I recently spoke to Karen Simmons, CEO of the Chester County Community Foundation, about her life and her work with the foundation, which is celebrating 25 years of community philanthropy this year.
Krys: Where do you find inspiration?
Karen: Netflix! Don’t laugh; I love movies and it’s fascinating to me to watch stories and try to better understand what motivates people. I’m also inspired by the good I see people do every day, in big and small ways, whether that is in movies or in real life.
Krys: What’s your superpower?
Karen: Organizing. My little brother, who I call “Fave” because he’s my favorite, told me once that he noticed that I can walk into to anything and organize it immediately — whether it’s a home, a pantry, a garden, a situation or a nonprofit. My brain just works that way.
Krys: Look back to yourself at age 10. What did you want to be when you grew up?
Karen: Oh, that’s easy — a ballerina! By the age of 17 I was running my own dance business, teaching out of half a dozen dance studios in my hometown of Elba, New York.
Krys: Speaking of your hometown, I heard a rumor that you were their Onion Queen?
Karen: I AM the Onion Queen — once a Queen, always a Queen! Elba, New York is the Onion Capital of the world, and I won a crown of pearl onions and some scholarship money because of high academic grades and my dance talent. I was lucky; the town nearby crowns a Sauerkraut Queen each year. I don’t even want to think what that crown would’ve been like to wear!
Krys: How did you get started in nonprofit work?
Karen: When I interned at the Juilliard School in NYC, I quickly realized that my dance talents rested not so much in performance but rather, in teaching and getting others onstage. I was better at the business side of the arts. So, while in grad school at Temple U, I tended to the business side of several dance and arts/culture projects. I ended up being invited to head LaSalle’s U’s Nonprofit Center, an outreach program of the business school to train nonprofit boards and executive directors throughout the Greater Philly region.
During my 15 years at LaSalle, I had relocated from Roxborough to Drexel Hill to Kennett Square. I started to get phone calls about a CEO position opening at the Community Foundation, because people knew I was living in Chesco and driving daily to Philly. Seven people called, actually. Seven’s my lucky number, so at that point I finally agreed to meet the people who were involved. I was really interested at what they were trying to accomplish in my own backyard in Chester County; and I thought I could help.
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"Every few years, we realize that we are heading into a new organizational phase; and we have to refine what we do and how we do it."
Krys: You have been the CEO of the foundation since 2001, and you actually started on 9/11. How did that impact your first year on the job?
Karen: Well, the world changed that day. I witnessed as Chester County responded to community needs with such generosity, despite their fears. Our firefighters and EMTs went up in droves to help. It really showed me the caliber of people in this area, and in the midst of a tragedy, gave us all great hope for the future.
Krys: The foundation turns 25 this year. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in that time?
Karen: Wonderfully, the biggest challenge is keeping up with our growth. Every few years, we realize that we are heading into a new organizational phase; and we have to refine what we do and how we do it. We want to be ahead of the curve on changes impacting legacy philanthropy. We grow legacy philanthropy by providing services that strengthen charities and donors; by convening forums about charity issues; and by reaching out to estate advisors and their clients.
We just held our extremely popular annual board of trustees’ institute, where our volunteer consultants teach best practices to 125+ nonprofit board members. Twice annually, we offer extremely well-attended interactive TED talks, to spread ideas on altruism, giving, and community throughout Chesco.
Krys: What has been the biggest success?
Karen: In 1994, the Chester County Community Foundation opened its doors in a garret office donated by the Huston family in Coatesville. We started with $174,000 and a single Donor Advised Fund. Today, the foundation [housed in the Lincoln Building in West Chester] is entrusted with 400+ funds totaling $73+ million.
We have a robust network of friends, door openers, and supporters throughout Chester County. We have awarded $43 million in grants and scholarships over the last 25 years. It’s been rewarding to see all the people who believe in legacy philanthropy grow and grow. From the individuals, families and nonprofits whose funds we hold in trust, to our incredible board, volunteers, staff, and interns.
Especially our interns — to see them return to our events after they graduate and attain successful careers, because they realize they make a difference in the fabric of our community.
Krys: You work with so many donors on legacy gifts. Have you thought about what kind of legacy you want to leave behind? How do you want to be remembered?
Karen: Growing up, I hated my name. “Karen” seemed so boring. But recently, I heard my dad call out my name when he needed something, and it sounded like “caring” to me. If my legacy is that people say, “Karen … she really cared,” that’s fine with me.
Plus it fits our mission, so I feel like I’m in the right place — we connect people who care with the causes that matter, so their philanthropy makes a difference now and forever.
The Chester County Community Foundation holds its 25th Annual Meeting and Silver Anniversary Celebration on October 28, 2019 at Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center, 226 N. High Street in West Chester. Receptions immediately before & after the 5 p.m. event, at 4:15 p.m. & 6:15 p.m. Free and open to the public. Just come, or RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org or 610-696-8211.-30-
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