A Publication of WTVP

Mark Roberts’ background in development and advancement for institutions in the fields of healthcare and higher education have prepared him well for his current position as Executive Director and CEO of the Community Foundation of Central Illinois. Roberts is a Certified Fund Raising Executive, a designation held by fewer than 6,000 professionals worldwide. When not donating his time and energy to the Community Foundation, he can be found in the company of his wife and daughter on their beautiful and peaceful three acres in rural Morton.

Tell about your background, education, family life, etc.

Born and raised in the Decatur area, I am a proud lifelong resident of central Illinois. It is fair to say that my journey up to this point has been a little non-traditional. Primarily due to financial considerations, I dropped out of college in 1990 without finishing my bachelor’s degree. I worked a series of “young-guy-trying-to-find-his-way” jobs before landing a position as a sales executive with a large telecommunications company. After a few years of decent success, I moved to the Peoria area in 1997 to work on the sales team servicing the global Caterpillar account.

The telecommunications industry was going through some tremendous changes at that time, and increasingly, I found that I was professionally and personally unfulfilled. So, with the support of my wife, Pam, I quit my job in late 1999 and returned to school full time. Over a 12-month span, I completed the requirements for my degree and graduated in December 2000. I then had a decision to make: whether to return to the telecommunications industry, where I had a few offers lined up, or to search for something utilizing the same skill set that might be potentially more fulfilling.

As fate would have it, there was an opening for a development director at Bradley University. I applied and was ultimately hired by then-Vice President of Advancement John Shorrock and Executive Director of Development Kent Huntsman. Right away, I knew that fundraising was a good fit for me. It allowed me to utilize my relationship building and “sales” skills in support of something I really cared about—the University— instead of a corporate bottom line. I still had a lot to learn, but I knew I was on the right track. I eventually earned an M.A. in Human Service Administration from Bradley, graduating in 2005. I remain thankful that John Shorrock and Kent Huntsman took a chance on me.

I married the former Pam Gieske, a Danville native, in 1998. We have a two year old daughter, Anna, and are expecting our second child in January 2009. We live on three beautiful and peaceful acres in rural Morton. Our life keeps getting busier and more wonderful each year!

You’ve held positions at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, Bradley University and Lutheran Hillside Village. How has your career path and previous experience prepared you for your current position?

Each position has served as a very logical stepping stone to the great job I hold today, and I have traveled that path very intentionally. Bradley gave me my start and exposed me to the world of professional fundraising. I was fortunate to meet some terrific people at the University who served as mentors. They may not know it, but people like Barb Brown, Shelley Smith and Dr. Kurt Field helped to encourage me as I was learning my new craft. I also enjoyed meeting so many of Bradley’s wonderful alumni from all across the United States. These are folks who love their university, and it was an outstanding experience getting to work closely with them.

The Lutheran Hillside Village Foundation (LHV) gave me a chance to “run my own show” for the first time. Although a small shop, we were able to build a great team that really worked hard to raise both awareness and money in support of LHV’s mission of serving the elderly. I enjoyed getting the opportunity to reorganize the fundraising operation there, and I think I left the place a little better than I found it. I can state with certainty that LHV made a tremendous impact on me. It is a wonderful place full of wonderful, caring people, both residents and employees. I will always remember my time there fondly.

The University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria allowed me to take the management skills I had developed to the next level. I again had to work hard to rebuild the department into an efficient, well-functioning team, and that goal was definitely accomplished. I also took part in much of the planning for UICOMP’s participation in the U of I’s $2.25 billion Brilliant Futures fundraising campaign. All in all, it was a very good professional experience for me.

I feel exceptionally well prepared for success in my current position as a result of the career path I have taken. Bottom line, I have worked hard to prepare myself to take advantage of excellent opportunities as they are presented to me. Call it fate, God’s will, or something else, but I firmly believe that we are guided to where we are supposed to be at a given point in time. I am delighted to be serving central Illinois via my work at the Community Foundation.

Explain the history and objectives of the Community Foundation of Central Illinois.

Here is a quick historical synopsis: The Peoria Area Community Foundation was incorporated in 1986 through the hard work of visionary community leaders like Ed Siebert, Lew Burger, Bill Rutherford, Lynn Landes and many others. However, the Foundation didn’t really become a viable organization until 1988, when Donna Haerr became its first executive director. Housed in a small donated office in the Jefferson Bank Building, Donna set to work growing the Foundation, which had exactly $2,540.39 on hand at that time. Critical early financial support was provided by Caterpillar, the Bielfeldt Foundation and others. George Kreiss was named the next executive director in 1995, followed by Jim Sullivan in 1999. We changed our name to the Community Foundation of Central Illinois in 2001. Our total assets now approach nearly $22 million, held in over 750 funds.

