Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Ten Years and Counting

In January 2011, The Foraker Group completed its first decade of service. At its founding, we had a five-year vision, a business plan and an amazing set of circumstances that opened many doors for success. Today, we are part of the National Council of Nonprofits and one of that organization’s largest state nonprofit associations. We also are recognized as one of the largest and most comprehensive nonprofit management assistance organizations in the nation. Nonprofit leaders and funders throughout the country are asking for our counsel. This recognition is gratifying and it’s possible because we have not strayed from our original vision and we’ve enjoyed the expert guidance provided by a large number of people through the years. This is their story.

The founding environment and process

The original vision for The Foraker Group was first articulated in the 1993 United Way of Anchorage strategic plan. Eric Luttrel, a BP executive, served on that board and agreed to act as chair of the strategic planning process. In 1993, Alaska was digging out of the deep recession of the late 1980’s. Business leaders were encouraging the state and its citizens to adopt a fiscal plan – they were concerned that most of the state’s budget was (and still is) dependent on one source, the oil industry, and that was not a sustainable model.

Frustrated with the lack of progress on that front, industry leaders did what they could to engage local businesses to set an example by diversifying income and improving performance. One of the local organizations they encouraged to become more effective and efficient was the United Way. They hoped that it could help lead the nonprofit sector to enhanced productivity and diversified income.

The United Way board embraced that encouragement. In the strategic plan they envisioned a “shared services” model, similar to one used by financial institutions and the oil industry, to enhance capacity for nonprofits. That plan called for United Way to first focus on its internal restructuring, then to encourage all nonprofits to follow its lead.

By 1998, enough progress was made and a more detailed vision for “nonprofit shared services” was created. A committee chaired by United Way board members Bernie Washington and Lisa Ladds Doche looked into options and surveyed nonprofits to determine what services they would be willing to use. That study found that bookkeeping, information technologies, human resource management and planned giving were the most wanted services. The fifth was health insurance.

The committee developed a business plan. It called for limited back room “shared services” for health and human service nonprofits in south central Alaska. However, before the plan was implemented Alaska changed. The oil industry went through a massive restructuring as BP and ARCO, the two largest private sector funders, decided to merge. The plan was put on hold until the new landscape was clearly understood.

In a short time, many major events occurred that would re-open the door for the vision. First, after years of effort, the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority had significant resources to assist beneficiaries, primarily through the funding of nonprofits serving those individuals. Senator Stevens was completing landmark legislation to create the Denali Commission, which was dedicated to building the capacity of Alaska’s rural communities. Most of that funding was for nonprofit organizations serving rural areas. In addition, the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust in Vancouver, Washington was committed to significantly increasing support for nonprofits in Alaska. Finally, during merger discussions between the state, BP and ARCO (soon to become Phillips), an understanding called the “Charter Agreement” was developed, which committed to a significant increase in charitable support for the University of Alaska and the state’s nonprofits. All of a sudden, a lot of money was focused on the sector.

Another circumstance occurred at about this time when Elmer Rasmuson decided he would provide increased support for the Anchorage Museum and the Rasmuson Foundation with the income from the sale of National Bank of Alaska to Wells Fargo. It was his intent that eventually most of his estate would go to the Rasmuson Foundation to support the state that had supported his family’s business.

In late 1999, I met with Mr. Rasmuson to discuss United Way initiatives – one was the vision for a “shared services” for nonprofits. What was originally scheduled as a 30-minute meeting turned into a two-hour discussion. After the meeting, Rasmuson Foundation President Diane Kaplan called to say that Elmer was intrigued with the basic idea of the “shared services” strategy, but had encouraged us to be statewide – for all nonprofits. He asked that we get him a revised proposal fast.

Within a week of that meeting, the last circumstance occurred when Neal Thorpe of the Murdock Trust spoke to Diane and asked the planning group to make sure the plan included capacity building services for staffs and boards of Alaska nonprofits. Diane Kaplan and I met at a local restaurant and on a paper napkin we developed the first draft of the revised “business plan” for the new organization. A group of local nonprofit leaders including Karleeen Jackson, Jim Maley, Fred Jenkins and Chuck Barber, with funding leaders including Diane Kaplan, Joan McCoy from Phillips and Carla Beam from BP, met with a nationally recognized facilitator, Dr. Mary Stewart Hall, and me to add more substance to the plan. It was at that meeting that Foraker’s core purpose and values were first articulated.

With assistance from consultants Suzanne Lagoni and Dirk Van den Bosh, that napkin and the additional comments from the planning session turned into a formal business plan for the new, yet-to-be-named organization. The momentum was building, and Phillips and BP were so inspired by the progress that they provided immediate financial support. As soon as the plan was complete, both the Rasmuson Foundation and the Murdock Trust committed the remaining support needed and the organization was launched.

Ed Rasmuson and Diane Kaplan served as the first board development committee. They envisioned the two-board structure. The Governance Board was sanctioned to handle the fiduciary role and would be comprised of significant statewide leaders with a history of support for nonprofits. The Operations Board would be comprised of significant nonprofit and funding leaders and serve as the consumer board by overseeing the products and services offered. Ed and Diane identified and recruited the founding boards. Both boards met for the first time in early 2001. Their dedication and commitment are the strength behind the success of The Foraker Group.

