guest column – Leadership is key to charitable success

Bozeman is home to several hundred nonprofit organizations that raise millions of dollars annually for everything from education to the environment, reading to recreation, social services to the arts. Anyone who sells tickets for fundraisers will tell you that prospective buyers often beg off because they already support dozens of other causes.

by Wendy Bay Lewis

Given this frenetic level of giving, many people worry that the charitable pie cannot be divided into more pieces, or that too many new projects and new organizations will stretch the donor base beyond capacity. But Bozeman residents continue to give generously — not only in dollars, but in time and energy, frequently meeting at the local coffee shops which have become our new civic spaces.

Will Bozeman’s tradition of giving burn out? I think the answer is no, and that financial contributions will continue to grow as our community grows and matures. There are three vital signs of charitable health, and monetary giving is just one of them. The second sign is the number of volunteers engaged in community service. The third sign is the quality of the community’s leaders — those who provide vision, motivate others to serve and demonstrate their commitment through major financial gifts. Bozeman is fortunate to have all three in our charitable sector: generous donors, dedicated volunteers and effective leaders.

Beginning with the tradition of barn-raising, we have always had a history of donating time and energy to help our neighbors, even in the self-reliant West. At the same time, the West has been the beneficiary of the largess of leaders like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and others who built many of our museums, concert halls and libraries, and protected areas like Grand Teton National Park for future generations. The ethic of giving, based on individual responsibility and community-building, has been passed from each generation to the next.

In a recent study entitled "The Civic and Political Health of the Nation: A Generational Portrait" (see, researchers found that Americans are engaged in a wide variety of civic activities, including raising money and engaging in volunteer service. About a third of Americans, across age groups, are active in civic organizations. I would not be surprised if Bozeman exceeded this national average.

In our community, the philanthropic tradition begins at school. Children raise funds for charities — including their own schools — through carnival nights, auctions and raffles. Parents and businesses set a remarkable example through their contributions to events like the high school’s after-prom party and special events like the Rose Bowl trip and the upcoming Carnegie Hall performance for the children’s choir.

Myriad service clubs like Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis are visibly active in the community. Our universities, through Montana Campus Compact, involve students in service-oriented projects. Montana has an exceptional Commission on Community Service that engages thousands of volunteers annually through Americorps, Senior Corps and other programs. Montana Conservation Corps, headquartered in Bozeman, works to improve parks, preserve historic buildings, build trails and mentor young people in over 90 communities statewide.

All of these efforts build "community wealth," a term used frequently by Bill Shore in his book "The Cathedral Within: Transforming Your Life by Giving Something Back." The key to community wealth is creating non-profit organizations that sustain themselves through wise leadership, secure financing and trained volunteers. With these strengths, non-profit organizations are able to address community needs over the long term. As Shore puts it, they are "built to last."

All too often, non-profit organizations focus on the short term and feel defeated when fundraising falls short of their goals. A better approach is to concentrate on recruiting and nurturing leaders. An effective board of directors, trained volunteers, and steadfast contributors will be poised to develop long-term goals and planning. Those who serve on a board of directors play a crucial role: they develop a compelling vision, set policy and donate their professional expertise. They create new projects, chair committees, motivate others and risk failure.

Recruiting and retaining effective leaders is every organization’s biggest challenge. Too many volunteers refuse to accept leadership positions because they think they are not qualified. But more than educational background or professional experience, leaders just need a strong commitment to the task at hand. To paraphrase Bill Shore, a compass — more than brains or money — is a leader’s most valuable tool. Next time you are asked to lead, pick up a compass. Take a moment to get your bearings. Become a leader, support those who choose to lead and thank those who have risked leadership.

Wendy Bay Lewis is development director of Bozeman Public Library Foundation. She speaks on civic participation at local and national conferences.

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