When Joan Dixon, President and CEO of Community Foundation of East Central Illinois decided to retire, she did not anticipate her final year with the organization to happen during a pandemic. However, it may have just made the transition that much more impactful. Over the course of the past 15 months, Dixon and her successor, Vice President of Development Angie Hatfield Marker, have worked side by side to ensure those most in need in our community were receiving the resources they needed. Because of CFECI’s close ties to so many nonprofits in the area, and thanks to a partnership with United Way of Champaign County, they were able to get $1.2 million to local organizations to provide support and relief (food, educational supplies, community centers, emergency housing assistance) on top of the funding they regularly get out into the community. “(Angie) has been intimately involved in all of this,” says Dixon. “We had a plan for the transition and passing information, but the plan became more experiential.”
I sat down with Dixon and Hatfield Marker to discuss retirement and the future of CFECI. Dixon has been with the organization for nearly 20 years, having previously served as CEO of the Christie Clinic Foundation.
Smile Politely: How has the organization evolved over the time you’ve been here?
Dixon: When I started at the foundation, we were an office renting space from United Way. We’ve gone from one office to owning a building. Our assets have increased, our reach has increased, and I think the thing that sets us apart from other organizations in town and other community foundations throughout the state, is the work we do directly with nonprofits…through our Center for Nonprofit Excellence, the incubator, our one on one mentoring, our executive director support group. When we started it was one staff person. We still don’t have a very large staff, but certainly we could not have done any of those things without expanding.
SP: What are you most proud of from your time as president?
Dixon: The deep work we do with the nonprofits is really important, because it’s good for the community. It’s good for the nonprofits, but it’s also a really good story we can tell our donors…that’s what we’re doing with their money. Everybody who has a fund with us is taking care of the community in a different way.
SP: Is there one in particular you’ve really seen flourish in the time you’ve been doing the incubator?
Dixon: I think DREAAM. It was the first one in the incubator. But, the other thing about the incubator is the diversity, in many ways those organizations represent. We’ve got an environmental group, we’ve got a group that helps women coming out of the corrections system, we’ve got DREAAM…
Angie Hatfield Marker: We’ve got the breast cancer survivor paddle boat team.
Dixon: It’s great when they all get together, because they all have similar problems at the foundational level. They’ve done a lovely job of sharing information.
SP: What’s next for you?
Dixon: I’m going to continue to help the Foundation with some of that work for nonprofits as they need my assistance. I look at a lot of people’s bylaws, so that’s something that’s relatively easy [to help with] that very few people in the world want to do. I agreed to do a couple of things for our rotary club and the rotary district.
SP: What has the transition looked like?
Hatfield Marker: Well, I think we’ve been lucky that it was planned, that the board of trustees and Joan wanted to hire from within. So we’ve had not just this past year, but the past three and a half years to mentor and teach and guide and get us all ready for what life looks like without her here. While Joan is not our founder, she might as well have been. She’s been here 20 years, and there will be pieces of her here forever. She certainly has left a mark on more than just the documents that are cluttering her desk right now. While this past year has been challenging, I think it was also great for [Joan] and I, as leaders. All of the things that were thrown our way we faced together.
Dixon: When Angie and I talked about her joining the Foundation, in the back of mind I was thinking “at some point I’m going to retire.” It was clear to me at the time she had the ability…But I have thought over the last 16-18 months, “gosh I’m glad she didn’t have to go through that by herself.”
Hatfield Marker: There’s a pretty tight bond between the leaders of our nonprofits, where we could call on each other if I do have questions or concerns. I feel comfortable reaching out to our peers, and I appreciate Joan allowing me to build those relationships these past three years. And I appreciate that she’s agreeing to stay on in a volunteer role and be available when I have questions about the many asterisks she leaves with no accompanying explanation.
Dixon: You can’t write everything down, right?
Hatfield Marker: We really work hard to train nonprofits on how to run their organizations, and a big part of that is succession planning. So when it came time for us, we were able to walk the walk and Joan had things in place to make it easy on our whole staff and board.
Dixon: We did have a formal transition plan at least a year out, and we’ve followed it pretty closely.
Hatfield Marker: That’s part of the benefit to hiring within. There’s no pause in service. We’re passing the baton, and the best relay team does that quickly, and while they are still running.
SP: What do you see for the future of the organization?
Hatfield Marker: We just met as a board last week, for the first time in person, for a strategic planning session. We had a really great two hour conversation about just that. We’ll be celebrating our 50th anniversary this year, so what does the next 50 years look like? We’d like to find a way to prioritize multi-sector convergence. How do we get all the sectors working together to make our community better? I think we’re lucky in Champaign-Urbana: the nonprofit, the for profit, and our government sectors all work really well together, but there’s always room for improvement. How do we loop some of our local corporations into the work we’re doing?
We’d also like to focus on multigenerational conversations about philanthropy, and what that looks like for all different families. How you can have conversations about giving, and saving, and investing in a safe place with your children, your parents, your grandparents, your aunts and uncles, whatever family looks like. We’ll certainly still be working closely with the nonprofits. We’ve actually hired a director for the Center for Nonprofit Excellence…those capacity building efforts and personal development efforts — that we can make available free of charge — are a really important piece to strengthening the sector. So we will be carrying Joan’s torch when it come to building better boards and staff development.
Dixon: We also continue to need to do work outside of Champaign County….some [counties] we do a fine job working with. There are some of the further away ones we need to focus on. We haven’t been able to go on the road.
SP: Do you have a successor?
Hatfield Marker: I do not. We’re going to shift to a strength based organizational culture. We’re going to determine as a staff what our strengths are, and work to use those to achieve our job responsibilities. The person we hired to run the Center for Nonprofit Excellence has a background in nonprofit management. She’ll take on quite a bit of what Joan was doing with nonprofits and the incubator, certainly with Joan’s help. I’ll still be working through our fundraising efforts. Kristen [Duesdieker] in our office has really stepped up. We have a whole new grant and scholarship and accounting system…
Dixon (laughing): That was my gift!
Hatfield Marker: She’s been working through data migration, and she’ll continue working with grants and scholarships, and working closely with the nonprofits to make the process of applying and receiving those funds as easy as possible. We think we have it covered. The great ones adjust, and if we need to adjust any of those roles we will!
Dixon wrote her own send-off for the 2020 annual report, expressing her gratitude and confidence in the future of the organization:
As I hand the keys and passwords of the Foundation over to the very capable hands of my successor, Angie Hatfield Marker, I look forward to the growth and many successes the Foundation is sure to experience in years to come…and the many different ways we will all have to pivot in the future.
Thank you for letting me help move the Community Foundation forward over the past 19+ years.
Learn more about the work of Community Foundation of East Central Illinois at their website.