At this point, no name existed for the new entity. No one wanted it to be called a nonprofit association because what was envisioned went far beyond what most nonprofit associations did at that time. Also, no one liked the idea of being called something as boring as the “shared services corporation.” The founding committee really wanted an Alaskan name, but not the predictable, over-used names of Denali, Northern Lights, Arctic or Alaska.

The Nerland Agency took on the task to find the right name. To be honest, many of their first attempts while good did not hit the mark. Then in late 2000, when we were to hold our first press conference and really needed a name, they came to us with The Foraker Group. Foraker, for Mount Foraker, Alaska’s third highest peak and a mountain identified by Alaska Natives as the “partner of” or “wife of” the “great one,” Denali. Therefore, the metaphor for our name is that we are the partner and support of the sector, just as Mount Foraker is the partner to Denali.
January 12, 2001, The Foraker Group was incorporated.

Since our founding

The first meeting of the Governance Board was January 12, 2001. The founding members included Ed Rasmuson, Chair, Jim Palmer (BP), Kevin Meyers (Phillips), Jake Adams (ASRC), Jeff Staser (Denali Commission), Byron Mallot (First Alaskans Institute), Jeff Cook (Flint Hills), Clark Gruening (Gruening & Spitzfaden), Grace Schaible (retired), Eleanor Andrews (Andrews Group), Bernie Washington (Phillips), and Diane Kaplan. They asked me to serve as the first CEO while I continued to serve as the CEO for the United Way of Anchorage and the Alaska Community Foundation.

The original offices were located at United Way in the Phillips Building. In addition to me, Foraker employed one full-time administrative person and contracted the original consultants – Steve Mahoney, Suzanne Lagoni, Joan McCoy, Chuck Barber, Thea Agnew, Mac McCoy, Alan Kajikawa and Todd Allen. Another original consulting partner was Cook Inlet Tribal Council. CITC and its CFO Bruce Hilton provided the original back room financial services. They had been providing such services for many Native organizations and agreed to assist Foraker until a workable model for all could be developed.

Beans Café was the first nonprofit Foraker Partner. Within a year, another 100 nonprofits joined the association. The original “shared services” included finance, human resources, and planned giving. We continued to study if other services such as IT support were feasible. Limited board training was offered with plans to enhance those opportunities as soon as possible. The boards met to determine the next steps and monitor efforts to maximize earned revenue while making sure we offered high quality and affordable services.

In December 2001, Laurie Wolf moved back to Alaska to head Foraker’s training efforts. She continues to work at Foraker as one of its vice presidents. Laurie with assistance from Suzanne Lagoni and Joan McCoy developed Foraker’s capacity to provide a diverse menu of training opportunities for boards and staffs. They had support from Mary Hall, also a nationally recognized leader in philanthropy and founder of the Executive Masters in Nonprofit Leadership program at Seattle University. Together they created the Foraker Nonprofit Certificate. Roy Hundorf also advised the group on how to best meet the needs of Native organizations. His initial contributions continue to enhance all Foraker efforts. The University of Alaska embraced the Certificate and partnered with Foraker to provide continuing education credits for the program. The original faculty included Laurie, Suzanne and Mary Hall, as well as Dirk Van den Bosch, Ed Schumacher, Kay Sohl, Steve Mahoney, Sue Brogan and Gwen Kennedy. Gwen, Sue, Steve, Suzanne and Laurie continue to serve as faculty.

Before 2003, The Foraker Group developed 25 courses designed for board members and an additional 12 courses for staff. The first certificate cohort of 20 nonprofit professionals was convened and laid the foundation for the next 200 professionals who followed them through the program. In 2002, Foraker also established a partnership with Alaska Pacific University to provide a nonprofit emphasis in its management degree through the Rural Alaska Native Adult (RANA) program. Most of these courses, developed eight years ago, are still offered and have been updated with the newest thinking from sector leaders. Over 8,000 Alaskans have received training through the various educational opportunities at Foraker. The Murdock Trust’s initial funding provided the support to develop the initial efforts. And thanks to a very generous grant from the Rasmuson Foundation, many of the courses are now offered through the web and are using the most up-to-date video technology.

The staff continued to grow. Mike Walsh joined Foraker full-time in 2004 and remains as the other vice president. He oversees the administration and program functions at Foraker. George Hieronymus, after leaving Rasmuson Foundation, served as the Chief Operations Officer from 2004 through 2008. Terry Horton became a full-time consultant from 2006 through 2009 and continues to provide limited services since leaving Alaska. Vicki Lewis was one of the first full-time employees and continues as the staff leader for everything requiring the magic she can work for programs requiring logistics. She is often supported by Nancy Puckett, another of our longest serving consultants. Andrew Cutting joined in 2008 as the first Partner Relations specialist. And Laura Bich and Simone McMahan round out the current staff, both with the skill and flexibility required from every member of the team.

