If you want to assess Kate Nielsen’s impact on the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham — and, in turn, the impact of the Community Foundation on the Birmingham region — it’s tempting to rely strictly on the numbers. After all, the foundation’s assets have grown by more than fourfold since Nielsen started to work there in 1995.
But numbers don’t tell the whole story. As Nielsen prepares to step down as president of the Community Foundation later this year — as announced in a January 31 news release — she said her greatest sense of accomplishment comes from the increased awareness of the foundation’s value as a resource for promoting growth and development and meeting critical community needs.
“What we have become best at,” Nielsen said, “is identifying great opportunities that energize the community. The foundation has been able to leverage those opportunities to inspire giving, and to help build partnerships that demonstrate what becomes possible when we pool resources and collaborate to make big things happen. People in Birmingham have really come to understand the power of philanthropy at all levels.
“The Community Foundation has reminded people that they can make a difference.”
That has been especially true in recent years, as the Community Foundation has taken leadership or key support roles in several high-profile projects with widespread public support. Among others, these projects include the Three Parks Initiative (benefiting Red Mountain Park, Railroad Park and Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve), the ongoing revitalization of Woodlawn, special programs in the Birmingham City Schools, and the federal TIGER grant that will help fund completion of the countywide Red Rock Ridge and Valley trail system. In addition, the foundation has made grants totaling more than $3.6 million to organizations in 30 Alabama counties to aid recovery from the devastating tornadoes of April 2011 and January 2012.
“By any standard, Kate has done an incredible job,” said Neal Berte, the former president of Birmingham-Southern College and a member of the Community Foundation board. “You can look at it in terms of the increased value of the foundation’s financial holdings, the tremendous visibility she has brought to Birmingham through the projects the foundation has supported, or the impact of her emphasis on listening to the community for guidance on making transformative and meaningful change.”
Among the nonprofit organizations that have been key partners of the Community Foundation during Nielsen’s tenure is the Freshwater Land Trust. The land trust played the central role in assembling the public-private coalition that secured the TIGER grant, and also was involved in the Three Parks Initiative. The trust’s executive director, WendyJackson, called Nielsen a “fellow Pollyanna,” who saw the potential in projects that “others said would never happen.”
“Kate is not afraid to dream big,” Jackson said. “There are things happening in the Birmingham region that would not have been possible without the Community Foundation under her leadership. Her legacies are too numerous to mention, and they are lasting. They will impact not just this generation, but many generations to come. Kate is a real leader.”
Established in 1959, the Community Foundation is the oldest and largest such foundation in Alabama, but had no paid staff until 1993. Nielsen, 58, came to the foundation in 1995 as its development officer, and has been its president since 2000. During her career there, the foundation’s assets have grown from $38 million to $169 million.
“It has been especially gratifying to be a part of forging these partnerships that are doing so much to address needs and move the community forward,” said Nielsen. “Even more important than the growth of the foundation and the resources that we have been able to bring to the projects we support is the positive energy that has been generated. That’s the value of collaboration, which is what we’re really all about.”
The Community Foundation board will meet at the end of February to begin its search for Nielsen’s replacement — a process that Nielsen expects to be “very deliberate and very strategic, finding someone with the right skill set and the right personal qualities to do the job they want done.” She said the timing of her retirement is “perfect,” given the current state of the foundation and its work in the city.
“The foundation is in an extremely strong position right now,” Nielsen said. “We have a very engaged board, an outstanding staff, and a great reputation that is respected throughout the community. It’s a perfect time to bring in new leadership to take all of that to an even higher level.”
Nielsen will remain as president until her replacement is selected, and stressed that she will remain “very active” in community affairs once she steps down. In the meantime, she acknowledged that her decision to leave was not an easy one.
“It’s very emotional for me,” she declared. “This foundation is almost like my baby. But it’s poised to attract a great new leader, and the thought of the things that are still to be accomplished is very exciting to me, and I think it should be exciting to the entire community.”