Richard Ober's 2011 Annual Meeting speech


Thank you, Peter, Mayor Lozeau, our "What’s Next" guests, all of our speakers tonight.

Shockapella – thanks for coming down to be with us and I add my personal gratitude and admiration to Jim Varnum and Jim Putnam for their service.

This is a familiar setting for me – not this stage, this bridge. It’s in Stoddard on the North Branch of the Contoocook River, just upstream from a great little trout pool. I've walked across it to get a better view of the water. I've waded under it and marveled at its grace and strength. This is one of seven stone arch bridges in Cheshire and Hillsborough Counties. They are distinctly of New Hampshire – cut from granite, hauled by oxen, pieced together with skill and care. Built to last.

I try not to torture my metaphors. But tonight…it’s inescapable. I look at this bridge and think of how critical each stone is in its construction. So that’s where I will start my remarks – by naming the foundation stones or building blocks of this fine institution. From there I’ll talk about the presence and impact we have today – all of us, together. And then I will share my view about what lies ahead.

The first building block is the trust and vision of donors who have chosen the Foundation as their partner in philanthropy. Since 1962, more than sixteen hundred families, individuals, and businesses have created grantmaking and scholarship funds – including scores of friends with us here tonight. Last year alone, gifts to new and existing funds topped $48 million. It all starts with you.

The trust of donors is earned in no small part by the caliber of volunteers who serve as directors, committee members, and regional advisors. Look no further than the people who were on the stage or recognized tonight and at past annual meetings. In all, more than a hundred community leaders are engaged in governance, grant decisions, and fiscal affairs. My peers around the country think we are nuts. NINE boards? They have a hard enough time with one. In a state where voluntarism is in our DNA, it just works better this way.

Staff. The professionals who staff this organization have always stood out. These are 42 of the most talented and dedicated colleagues imaginable. I want to introduce them to you and ask them to stand as I name their department. Please hold your applause until the end.

  • The program department – grant making, student aid, and civic leadership – is led by Katie Merrow
  • The philanthropy group, working with current and new donors and professional advisors, is led by Shari Landry
  • Tillotson Fund in the North Country, led by Racheal Stuart
  • The finance and IT team is led by Michael Wilson.
  • Operations and communications are led by Helen Goodman

And then are all of you we have the pleasure of calling partners – far too many to mention. Nonprofits are the most visible – some fifteen hundred of you receive grants annually. We also collaborate with state and federal government, towns, businesses, universities, school districts, and fellow funders. This is New Hampshire, after all. Nothing happens alone.

Tying it all together for the past 25 years has been my predecessor and friend – the irreplaceable, irrepressible Lew Feldstein.

So here we are. On this base has been built a singular community foundation, recognized nationally for its size, its impact, the breadth of people engaged. I’ll show a few pictures in a minute.

But first, what is a community foundation?

There are 80,000 private foundations in America, started by families, individuals, and corporations. Think of Gates, Ford, MacArthur, Pew. Or closer to home – Bean, Cogswell, Endowment for Health. They do fantastic work.

Then there is this group of 700 community foundations.

The major difference? Private foundations have one donor or a few who are closely connected. A community foundation is a collective, or perhaps a network. A network not only of charitable funds, but of ideas and aspirations of hundreds of donors. Some times they act independently; often collectively. Some love art while others are driven by social justice; some are inspired by nature and others by education. And many use their giving through the Foundation to weave together all these needs. They are all united by one common bond – a passion for place: a town, a city, a region, a state. A community, no matter how you define it.

The author Norman Maclean wrote, "If you don’t know the ground, you’re probably wrong about nearly everything else." If we had a motto for the Foundation, that would be it. Because knowing the ground is what a community foundation is all about. Through our donors, regional advisors and staff, this foundation stays deeply rooted in 300 communities across eight regions covering all of New Hampshire and parts of Maine and Vermont. In that sense we are a hyperlocal funder, acutely tuned to the needs of Rollinsford and Hinsdale, Berlin and Hudson, Chichester and Berwick and Norwich.

And even as we celebrate the distinct character of each region, we also work to unite the whole.

