Community Foundation of New Jersey

10 Questions with Board Chair Tom Uhlman

August 29, 2016

Tom Uhlman will enter his fourth and final year as Chair of the Community Foundation’s Board, so we spoke with him about how the Community Foundation has evolved and grown over the past several years.

A highlight of Tom’s tenure on the Board has been his focus on governance and leadership work, two areas in which the Community Foundation has built on past successes. We share the below Q&A for additional insights on how the Community Foundation – thanks in large part to Tom’s solid leadership and focus on impact – is serving you, our fundholders, better than ever before.

1. As you enter your final year as Chair, how have you enjoyed serving on CFNJ’s Board?

I’ve enjoyed it immensely. Giving back to the community is an important part of my life, and the Community Foundation has really been at the center of my work to improve communities in our state. The Community Foundation has both an obligation and a very unique opportunity to take on some of New Jersey’s great challenges in partnership with its fundholders, and I’ve been proud to be a part of that work.

2. What do you think is the compelling reason for families or businesses to open a fund at CFNJ?

Not only does the Community Foundation offer fundholders the opportunity to support charitable activities that are important to them, but it also gives you the opportunity to engage with other fundholders and the Foundation itself to make a real difference on important, civic work like human trafficking prevention or juvenile justice reform.

For the right family or business, the Community Foundation is a really strong base from which to have impact with your giving.

3. What is the Board’s most important role?

It starts with the strategy for the organization and includes making sure our governance is healthy – strong committees, strong board meetings – and then providing a forum where we can learn from each other on effective community interventions.

But I would say the Board’s most important role – and fiduciary duty, really – is to honor the intent of our donors’ gifts while at the same time making sure their dollars have the greatest impact on needs in our communities. When an individual or a family or an organization makes a gift to their named fund at the Community Foundation, they know that we will execute on their giving with not only professionalism, creativity, and good nature, but also the unique ability to match their legacy to current needs in our communities. That is the Community Foundation’s purpose and most important responsibility, and it’s what makes us unique as compared to some of the larger financial institutions.

4. One of your hallmarks has been a focus on CFNJ’s governance.  Why do you think that’s important?

I’m a firm believer that a strong and engaged set of Trustees very much helps drive the strategic direction and success of an organization. That is why we’ve expanded the Community Foundation’s Board, not only in numbers, but also in diversity of experiences, backgrounds, and professions. We are a group that is constantly thinking about ways to improve the organization, and we are not afraid to innovate, so long as we focus on strategy and meet goals.

5. Has engaging fundholders/donors in CFNJ’s leadership work been a priority for you?  If so, why?

This has definitely been a priority. I just think that if we all gave a little bit from our funds to our shared leadership work, then collectively we can have more impact. And so it has become a responsibility of the Community Foundation to identify really engaging projects and unique opportunities for fundholders to have an impact with their charitable dollars– in ways they might not have considered themselves.

It’s not a matter of supporting the Community Foundation’s work. In some ways, it’s the opposite. It’s really an extension of the Community Foundation’s support for the fundholders – finding these great ideas, sharing them, and talking about new ways to collaborate.

6. How does the Foundation’s leadership work set it apart?

We are one of the few Foundations in NJ that has the flexibility to find interventions on challenges that cross sectors. We are not focused exclusively on one issue or one community – our fidelity is to our fundholders and their interests, but we also rely on our own experience and judgment to find solutions that, with the right mix of support, can start to make a difference in communities across the state.

I think of that line from Jonathan Kozol: “we pick battles that are big enough to matter but small enough to win.”

7. What are typical philanthropic goals for funds at the Community Foundation?

Certainly education and health and community welfare are important to many of our donors, but to say that any of our funds are ‘typical’ is not really accurate. We have funds that cover broad categories or large geographic areas. But we also have funds that drill down into very specific issues, like bone marrow research or the needs of those who suddenly lose a spouse. We have one fund that focuses on two very specific areas: the needs of battered women and promoting small theater.

It’s not for us to say how broad or specific a donor’s intent should be – it’s our job to really understand that intent and execute on it.

8. Can you give us an example of the Community Foundation honoring a donor’s intent?

There are literally hundreds of examples, but one that I like is that of George and Yvonne Alkemade. A series of life events decades ago caused George and Yvonne to really care about the well-being of those with poor vision. A fund was created in their name in the mid-1990’s that was focused specifically on providing assistance to people with poor vision. Since then, the Community Foundation has identified some really innovative projects, many of them things that George and Yvonne could not have imagined in their lifetimes.

We had the Alkemade Fund partner with Helen Keller International to provide vision screenings and distribute tens of thousands of eyeglasses to middle school students in Jersey City and Passaic. We leveraged the Alkemade Fund’s dollars to expand arts and music lessons for vision-impaired students in Newark. And we made sure the Fund played an important role when the National Football League came to Parsippany to construct an all-access playground.

None of us ever knew George and Yvonne Alkemade, but can you imagine what they would think of the good work their philanthropy continues to do? Their legacy is as vibrant and alive as ever, and it’s literally making life better for thousands of New Jersey children.

9. Board and staff members come and go. How will the Foundation staff ten or twenty years from now know a donor’s true intent?

When an individual or a family creates a fund, they enter into a fund agreement. In that agreement are the donor advisors’ explicit goals. They are written down and clear to see. Once that agreement is signed, it is the obligation of every person affiliated with the Foundation, whether on the Board or on the staff, to ensure those philanthropic dollars support their goals in the most effective and efficient way.

10. What if a donor does not have specific ideas, but wants to know their funds will have an impact in the future in the place they call home?

The Community Foundation’s leadership work is driven by gifts like these – they are at the heart of the Foundation.  Our Board steward these gifts in ways to assure that they have maximum impact in our communities. For an idea of the types of work we support with these unrestricted dollars, check out our Changemaker Projects, which have recently included human trafficking prevention and increasing access to educational field trips.

More of our current fundholders are joining with us on this important work, and we are starting to see individuals bequest dollars for these projects as well.