Twenty-five years ago, a group of savvy nonprofit professionals came together under the banner of the San Francisco Foundation with a great idea: to establish a comprehensive fiscal sponsorship agency defined by efficiency and integrity. As part of our twenty-fifth anniversary celebration, we interviewed some of the people who helped build the thriving organization we celebrate today as Community Initiatives.

Community Initiatives Celebrating Twenty-five years logo“In 1987, The Council on Foundations actually wrote an essay on fiscal agents – ‘A Trap for the Unwary,” recalls Greg Colvin, one of the pioneering visionaries who helped found what is now known as Community Initiatives. First housed within the San Francisco Foundation, and then known as the San Francisco Community Initiatives Fund, Community Initiatives was founded in 1996 as a beacon of best practices in the burgeoning fiscal sponsorship field – and our long history of stability and reliable breadth of services were always defining values.

Jan Masaoka, also a Community Initiatives founding board member, highlighted the organization’s intentionally thoughtful approach that included a close review of projects and insistence that a Fiscally Sponsored Project (FSP) have more than one person responsible for its accountability and programming. Additionally, there was an insistence that an FSP’s purpose was truly for the public good. “People wanted to create non-profits for very private purposes – so culling through those helped define Community Initiatives.” A long-time leader in the Bay Area nonprofit community, Masaoka’s involvement, along with the contributions of Bill Powers, David Barlow, Ted Singer, John Kreidler, Greg Colvin, and many others, helped bolster the organization’s credibility from the start.

Whether those were challenges or opportunities, simple or complex, Community Initiatives was dedicated to meeting the need. For example, in 2005 Community Initiatives provided the critical operational link that supported public access expansion and created a more inclusive civic space in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

With the help of early expert guidance, by 2008, Community Initiatives had nearly $21M in total assets. Then, a strong and stable organization, it separated from the San Francisco Foundation and moved to 354 Pine Street. This new independence ultimately allowed the organization to fully realize its mission and expand.

its impact to the community at large; Community Initiatives had grown to serve eighty-five projects in California and beyond. Then board member Frances Phillips underscores the idea that Community Initiatives was already a local bedrock presence at the forefront of community change. “That excited me the most about Community Initiatives – we had a birds eye view of the new things that were popping up.”

Though FSP management remains at the core of operations, Community Initiatives has also acted as a critical collaborator for groundbreaking public-private partnerships including the Laguna Honda Hospital Foundation, and the recent multi-million-dollar COVID- 19 Emergency Response Fund anchored by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and in collaboration with the Alameda County Public Health Department.

Providing support to projects that otherwise might never have gotten off the ground (for example, widely loved Palomacy Pigeon and Dove Adoptions), is a consistent theme in any conversation regarding Community Initiatives’ enduring impact. But staff and board members return time and again to the lasting experience of shared learning and mutual regard. “I take away a lot of respect for other board members... people who really cared about what they were doing, and were thoughtful about it,” John Kreidler emphasized.

Prudy Kohler, Former Director of Fiscally Sponsored Projects and Philanthropic Services at Community Initiatives, recalls her connection with then-CEO Melanie Beene as one of her favorite aspects of working at Community Initiatives, along with a sense of good-humored camaraderie in the San Francisco Office. “The old office on Pine Street was on the seventh floor and often the elevator was non-functional; we, as staff, decided that we wanted to use this opportunity for physical fitness. Every day at three p.m. we would walk down the stairs, walk up, walk down, walk up… It was time to kind of kick back, we could have conversations, a casual get-together. We did it just about every day.” Staff cohesion served the organization well through the 2008 financial crisis and the resulting years-long economic down-turn. To endure, Community Initiatives relied on its core strengths: strong leadership, provision of ethical and efficient services, and investment in deep community connections.

As the larger economy and FSPs built strategies to adapt, Community Initiatives once again began to grow and evolve. In 2011, Community Initiatives expanded their national reach by adding JunctionHouse Commons in Seattle, WA, and North American Primate Sanctuary in Ohio. In 2012, we added administrative staff to meet expanding project needs, kicking off a still-active period of stability and growth.

By 2018, Community Initiatives had over $31M in assets and moved across the Bay to newly renovated offices in Oakland. Relocating was a good business decision, states former board member Sarah Bacon. “Rents in San Francisco were skyrocketing. We did what a lot of projects were doing. It was difficult, but as an organization we could be more effective and help more people by saving on rent while continuing to see the same quality of work.” She goes on to praise the current CEO and President, Ruth Williams, as a vital piece of the leadership puzzle. “Ruth is a shining example… a testament to the longevity of Community Initiatives.”

Today, Community Initiatives stands ready as ever in service to great ideas,  to address the escalating economic and existential crises facing our communities. “The place of fiscal sponsorship in emerging political movements for social change has become a fact of life. But the key is professional management; this is what the twenty-five-year history at Community Initiatives has demonstrated,” concludes Greg Colvin.

Celebration of Excellence 25 years in service to great ideas