Living on philanthropy's leading edge

   This philanthropy column has emphasized the important role gifts of money and volunteer time play in making this community great.
   An impressive event I attended recently in the Whatcom Museum’s Rotunda Room reminded me of an additional essential component of effective philanthropy: leadership.
   Philanthropic organizations play a leadership role by identifying critical issues, focusing the necessary resources and bringing key people and organizations together to address community problems. Many positive programs we now take for granted were funded as trial balloons by large national foundations.
   Over 100 people, including a variety of existing community leaders, attended the first formal public event of Leadership Whatcom (LW), Whatcom County’s inaugural community leadership program.
   Many communities around the country have similar formal leadership programs, and several Whatcom County people are graduates of those programs. LW is one of two signature programs of the Whatcom Coalition for Healthy Communities, now in its tenth year of operation.
   Some people have misunderstood the reason for establishing this promising and vital program as somehow being critical of our existing elected officials.
   This criticism fails to understand that community leadership happens in many smaller, but no less important, settings across all our communities. We are fortunate to have unusually competent and dedicated leaders among our elected officials and high-ranking public employees.
   What we need for success in the many ventures that make up community life is to have as many people at every level and in every sector understand how our communities work and interconnect.
   We need leaders who have the specific collaborative leadership skills to organize and call forth the best ideas from our communities, ideas that come from skilled listening in many conversations. Given the growing complexity of modern life and the inadequate resources to manage every problem a community faces, Leadership Whatcom cuts through the complexity of our communities to focus a variety of resources — particularly volunteer — to solve community problems by broadening involvement and interconnections.
   Leadership Whatcom, following over a year of research into leadership programs elsewhere, adopted the best of several programs to serve the current needs and population of Whatcom County.
   Each annual “class” of 20-25 members gets training in leadership skills, meets with various community organizations to better understand how they interact with others, and creates community projects implemented by teams of four to six people.
   The outcomes of this program are many, including the development of new collaborative leadership skills, greatly increased community knowledge and connections, and the completion of projects that make our communities better and stimulate smarter and more focused action. Perhaps the greatest value of LW over time will be the annual addition of 20-25 newly trained community leaders who have worked together in this program and will continue to do so to benefit entire communities.
   Leadership programs in other communities have demonstrated that program graduates from various classes develop the kind of trust that enables them to work together for the betterment of their communities.
   Each student pays tuition for the program that ends in June, but LW could not survive at this point without additional investments from local businesses.
   Among this year’s underwriters were Trillium Corporation, Puget Sound Energy, United Way of Whatcom County (UWWC), Whatcom Community Foundation (WCF), Copy Source, Village Books and Lummi Silver Reef Casino. LW’s parent organization, the Whatcom Coalition for Healthy Communities, has been sponsored by four organizations over the past decade: St. Joseph Hospital, Whatcom County Health Department, UWWC and WCF.
   This year’s inaugural class includes an elected official, an attorney, a small-business owner, two Western faculty members and a number of nonprofit leaders. Each of the four project teams is also assigned an experienced coach to help it work through a number of issues related to the projects.
   The 2005-6 class was carefully divided into four groups to design and complete a community project of their own choosing. One team has engaged the Whatcom Storytellers Guild for an oral history project called “Voices of the Ancestors” that captures essential parts of rural oral traditions as farming changes and as farmland disappears from Whatcom County at an alarming rate.
   Local storyteller Doug Banner illustrated the power of stories by relating his conversations with longtime Lummi Island farmer John Brown, who had stories about the land, the fence posts, the streams and the ponds. Such is the power of these and other rural stories, Banner argued, that they will affect how newcomers and long-time residents alike will relate to the land. These collected stories will be presented on June 1 at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal from 7:30 to 9 p.m.
   The other three teams are: 1) giving a public face to homelessness through the words and photos of homeless people themselves, 2) attempting to expand the number of people who use alternatives to private cars to get to work at least one day per week and 3) revitalizing the Whatcom Council of Nonprofits (WCN) started by the Whatcom Community Foundation.
   WCN, for all its accomplishments a few years back, has been quiet since 2002 without any staffing. This project holds huge potential for philanthropy in Whatcom County, for it can connect nonprofits themselves, strengthen them through training programs on a variety of issues, and communicate better with the entire community about the work they do and the value they add to our lives together in Whatcom County. As a community effort in Milwaukee years ago put it, “everyone profits from nonprofits.”
   The inaugural Leadership Whatcom class finishes up its projects by June, and the deadline for applications for the second class is the end of May.
   You and your business can learn more about LW at or by calling 715-1061. Whether you support the program financially or provide new applicants (or both), you will be making an important contribution to philanthropy in Whatcom County.
   Philanthropy is not just for the wealthy. It is a tool we can all use to keep our entire communities vital, healthy and forward-looking. Kudos to the Whatcom Coalition for Healthy Communities for this giant step forward for us all.

Don Drake has spent 20 years working in executive roles in philanthropy. He served as president of Whatcom Community Foundation from 1997 until September 2005.

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