Q&A With Debbie Wilkerson

The chief executive for this region’s largest foundation talks about trends in philanthropy, how the non-profit sector is changing and the factors that make Kansas City one of the most charitable communities in America.

Q: What is it about the donors in Kansas City that you appreciate, or that you don’t necessarily see everywhere?

“But what I think about our donors here in Kansas City: they are kind, they are thoughtful, they are generous. It’s not an aristocratic or an elitist type of activity in Kansas City. It’s heartfelt. It’s purely generous people who want to help others.”

A: I have an opportunity to visit with colleagues all across the country at other community foundations, and we all brag about our own donors because we all think ours are the best. But what I think about our donors here in Kansas City: they are kind, they are thoughtful, they are generous. It’s not an aristocratic or an elitist type of activity in Kansas City. It’s heartfelt. It’s purely generous people who want to help others.

Q: So, do you think philanthropy is more approachable in Kansas City? 

A: At every level. For donors in some other communities it might be sort
of a club, you know, only the big people get to play in this space and really get credit, and they fight for credit. And here, it’s interesting because you’ll see even with some of the biggest buildings and most amazing philanthropic structures we have, there were big lead gifts, but they really encouraged people to give at every level and be a part of it and feel a part of it.

Q: What has changed in the attitudes of donors? If donors give a big gift, for example, do they also give
more direction? Or do they tend to say, “Hey, you know what to do with it.”

A: That’s an interesting question. I find that interesting even at the Community Foundation, because our Com-munity Foundation here in Kansas City is only 40 years old, and other community foundations are celebrating their 100th birthday this year. It’s interesting because we don’t have a whole lot of unrestricted assets. Meaning here, give us your money and come up with something good to do for it. What Jan Kreamer (a former Community Foundation CEO) had told me early on was when she told folks, like in New York or Chicago where they had a big endowed fund, give us the money and we’ll do something great with it. And donors said, “We’re having the time of our lives giving our money away, why would we give it to you to do that?” And so Jan was actually the one that realized we had to build infrastructure and tools and resources, and really be the experts in the art of philanthropy, and helping those donors with their own philanthropy, and giving them the power and the tools to do their giving. So, that’s what we continue to do today. So it is different in Kansas City.

Q: That’s interesting, and maybe people don’t understand how much structure philanthropy requires. So much effort goes into it to make sure that people know what you’re doing and what they’re giving to.

A: And I don’t ever want people to think it’s hard. It’s an art. What we do is help donors with that art so that they have the tools. So when the donors that we work with here at the Community Foundation ask us to be involved in assessing impact, or they’re really wanting to make sure they’re making a difference, a lot of times it involves our philanthropic advisers going with them to  talk to the executive director, or the CEO of the nonprofit and find out what their struggles are, what their successes are, what their strategy is, what their challenges are. There’s so much that can be learned when you look and you see.

Q: How has philanthropy changed with the onset and growth of technology? There’re times that I see an opportunity to give online and I think ‘Oh, I like that. I’ll give $20 to that. That seems good.’ Has that form of giving been a positive advancement for you?

A: We really appreciate that spontaneous version of giving that people will do on the Gofundme pages, where they’re not really thinking about it from a strategic, or a planning, or a legacy perspective. So you really have to appreciate that piece of it, that spontaneous piece of giving. We work with donors more on tools that are really designed to help them build their own charitable legacy, help them strategize There was a day when only the very wealthiest could plan and build a legacy for giving with their family, and now anybody can do it through the tools that a Community Foundation can provide. The No. 1 tool our donors use for their giving is a donor-advised fund, and that is designed to help them plan when they give, plan when they grant, have the resource of our staff available to them at any time they need it to help them think about strategies around giving. So, all the things that used to be only available to the wealthy are now available to donors at every single level. But your question on the digital side of that… So what we see now is with donor advised funds, or any of the tools we provide donors, we have to be sure to make online experience an exceptional experience. They’re not always looking to have the person on the phone, they’re not always looking to have a piece of paper sent to them or any type of accounting in that way. They’re wanting that online experience. So, we spend a lot of energy building a great online experience in that space.

Q: That’s interesting. It speaks to some of the trust issues younger donors might have…

A: And that is true. So now for our donor-advised funds, donors can access their own donor adviser through a portal, they can see what they’ve got in the fund, they can see what they’ve granted from the fund, they can grant again in different amounts. There’s all those types of things that they need at their finger-tips. They need to be able to send out a system, you know be able to look back, and really appreciate where they came from. So that’s one of the things I enjoy telling folks when I say these donor-advised funds are just this magical place where you can celebrate your own philanth-
ropy and really appreciate and build a legacy. I had a donor’s son come in after he left the fund to his family and his children, and watching his son go back through that listing of all the grants… I can’t think of another account that would have told
him more about his father.

Q: Especially with the tax law change, are donor-advised funds gaining  popularity?

A: People are just being very thoughtful in their giving… I can bunch up my deductions into a donor-advised fund in one year, so I can take advantage of a tax deduction and then give it out in the second and third year beyond that. So, it’s just a matter of give it to the fund, then grant it, grant it, grant it.     

The donors are just amazing what they’re granting out of this and the pace at which they’re granting. It’s phenomenal to see all that they’re able to accomplish through a donor advised fund.

Q: Kansas City has this legacy now of the Hall family, the Bloch family, the Dunn family, the Helzbergs. When a Henry Bloch, for example, donates his artwork to the Nelson-Atkins and just has reproductions at his home, that’s so telling. Does that sort of action inspire others to give in a similar way?

A: When you name all of those families, and the generations, I’ve had the great privilege of getting to meet multiple generations within each of those families. You don’t know what they did from a parenting perspective of how they raised such kind and genuine people. But yes, they have influenced all of us, because their approach to giving is humble and it’s designed to help, not about being bragging or getting headlines. It’s about  helping others and that genuine concern and care for our community and the people in it.

Q: What’s your favorite part about working for an organization like  the Community Foundation? What is it that you come in every day for?

A: Oh, we have so many donors we work for here and they amaze me every single day. And so I get to see the big spectrum of it. Some of our largest funds will call and say ‘hey, we’ve got a little fund there, we need to make a grant.’ I mean they’ll just say it in the most humble way. I was at the pool with another donor who has a very small fund and he said ‘Well, they sure treat me like a king’ and that’s what we want donors to feel, is that at every level of giving, however many zeros they have behind it doesn’t matter. That fund is important for their legacy of giving. And so that’s what’s fun for me is getting to work with donors at every single level of the giving scale.

Q: When the tax changes came last year, were there fears that people weren’t going to give as much? Did you attack things a little bit differently near the beginning of the year, or  were you pretty confident that we have something here and the legacy of Kansas City would keep philanthropies going?

A.  I have no doubt they will, and what role we were trying to play for donors is to make sure they knew they didn’t have to be big givers if they wanted to use a donor-advised fund. There’s no minimum in terms of setup. So, we welcome donors at every level, and if it can be helpful to you to bunch your donations and take advantage of the tax contribution so that you can keep giving consistently year after year to those charities you care about, we just wanted to make sure they know that they have that tool available to them