An Interview with Jerralynn Ness: Inspired Leadership Giving
I recently had the chance to meet with Jerralynn Ness, retired executive director of Community Action in Hillsboro, Oregon. I was fortunate to work with Jerralynn as her director of advancement for the final few years of her tenure and was honored to learn so much from a woman who, among many distinctions, won the “Heart of Washington County” award. She has indeed been the heart of our region’s efforts for over four decades to improve the lives of people experiencing poverty.
Jerralyn agreed to share her thoughts with me on philanthropy, inspiration and how to make a difference in people’s lives. She not only worked in the non-profit field but also gives back as a donor, volunteer and board member for a wide range of local and national organizations. Her perspective on the role of private philanthropy and the true meaning of leadership giving is both inspiring and thought-provoking.
Jerralyn clearly recognized that donations made to organizations provide much more than needed funds for programs. And, the support organizations provide their clients goes far beyond financial needs.
“Donations to organizations provide much more than needed funds.”
When asked about donating to an organization Jerralyn told me that, “my gift tells them I believe in them and that someone cares about all that they do.” She feels that even a small gift can send a message to the organization that she is “with them,” believes in their mission and that their work matters. As is often the case with most donors, Jerralyn said that for those organizations where she has a deeper, personal involvement she tends to donate more.
Jerralynn is familiar with the fact that in many organizations the hard work and dedication of the staff seems to almost go unrecognized. “Each gift, whether large or small, sends a message to the staff that their efforts are indeed appreciated,” she told me.
When Community Action introduced private fundraising and the first donations started arriving, Jerralynn was struck by how many people cared enough to make a gift. “I realized in almost a spiritual sense what their gifts meant,” she said. “Their gifts showed that they had noticed us, that they valued the work we were doing for the community. I found the stewardship of these gifts to be deeply profound.”
“Support given to clients goes well beyond their financial needs.”
At Community Action the staff hear over and over again from clients that the change created goes beyond meeting a specific financial need. Clients feel acknowledged and valued at a time when their lives are in turmoil. As Jerralynn points out, “So much of the change we could offer was in how we made them feel. The same is true for our donors – our donors made us feel recognized and valued, just as the support we could give clients made them feel valued.”
So Jerralynn wanted to stress how important it is for people to know that all gifts, small and large, matter. Small donors can help create community solutions and help inspire others to give. At the higher levels of giving we can create a match where the donor can help us make an enormous difference.
It takes a community to support a non-profit.
Spending so many years in a non-profit that was primarily government grant funded and yet also raised private money, Jerralyn learned a lot about the power of philanthropy. “We are more powerful and impactful when we include private donors in our work. Their involvement validates us, helps us build important relationships in the community, shows that the community believes we are relevant, viable and respected. It is not possible to learn all these things just by receiving government grants.”
“I understood early in my career that the non-profit sector does not stand alone. Cross-sector work among partners from government, the for-profit, non-profit and philanthropic arenas is essential. Philanthropy is such a big part of that – how you relate to the people who choose to help you says so much about what your organization is and does in the community.”
Jerralyn began her career with Community Action as a Vista volunteer at age 24, never dreaming that she would spend her entire career helping the organization to continue growing and providing so much assistance for the community. She told me how she wanted to be a volunteer because of the lessons she learned from her family about the importance of giving back. “Even in our modest economic circumstances I always saw the ways we COULD have a positive impact and I carried that with me.”
In her personal philanthropy Jerralyn asks herself, “How can I be a leader in giving,” and she understands that this kind of leadership is about much more than the amount of the gift. She believes in the power of organizational staff and board leaders giving to their organization, and knows that without their modeling, it is impossible to build a true culture of philanthropy.
She made it clear that it is not the amount of the gift, but how can she and others can be leaders in inspiring someone else to consider making a donation, of any amount. “EVERY gift makes a difference and honors the hard-working staff of the organization and honors the clients that they serve.”