The core mission of the Community Foundation is to better our community by connecting people who care with causes that matter. We serve as a gateway to strategic philanthropy, charitable giving and volunteerism for individuals, families, not-for-profit organizations and corporations in our area, allowing people to support their particular areas of interest or concern. We accomplish this mission by creating permanent endowment funds and planned gifts to provide an ongoing source of funding for our community. In a nutshell, we are a “savings account for the community.”

What services does the Foundation provide beyond traditional grant making activities?

The Community Foundation provides a few services that might come as a surprise to the casual observer. One such service that is of special note is the Depository, which I like to describe as a “charitable checking account.” The Depository makes charitable giving easy and efficient. Donors can make donations to their private Depository accounts using appreciated assets such as securities or real estate. The appreciated asset is then sold by the Depository, thereby avoiding capital gains taxes. The donor’s gift qualifies for a tax deduction as a result. The donor then directs our staff to distribute their funds to the charities of their choice. We write checks, do the record keeping, and track the contributor’s charitable activities—all of which are free to the contributor. In the last fiscal year, we distributed over $4.2 million from the Depository.

What are some of the past successes of the Foundation?

This is a great opportunity to quote from a recently completed history of the Community Foundation written by Barb Mantz Drake. She writes:

“Anyone who has walked along the downtown riverfront, checked out the nation’s largest model solar system, used the historical photo collection at the Peoria Public Library, appreciated the twinkle of the lights on the Murray Baker Bridge, heard the Heritage Ensemble, gone to the Bach Festival, or been pleased that his child has learned about clean water has the Community Foundation of Central Illinois to thank.“

I don’t think I can sum it up any better than that. The reality is that the Community Foundation has already touched many organizations and the lives of thousands of people. However, my observation is that the average citizen on the street doesn’t know about our work and that we are another of our community’s “best-kept secrets.” We aim to change that by being more proactive in marketing what the Community Foundation is all about. The reality is that we have great stories to tell, and are creating more all the time.

How does the Foundation determine which projects to take on? How do you allocate resources within a wide geographic area?

The Community Foundation is governed by a dedicated board of directors who have always provided outstanding input into which direction the organization should be headed. In addition, we are blessed with many community volunteers who serve on our scholarship review, distribution, investment, and audit and finance committees, among others. So, our process to determine which projects to fund is very much a collaborative one. From a granting perspective, we currently have two funding cycles per year, with application deadlines in March and September. A committee of community volunteers reviews each grant application, judges it on its own merits and a rank order is established. The committee then allocates available funding against those requests until the money is exhausted.

Although our service area focuses on a 50-mile radius surrounding the city of Peoria, it is probably accurate to say that a majority of past funding has gone to those organizations in our immediate backyard. However, one of my priorities is to spread the CFCI message in a more targeted manner throughout central Illinois. I think that when some of the smaller communities in our area begin to understand the Foundation’s mission, and how they can participate, we will see an increase in interest and involvement from those areas.

What are the duties of the CEO/Executive Director?

I have always thought that the job description for an executive director or CEO really should be the simplest of them all: “Responsible for everything.” In reality, of course, it is a little more complicated than that. My job description charges me with the management, administration and general operations of the Foundation, focusing on growth and development, program implementation, grant-making, public relations and staffing. I do all of that in accordance with our articles of incorporation, bylaws, state and federal law, policies and procedures, and directives from the board of directors.

What I like about this type of work is that no two days are ever the same. I wouldn’t be a very good choice to sit in an office all day crunching numbers or doing repetitive tasks, but I admire those who are wired up to do so. Instead, I think that the most effective use of my time is to be out meeting, greeting and making connections while allowing our talented staff to handle the day-to-day administration of the office. I learned long ago that a nonprofit administrator has to wear many hats in balancing the charitable mission of the organization with the reality of watching the bottom line. It is a challenge I really enjoy.

What are the most challenging issues faced today by the Community Foundation?

We are a comparatively young organization that has done very good things for the community over the past 20 years. However, just like any organization, we have had our growing pains. Our immediate focus is on taking a close look at our existing processes and procedures in order to make sure we are operating as optimally as possible. We are absolutely intent on positioning CFCI as a recognized leader not only in the effective distribution of charitable capital, but in identifying community needs and convening partners with the ability to meet those needs. To do that, we will continue to focus on adhering to national standards as developed by the Council on Foundations and adopting best practices.

Another challenging issue is determining what we think the Community Foundation should look like 15 to 20 years from now. Equally as important, how do we get there? To do that effectively, we need to establish a roadmap. I will be recommending to the board of directors that we undergo a strategic planning process in 2009 that should provide that roadmap. It will be a great opportunity to engage our many stakeholders in a constructive dialogue about how CFCI can best serve the community.

How do you view the current state of not-for-profit organizations, both here in central Illinois and in the country as a whole?

I think that we are blessed to live in a wonderfully philanthropic community. However, it is no secret that the current state of the economy is having an impact on donors across the U.S. In many cases, discretionary dollars that otherwise might be targeted to nonprofits are just not there at this time. That creates a double whammy: a reduction in donations to nonprofits serving those in need, and an increase in the number of individuals who need the services those nonprofits provide.

