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Karen A. Simmons, CEO of Chester County Community Foundation
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         Leadership Insights

            Producing New Opportunities from Strong Roots

                By Suzanne F. Kaplan


Karen A. Simmons’ first day on the job as President/CEO of the Chester County Community Foundation was 9/11/ 2011.  Starting from that fateful day, Simmons has overseen the funds held in trust by the Foundation grow from $10 million to $43 million. Established in 1994, the Community Foundation sees its purpose as “Connecting people who care, with causes that matter, so their legacies makes a difference now and forever.”



Passion for the Power of Philanthropy  


In only a few minutes of conversation with Karen Simmons, it becomes obvious that she is focused on several leadership principles that have enabled her to successfully lead the growing nonprofit Chester County Community Foundation which includes 375 endowed funds and makes over $2 million in annual grants.

She firmly believes that her job is to transfer and never lose the passion for the power of philanthropy that the five founders had, even as she seeks to diversify Foundation participation and clarify organizational practices for stability and growth.  She also works from the perspective of “distributed leadership” to influence collaborative working relationships.

Distributed Leadership Taps All Knowledge

Simmons discusses distributed leadership as an attitude that sees all members of the team as experts in their own right—uniquely important sources of knowledge, experience and wisdom.  Not everyone is a decision-maker, but everyone is an expert whose knowledge contributes to the decision-making process.


As former Executive Director of LaSalle University’s Nonprofit Center, Simmons has had extensive nonprofit experience which causes her to ask the hard questions when someone has a great idea that doesn’t support the strategic, core plan of the organization.  She has the interpersonal skills to sift through the ideas and keep the person engaged-- without quelling enthusiasm and using limited resources efficiently.


Local Ambassadors Open Doors


Because they know the local community, members of the Board of Directors are critical local ambassadors who can add spin and sizzle as opposed to directly soliciting funds. Simmons emphasizes that they are guides who can navigate and open doors for increased philanthropy. Prospective board members go through years of vetting to ensure the right people are selected so they will be productive, contribute to the group process, and give top priority to board activities.  In the end, though, Simmons knows that they are no different than any other volunteer—they want to build relationships and have fun with each other, network personally, socially and business- wise and grow as people.

Like any other nonprofit, Simmons says the Foundation faces challenges in attracting new donors.  One initiative being employed is the board-related Imprints Group, comprised of approximately 18 people, ages of 25-45.  They initiate their own programming and activities, including fund raising and giving circles to attract the next generation to philanthropy.  In the last two years, they have focused on supporting at-risk youth to improve future outcomes.

All of the 800 community foundations across the country face ongoing challenges to grow and best use their resources to benefit the people for whom their funds were established.  Simmons sees her overall challenge as “how to keep focus on the organization’s core strategy and mission,  considering which options to pursue, all while reaching out to more diverse groups.”  Given her record, dedication and collaborative style, she’s in a good position to meet these challenges successfully.


In Leadership Insights, Suzanne F. Kaplan, President of Talent Balance and GPSEG colleague, interviews and writes about outstanding leaders to share their stories and experiences.  Although we've all probably read some of the thousands of publications on leadership, it's the personal insights that Suzanne will be capturing for our benefit.


We welcome your comments and suggestions of other CEOs and leaders, including those not well known to GPSEG, whom you would like to see featured in future columns.