KeyBank liked the job Elizabeth S. Gurney was doing as executive director of the First Niagara Foundation.
So much so, the bank gave her the added duties of head of the KeyBank Foundation, whose philanthropy touches the Cleveland-based bank's markets across 15 states.
Gurney, a local native, remains based in Buffalo. She took over the KeyBank Foundation's top leadership role from Margot James Copland, who recently retired.
The First Niagara Foundation is spending down its remaining financial resources at a rate of $7 million per year, and expects to complete that process in 2022. In 2018, the First Niagara Foundation and the KeyBank Foundation made over 3,300 philanthropic investments worth nearly $40 million.
In her new role at the KeyBank Foundation, Gurney is drawing on her experience at the First Niagara Foundation, as well as her 32 years of experience before that raising funds for local institutions including the Nichols School.
Q: How did your fundraising background prepare you for foundation work?
A: It gives me great empathy for fundraisers, development people, grant writers, people seeking funds. I think I have a really good understanding of the process they go through and what the organization needs are. … And an understanding of the community needs, for sure.
Q: What impact have you had at the First Niagara Foundation, from the time you were hired as its first director in 2011?
A: I was able to help them transform from checkbook philanthropy to strategic investments in the community. It was a blank slate. … It was a really wonderful opportunity that I continue to be grateful to have had.
I grew up in a family that valued hard work and service and giving back. We would drive by a street in a rainstorm with clogged-up gutters, and we would have to stop, get out and unplug the gutters when I was a kid. Every Wednesday morning, my father took us over to a community center on the East Side to cook breakfast before we went to school.
Q: What priorities did you set at the First Niagara Foundation?
A: That was what we spent a lot of time looking at: OK, if you're going to have impact, you have to go narrow. You can't spread it like peanut butter. … It was really trying to match the bank's needs and focus areas. We narrowed on education and workforce and mentoring, and really targeted the underserved. And neighborhood revitalization, I would say.
Q: What does your new role with the KeyBank Foundation involve?
A: Basically, it's the same [as at the First Niagara Foundation], but just a larger scale. … You've just got to get to know these regional leaders again.
I think I helped influence First Niagara's presence in the communities that we serve, not just in Western New York but across the footprint. And if I can have any impact on getting more kids served and more homes built, and if more people can understand the importance of financial literacy and taking care of themselves and getting jobs, and get kids to the next level of school, and providing and opportunity and hope and dignity to more people, then I'm all about it.
There are a lot of wonderful programs going on around the country that Key may or may not be supporting. … I will learn about some of the other programs that are happening across the country that are really successful and working well, and replicate them. We should not be reinventing the wheel here.
Q: Is it hard to turn down people who ask for money?
A: Yeah. If you narrow your focus [for donations], it makes it a little easier. But it's still hard, because there are so many great not-for-profits and people doing good things. … I always feel if you can help them and explain why, and if it's not in your focus areas, you can help them and say, 'Have you thought about this? Do you know these people down the street that are doing similar work, and maybe if you talk to them and come up with a similar program?' Collaboration is so important.
Q: What is your outlook for the KeyBank Foundation?
A: To continue and strengthen Key's commitment to the communities that we serve, by being the very best corporate citizen that we can be. And that goes way beyond philanthropy. We have a wonderful team of employees, and if we can amplify our charitable dollars with their passion and commitment and dedication to their communities, that would be a really good outcome.