It is my contention that nonprofits in general need to continue to sharpen their focus and begin to operate more like businesses. Caterpillar, which is a fantastic corporate citizen, is in many ways leading the charge in this regard. They are asking organizations that apply to their foundation for grant funding to more clearly identify needs, state how they intend to use funds and describe expected results, among other criteria. I think that this will probably be a little painful in the short term for area nonprofits, but will be very beneficial in the long term. To the extent that nonprofits can operate more effectively and efficiently and still support their core mission, so much the better.

What is the most important factor to ensure good stewardship of the community’s charitable contributions?

I think that the single most important factor, other than prudent investment of donated funds, is to have a solid understanding of how those contributions can be used most effectively to benefit the community today and in the future. That is the role the Foundation’s staff plays in being educated about the state of nonprofits in our community, and that the volunteer board and committees play by judging funding requests and making good decisions about how to allocate funds to support community initiatives.

That is really the beauty of the way community foundations are organized. Our community will benefit today from the work that those before us have done in growing this organization. The community will benefit from the work we are doing today over the next 20, 50, 100 years and beyond. In my opinion, this points out the importance of having good people involved at all times, and developing and executing a solid plan. We are leaving a legacy!

What advice do you have for ensuring the effectiveness of one’s giving dollars?

I tend to look at this question from the perspective of a professional fundraiser, with an eye towards “What should donors have the right to expect from a nonprofit organization when considering a charitable gift?” A good place to turn for guidance is the Donor Bill of Rights, which was created by the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy (AHP), the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and the Giving Institute: Leading Consultants to Non-Profits. The Donor Bill of Rights addresses important issues like donor confidentiality, access to information about an organization and ensuring donor intent. More than anything, I encourage prospective donors to do their homework, ask as many questions as needed in order to feel comfortable, and engage professional advisors and family members when appropriate. The vast majority of nonprofits out there are legitimate ones, doing great work in support of their respective missions. However, when it comes to philanthropy and the public trust, one bad apple can indeed spoil the whole bunch.

You are a Certified Fund Raising Executive. How does one achieve this designation? What are the benefits?

The CFRE certification process requires a comprehensive written application followed by a written exam. Individuals interested in the CFRE designation must have at least five years of paid, professional practice in fundraising, meet all of the minimum eligibility requirements and pass the written exam. The eligibility requirements pertain to an applicant’s education, professional performance and service to the profession and the community. Currently, nearly 5,000 people hold the CFRE designation worldwide, with fewer than 250 in Illinois.

From my perspective, the CFRE designation says something about me as a professional. It demonstrates my commitment to the profession, increases my credibility, improves my skills and knowledge, and reflects my achievements in professional practice. I am very glad that I put in the time and effort to earn the certification.

In what other organizations are you active?

I am currently president-elect and government relations chair for the central Illinois chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, an organization representing over 30,000 members in 197 chapters throughout the world. AFP works to advance philanthropy through advocacy, research, education and certification programs. The association fosters development and growth of fundraising professionals and promotes high ethical standards in the fundraising profession. Through my involvement with AFP, I am blessed to be associated with many colleagues who are among the best and brightest professional fundraisers in central Illinois.

I have been a member of the Rotary Club of Peoria-North since 2001, serving a term on the board of directors, and as the chair of numerous committees. Rotary is the finest organization I have ever been associated with, and the experience has been very fulfilling. I will undoubtedly be a Rotarian for life.

Most recently, I have served as executive vice president on the Heart of Illinois Big Brothers Big Sisters Board of Directors. I will soon be rotating off the HOIBBBS board. However, I have so much admiration for Executive Director Jeff Parmenter and the hard work he and the staff do every day in support of children in our community. I am glad to have played a small part in moving that organization forward.

What are your passions outside of work (hobbies, sports, etc.)?

My primary hobby and form of exercise is running. I have completed five marathons and many shorter races. I’m not fast, but very much a middle-of-the-pack runner. However, I am extremely determined! Running the Steamboat four-mile or 15K race each June is one of the highlights of the year for me. It’s a great race that has such broad appeal: world-class runners, first-timers and everything in between. The Illinois Valley Striders put on a great event.

I also enjoy taking walks with my wife and daughter. It’s a great way to get some exercise while spending quality time together.

Finally, I will happily admit to being a lifelong, diehard Cubs fan. I think it takes character to suffer so much and remain so loyal for so little in return!

Anything else you would like to add?

I want to point out that the Community Foundation belongs to all of us. Everyone who lives in central Illinois is a stakeholder, and we all have a voice in working to make our community a better place. I encourage people to get involved: volunteer for one of our committees, talk about the Community Foundation to your friends and family, or become a donor. Working together, our potential for success is absolutely limitless. iBi