Donor passion and vision. Superb board and staff. Smart partners. Knowing the ground. As I travel the state listening to so many of you, it is deeply humbling and inspiring to feel the energy and power of our shared mission of improving quality of life. Together we are…

  • Helping to care for our neighbors
  • Enriching lives through arts and culture
  • Helping those most in need
  • Advancing learning at every age
  • Protecting land and water
  • Creating community spaces
  • Providing scholarships to hundreds of students
  • Collaborating to tackle issues like clean energy…and substance use disorders. And encouraging citizen dialogue and engagement

Here's what just one year of our collective efforts look like:

  • New funds established
  • Grants made
  • Scholarships awarded
  • Focus work on key issues

And that's just a year. Think of the impact over the decades.

So what's next? Standing on this foundation of strength, we have the rare privilege and the sobering obligation to think long term, to look ahead. I start with fundamental questions about a world that is changing so fast it’s hard to keep it in focus:

  • In the wake of a grinding recession, what will be the economy of northern New England? What will be New Hampshire’s niche?
  • Who is leaving the state? Why?
  • Where are the most troubling gaps – in income, race, education, access to technology? Are they growing?
  • How are we welcoming new residents – not only those from neighboring states, but increasingly from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe.
  • What does downsizing of government mean for the charitable sector? State budget cuts of ten percent or more will have profound long-term impacts on education, healthcare, the least advantaged among us. How will we respond?

Philanthropy has to step up. Not just because there will be fewer public dollars – because a fundamental realignment between the public and charitable sectors is underway. We can’t replace cuts in public funding and we shouldn't try. But we can and must innovate and collaborate better. We need to test, learn, adapt more quickly, find brilliant ideas and bring them to scale – like some of those you heard tonight.

We need to help nonprofits and those they serve to advocate for critical needs – to have a more effective voice in their communities, with policy makers, in the media.

We need to be ready for the next generation of donors who will have different expectations about the tools we use and who will look at philanthropy as an extension of their networked world. That’s why we have launched "My NHCF," our online donor portal, and why we are exploring new solutions for donors such as mission investing and venture philanthropy.

And perhaps above all, in this week that we lost Walter Peterson, statesman without equal and exemplar of civility and respect in public discourse, we need to work on our civic dialogue. I sense an enormous thirst for venues where thoughtful people can craft a vision for the state and develop meaningful solutions – informed by data and not bound by political cycles. That's why we fund independent think tanks like the Center for Public Policy Studies and the Carsey Institute, and 21st century town squares like the Forum on New Hampshire's Future, New Hampshire Listens and NHPR.

Look. The path ahead won’t be simple – and it’s not just a slow economy and tight public budgets. Americans feel unmoored from the institutions that have long anchored us. Our collective trust in the four pillars of society – government, financial markets, organized religion, and media – are at all-time lows. The income gap is widening and opportunities are narrowing for the middle class. Our neighbors are looking for anchors to windward in an uncertain sea. We are one of them.

I will close by recalling Governor Gregg’s Commission on New Hampshire in the 21st Century, which convened 20 years ago. My first mentor and boss at the time, Paul Bofinger, was co-chair with Cotton Cleveland. Lew was a member. As were Linda Dalianis, John Harrigan, Signe McQuaid, Harold Janeway, Susan Leahy, Bernie Streeter, Jim Varnum, and many others.

Commission members had markedly different backgrounds and views. But they understood New Hampshire and its values, and they found remarkable common ground. Their final report was titled simply "New Hampshire: My Responsibility." In the report lay the seeds of Leadership New Hampshire, Civic Profiles, Community Cornerstones, LCHIP, and other partnerships that have strengthened social capital and our living landscapes. The commission did its work in 1991, during a recession that was even deeper than this one for our state – 20,000 people had fled the state, five banks had failed, and the state budget was falling short. There was plenty to divide us then, as there is now. And yet those prominent citizens focused not on differences but on shared responsibility.

Especially memorable from their final report was this line: "People come to New Hampshire, or stay in New Hampshire, to be independent. We discover, paradoxically, that independence requires a community effort. Under the mainstream of rugged individualism there has always been a practical current of interdependence and cooperation. As New Hampshire grows, our sense of mutual dependence must become as strong as our independence. Or we will lose both."

Wise words and even truer today … we would do well to heed them. Our foundation will do our part. Build on the cornerstone laid so well. To be a trusted partner that knows the ground … A long-term leader in a short-term world … A force to act bigger and adapt better.

That is what we are called to do. Thank you.


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