Many services have been added through the years and most continue today. One program we provided for a few years was the Beneficiary Initiative. Foraker partnered with the Alaska Mental Health Trust to provide capacity building services to its beneficiary organizations. Todd Steele joined to manage the Beneficiary Initiative, leaving Foraker in 2008 to complete his master’s degree. At that point, the Trust provided its own oversight for the initiative.

However, the Trust was not finished with its commitment to Foraker. It, along with the Denali Commission and the Rasmuson Foundation, created the Pre-Development program. Pre-D, as it is known, assists nonprofits and communities to prepare for successful capital projects. Chris Kowalczewski joined as the Manager of Pre-Development in 2006. An architect with vast experience in planning structures in Alaska, Chris has become one of our most visible and beloved staff. In 2009, the Mat-Su Health Foundation became a full funding partner. This program has become a national model and for Partners a much valued “shared service.” In 2010, Pam Lund joined Pre-Development as its second full-time staff. Pre-D has numerous consultants with varied skills. The senior consultants are Steve Fishback, John Conway and Martha Schoenthal. Pre-Development has provided planning for over 80 projects statewide.

In 2008, financial “shared services,” initially incubated at CITC, moved into Foraker under the leadership of Raj Shankar. Thanks to an initiative funded by the Paul G. Allen Foundation, a workable model was created and some staff from CITC became Foraker employees. A business plan was developed and called for this service to break even after three years. Because of the ingenuity and hard work of Raj and his team, that goal was realized by the end of the first year. Our financial “shared service” was recognized nationally as the only such service able to sustain itself without a subsidy. Gretchen Specht serves as comptroller and with the staff of Olesya Zalata, Malu Antonio and Brent Kapansky serves over 30 Partners. Bruce Hilton continues to act as a senior consultant for the program along with Tor Daly, Catharine Persinger, Kim Erickson and Kaye Christianson.

In late 2008, Rebecca Savidis became Foraker’s first, full-time human resource consultant. While Rebecca provides generalist support for Partners having human resource issues, she is primarily responsible for managing Foraker’s effort to create a viable association health insurance plan for nonprofits. We hope to announce soon that the dream of a sustainable association plan for our Partners is a reality.

In addition to the new staff, additional consultants continue to join the organization. Jeff Ranf has been working with us for eight years to develop the association health insurance plan. Janet Jacobs replaced Todd Allen as a human resource specialist and is still on-call when needed. Billy Finley joined us to provide web design services. Aliza Sherman Risdahl assisted Foraker and many of its Partners to move into the world of social media. And Diana Strzok has become a valued CEO coach and interim executive. The bottom line is that virtually all of our consultants and staff who were with Foraker when we opened are still involved. Together, their collective insight into the needs of nonprofits in Alaska is an invaluable asset for all of us.

For our tenth anniversary, we will publish a book on The Foraker Nonprofit Sustainability Model©. This model is used by many of our Partners to strengthen their ability to succeed. I identified the original components of the model in 2005-2006 after the staff challenged itself to define “sustainability.” Since then, Laurie and Mike as well as many Foraker consultants and Partners have worked to create an understanding of nonprofit resilience. The model also serves as our “theory of change” and is at the core of efforts to measure our impact. It is now being studied by many nonprofit leaders around the country and is embraced as a simple yet comprehensive way for boards and staff leadership to help their organizations thrive.

From its current permanent offices in Mountain View, Foraker consultants and staff have provided services in 137 Alaska communities. While there are some Alaskans who have not heard of Foraker, few people serving on nonprofit boards or staffs are unaware of who we are and what we do. For many, The Foraker Group has become synonymous with the word “nonprofit” in Alaska. And today that identity is quickly becoming known nationwide. While Foraker never envisioned a role outside Alaska (and will always be focused here), the model we developed has been recognized by many as the way to go in building sector-wide capacity.

BP and ConocoPhillips continue their unrestricted financial support to equalize costs for Partners around the state. The Denali Commission and the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority use Foraker services to provide major program support for their constituents. The Mat-Su Health Foundation has become another one of Foraker’s funding assets supporting the Pre-D Program and other services for nonprofits in the Mat Valley. The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has twice provided specific program support that helped build the capacity of Foraker. And the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust was there in the beginning and is back now as one of our most significant funders of internal capacity. In addition, another 20 corporations now provide unrestricted support. Without that support, which represents between 20% and 25% of our operating budget, Foraker could not serve all nonprofits around the state.

The Rasmuson Foundation continues to be the most significant Foraker Partner. From the first meeting with Elmer Rasmuson in 1999 through today, the staff and board at the Foundation have monitored our progress, pushed us to excel, but most importantly, they have validated our worth through their personal and financial support.

Last year The Foraker Group boards and staff adopted a strategic plan that takes us to 2015. If history is any indicator, goals set by the boards and staff become reality. We are truly thankful for all the individuals and institutions that have helped us succeed. Our investors are important, but in the end, the only reason any of them do what they do is their commitment to Alaska and to the belief that the nonprofit sector represents the best in our communities. Those institutions know that without our nonprofit Partners, none of this success would have occurred. Today almost 500 of the state’s leading nonprofits are members of the Foraker network. We value each one. Thanks for your support for the past ten years and stay tuned for great things to come during the next decade.