Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker says she is amazed at the changes in the local community during the past few years.
For the first time, the public, private, labor and nonprofit sectors are working together on issues like education, job training, economic development, cultural tourism and community relations. And she has been at the center of it.
Dedecker is president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, the largest philanthropic organization in Western New York, with more than $315 million in assets under management for clients. The foundation serves an eight-county region, and three-fourths of the charitable giving through the foundation stays local.
That’s what it’s been doing for the last eight years, with programs such as the Say Yes Buffalo scholarship program and other behind-the-scenes efforts. And those efforts have garnered national and even international attention for Buffalo.
Dedecker recently was invited to the White House as part of a group of a half-dozen community foundation CEOs, so the Obama administration could learn how those communities are, in Dedecker’s words, “getting it done.”
Jonathan D. Epstein: What is the Community Foundation?
Clotilde Dedecker: The Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo is one of the oldest community foundations in the world. There are more than 700 community foundations just in the U.S., and about 1,800 worldwide. And Buffalo is 95 years old this year. And this year also marks the centennial of community foundations.
We are a foundation of foundations, and as such we represent the largest pool of philanthropic capital in the region, and the issues that we work on are key to driving the local economic progress that we are making in this community.
We represent our clients – over 600 living clients, many more that are deceased – that continue to support this community through us, and the benefits that we bring to our clients include top-notch investment performance, so that they have more to give to the issues and organizations they care about.
We also connect them to broader initiatives where they can do more together with other members of the community and where they can connect with national funding partnerships.
So it’s a hub of ideas and resources that connects private philanthropy to each other.
JE: How long have you been in your current role there?
CD: Since 2007. This is my adopted home. I was resettled; my family came to Buffalo through the Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program in 1968. And for the first two years of our stay in this community, we were completely provided for by the largesse of our public safety net and charitable dollars that put a roof over our head and food on our table. So I came to philanthropy as a beneficiary.
JE: What’s happening here?
CD: Magic. It really is phenomenal what we are living through at this moment in time, because the community is working in new ways, and we are very pleased to be part of such a dynamic environment where we have cross-sector partnerships.
The issues that are facing us in communities across America, but certainly here in Buffalo, are larger and more complex than the reach of any one actor. They are bigger than any one foundation, they are bigger than any one government entity, and beyond the reach of any one nonprofit organization. So we have come to the realization that we are better together.
And we are making tremendous progress by working across sectors to do the hard work of defining our shared goals. That’s very difficult work. Collaboration is unnatural behavior performed by consenting adults.
JE: How new is this here?
CD: There’s a sense of possibility. There’s a value for partnership that becomes stronger every day, and a real sense of possibility. We’re getting it done.
The regional economic development council has generated a regional economic development plan which is a powerful framework for how we will go forward together. We have embraced our assets here.
We understand that we’ve got the bulk of the world’s fresh waters flowing by our shores, and we’re about to launch a campaign around storm water runoff and the importance of managing our storm water ... And because we have this coordinated partnership to address this critical global resource, the Funders Network – which is a national organization of philanthropists – is joining our team.
Our other critical resource, and arguably the most important, is our human capital. We know that the leading indicator of economic health for any region is the level of education of its residents ... And the Say Yes Buffalo partnership is absolutely a best-practice in action.
JE: Why were you in D.C.?
CD: The White House wanted to mark the 100th anniversary of community foundations by inviting a select group of community foundation leaders to meet with the Domestic Policy Council to talk about the key challenges our nation is facing.
I can’t tell you what a phenomenal honor it was to have Buffalo included in that invitation. I was one of six community foundation CEOs who were invited to shape this dialogue, along with Silicon Valley, Omaha, Chicago, Atlanta and Miami.
This is absolutely testament to the work we’re doing here in Buffalo. The work that is happening here, the ethos that is emerging, the we-can-do-this attitude that is happening and delivering results on all fronts is pretty powerful and it’s inspiring to the rest of the country.
We’ve got any and every excuse we could want as to why we can’t do it. We don’t have big Fortune 500 companies in town. We’re the third-poorest city in America. We’re post-industrial. And guess what? We’re getting it done. We are a very compelling incubator for best practice in urban development.
JE: What did the White House want to hear about?
CD: There was a lot of conversation about human capital. Education is a civil rights issue of our time, and racial equity is still an aspirational objective to make the promise of America the practice of America.
So a lot of the conversation was the White House asking our input on how the White House can help us in doing this work on the ground ... It’s big stuff. You sort of pinch yourself, and say ‘only in America.’
JE: What’s next?
CD: It’s taken us a few hundred years to get where we are. You don’t flip a switch in six years and move forward in a new direction. And in the age of instant gratification, one of the muscles we’re building as a community is to understand what it takes to engage these challenges for the long run, very strategically, with clear indicators of progress and outcomes. Systems change needs time.
It’s a marathon that we’re running, but we’re running it with a sense of urgency.
This work is iterative, by definition. It’s about all of us around the table giving this our best thinking. There aren’t silver bullets to address these significant challenges. The answer doesn’t lie within any one of us. It lies between and amongst us.
It’s about everybody at the table and it’s about relationships. And to the degree that we can continue to work in relationship, we can build a better future for our kids.