Garner’s first task: assessment

by Bekah Porter

CEDAR RAPIDS – He has steered colleges toward success, written a book on leadership, doubled his organization’s endowment and launched initiative after fruitful initiative.

Les Garner brings decades of discipline, drive and downright impressive expertise to his new position as president and CEO of the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation (GCRCF).

The nonprofit organization recently announced that Mr. Garner, who served the past 16 years as president of Cornell College, would replace Dan Baldwin, who resigned after eight years to become president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Monterey County in California.

Mr. Garner started his new role on July 15 and said he looks to build upon what is already a quality organization. Here’s what he had to say about his priorities and plans:

Q: What unique attributes do you bring to the GCRCF?

A: I think I certainly bring a lot of experience in the not-for-profit community, both in education and elsewhere. And, to a certain degree, I bring knowledge of the community, as I have served on the boards for a number of organizations, including the Cedar Rapids Chamber of Commerce and the Cedar Rapids Symphony. And, of course, one has to hope that 16 years of running a college gives me a little bit of experience in running a complex organization. Additionally, my graduate degrees are in public policy, so I have a very active interest in areas related to community development.

Q: What attracted you to the GCRCF?

A: One was its mission, which is to build the community through philanthropy. Also, its recent history suggests it’s an organization with great momentum and one that has had a dramatically positive impact on the community.

Q: What is the first thing you want to accomplish at the GCRCF?

A: The first thing to do is get myself positioned on and moving down the learning curve. I need to learn about community foundations, both this one and other foundations nationally. I need to get to know the constituents of the organization — the staff, donors, friends in the community. And I need to give myself a good refresher course on what the issues are in the community.

Q: What are your top priorities to tackle?

A: I will be in assessment mode for awhile. I think I owe it to the organization to come in and spend some time getting to know what its needs are. One thing that’s an obvious question, however, is that with the foundation enjoying so much growth and success in recent years, where do we go from here?

Q: One of the missions of the GCRCF is to provide leadership on important community issues. Which issues do you think will be priorities?

A: The foundation has played an important role in flood recovery, and while a lot has been accomplished, there’s still a lot left to be done. We will be thinking hard about our role in the charting of a course for the community that will be sustainable post-flood.

Q: Last year the GCRCF awarded grants to 331 nonprofit organizations, funded 81 scholarships and provided $8.2 million in support grants. Do you think those numbers need to grow? Or are you satisfied with where they are?

A: I definitely think those numbers can grow, although there is going to be some variation from year to year. We will certainly always be exploring ways to improve our responsiveness to donors and improve assistance to those in the community who want to use us as a way to reach their philanthropic goals.

Q: Are there any particular funds you will look to nurture in the next year, specifically the Flood of 2008 Fund created after the disaster?

A: The flood fund is winding down. It was envisioned as being a two-year fund, and it’s right on target. There’s still a modest amount of funds left that will be granted out within the next several months. But the big opportunity for the foundation is presented by the receipt of a huge unrestricted bequest from Bill Quarton. Bill was one of those heroes in Cedar Rapids’ history who early on had an ambitious dream for the foundation, and we featured prominently in his estate plans. While those funds will serve a number of different purposes, a substantial amount is unrestricted, which gives us a chance to take a step back and consider what opportunities there are in grant-making that we had not pursued before.

Q: Do you think the next year is going to have you fighting the recession for funds, or do you think it will be an opportunity to find new donors as the economy rebounds?

A: Obviously, we’re hopeful for the latter. It’s interesting that the philanthropic community in the greater Cedar Rapids area responded heroically to the challenges presented by the recession. None of us hopes for a double dip recession, but I think this is an extraordinarily generous community, and people will respond when the chips are down.

Q: How do you plan to balance your attentions between the GCRCF’s four focus areas of arts and culture, community development and the environment, education and health and human services

A: The balance in these areas has been determined by the preferences of the donors and the nature of the applications we receive. We have historically been very responsive to the needs of the community and the agencies themselves.