During Sheila Williamson’s tenure as executive director, from 1979 to 1993, the Foundation codified its mission, expanded its reach, and embraced its role as a community leader.
Perhaps most importantly, the Community Foundation went from an idea to a reality, and one that was actively working to improve the community.
“While I created a direction for the foundation, Sheila took that and framed it into a lot of substance and structure,” says Robert Corman, who went on to serve on the board for eight years. “This was one of my very early experiences in creating an organization, but it wasn’t hard to let it go because there was such a trusting relationship with Sheila, and I knew she would do great things.”
In the first two and a half years of its operation, the Foundation distributed approximately $37,000 in grants to local organizations such as the apprenticeship program at St. John the Divine in Newark, the Wallace Memorial Fund which supported the United Way of Essex & West Hudson and the YM/YWCA of Newark & Vicinity, the New Jersey Conference on Philanthropy, and the Home Equity Conversion Project, which studied the feasibility of home equity conversion as a means of supplementing elderly homeowners’ income.
Donor advised funds – through which an individual, family, or business can make a contribution, receive an immediate tax deduction, and make grant decisions at their own pace and with the support of CFNJ staff – became a popular offering for New Jerseyans, with many signing up as fundholders.
One of the key milestones, however, was the decision to change the name of the foundation. According to the June 1983 Annual Report:
“…it soon became apparent to our Board of Trustees that the needs of Essex were not dissimilar to the needs of other counties and towns in New Jersey. The Trustees also realized that many donors have concerns beyond a narrow geographic area and that many New Jersey problems (such as toxic waste and acid rain) cut across boundary lines. The Board thus saw that New Jersey has need [for] a pool of philanthropic dollars which can address problems at the very local level, at the county and regional level and at the statewide level. In recognition of this fact the name and scope of the foundation was changed in March 1983 to Community Foundation of New Jersey (CFNJ).”
The re-named foundation not only had a fresh outlook and burgeoning statewide reach, but also had discovered additional revenue streams.
“Opening the foundation to the whole state really started to bring in the funds,” said Bob O’Brien. “All of a sudden the assets of the foundation really started to grow, because a lot of people had other interests in mind than just those in Newark or Essex County, and they addressed them by opening donor advised funds and making other contributions.”
Remembering Sheila Williamson
Sheila Williamson served as CFNJ’s Executive Director from 1979 to 1993. In that role, she touched countless lives – from the inner-city children she helped to become leaders to the successful CEOs she transformed into committed philanthropists.
“When we first interviewed her, Sheila blew us all away…[Later,] she picked up the reigns and did a magnificent job of organizing.” – Bob O’Brien
“It wasn’t hard to let [CFNJ] go because there was such a trusting relationship with Sheila… We were very close friends; she and her husband Jim watched my children grow up.” – Robert Corman
“Sheila was the heart and soul of the organization when I was there. She was someone who was tireless and enormously committed, and the organization is better because of her efforts.” – Governor Christine Todd Whitman
“Shelia Williamson’s efforts were essential in the early progress of the Community Foundation of New Jersey. Shelia’s warm personality, her intelligence and broad knowledge of New Jersey created friends and opportunities for the Foundation from Day One. She was one of those rare people everyone liked and respected.” – Governor Tom Kean
“She was very committed to helping the underdogs. She felt strongly that people should be helped, and she had a natural ability to work with the people who needed the donations, and also the people who would give them.” – Christina W. Donnelly, Sheila’s daughter