the community college.
When I was working in Schenectady and Albany in New York, we had some programs where we tried to connect the nonprofit organizations that are working with struggling families to community college programs, so that there was a way that people could go and receive education while they're potentially receiving services. In this example, there was an early childcare program at the community college, so connecting that program to the nonprofit organizations that are providing early childhood services in the community was really important. It helped the families, but it also helped build a pipeline of people to work in those childcare centers.
BS: This is such a critical moment for communities nationwide, as they're working to address racial equity and diversity inclusion. What do you see the role of foundations being in the conversation — something that we've been having nationwide, and is happening at the community level?
KB: I believe that foundations not only need to be a part of the conversation but can also potentially be a facilitator — a convener — of the space where people can come together. We do have such diverse and broad networks of people that we engage deeply in communities. That's where we have both a platform to share information, but also can play that role as a convener.
The other reason I think it's critically important is we can't achieve our mission — every community foundation has a similar mission — which is community improvement, betterment. You can't do that without thinking about what it is in your community that keeps people from succeeding. Then you're talking about equity. What are the challenges in our community that are barriers? In my opinion, you cannot separate that conversation from philanthropy.
BS: You have 20 years of experience in philanthropic and nonprofit leadership, what's an early lesson that was most important to you, that you learned early in your career that continues to help shape your vision on philanthropy and nonprofits today?
KB: When I was working at the National AIDS Fund in Washington, D.C., there were actually a couple of really good lessons that have carried through my career. The one I think that has been most relevant was what we did there was work with a network of community partners across the country that were at the local level raising and distributing money to support HIV and AIDS programs. We were able to attract national dollars and get those out into local communities and also do a lot of best practice sharing.
One of the things that I learned was that it was so important, as we worked with each of these individual communities, to listen to the community — really go and listen and understand the community before figuring out what the solution was. You hear that a lot: state agencies coming into local communities and telling them what to do, or the national agencies doing the same. That listening and learning and facilitating conversation around how can we address, how can we identify what the issues are, and then how can we address those is really critical. It's what we do as community foundations. That has just really shaped the way that I lead and have worked within foundations since then.
BS: What do you see being one of the greatest challenges that foundations face today?
KB: A real challenge is the tension between giving now and saving for later. And with foundations, that's a real thing. Do you build your endowment, or do you spend it? And even individuals, some of the really big tech billionaires are thinking, "we want to spend all our money."
With COVID-19, that was a question that came up over and over again with foundations — do we make some big commitments out of our endowment because we have this pandemic that's never happened before? And at the same time, we want to be ready for the next big thing. That shift that we've seen, and we did this here in Idaho, foundations were immediately much more flexible than they maybe ever have been in terms of being able to get money out the door quickly to grantee organizations — to say "we trust you to use this for what you need."
So, in philanthropy, there is actually a structured movement called trust-based philanthropy. That idea is what's behind that. I don't know if foundations will go back to being as regimented as they were.
BS: Whenever somebody from the media calls and says, "I want to talk to you about foundations, what you do, your vision, your philosophy," all this kind of stuff, what's the one question you wish that they would actually know to ask you that you'd be able to talk about, that you think needs more oxygen in conversation around foundations?
KB: Especially for community foundations, there is less interest in hearing the stories about the donors than there is about the money going out. To me, that's always important, too. That's what keeps us going. A lot of times those stories aren't about billionaires, they're just about people who were teachers their whole life and left an amazing gift to a community foundation. So, I wish people would ask about that more.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Check out the full interview at eriereader.com
Ben Speggen can be contacted at email@example.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @BenSpeggen.