Sunday, April 20, 2014
FAIRFIELD-SUISUN, CALIFORNIA
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Foundation’s demise offers positive lessons

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From page A10 | December 08, 2013 | 3 Comments

It’s tough to put yourself out there. It’s even tougher to fail once you do.

Curt Johnston and fellow Fairfield and Suisun Public Education Foundation board members – past and present – know this all too well.

The foundation got its start in 2009 and got to work in 2010 as our local school board was closing campuses and slashing programs to make financial ends meet as the Great Recession and its aftermath rolled through California’s public schools.

Johnston, board president at the time, was designated with bringing Fairfield’s former candy festival back to life to support Fairfield-area schools. He took that role to heart, even after the first attempt in the spring of 2011 did not happen and put the foundation about $9,000 in the hole. Instead of giving up, he and the board came back that fall with a reincarnated one-day candy festival at Jelly Belly.

That effort broke even, so even though the foundation was still in the red, board members thought there was hope for a bright future.

They doubled-down and offered a two-day festival in the fall of 2012. The thinking was that if the single-day festival drew 10,000 visitors in 2011, a two-day festival could draw at least twice that many people and put the foundation in the black.

Unfortunately, that did not happen. An estimated 10,000 came to the 2012 festival across both days. Johnston said that was about 5,000 people shy of the break-even point due to the increased costs associated with putting on a two-day festival.

The loss in 2012 was about $20,000.

I find it amazing – and I do mean amazing – that Johnston personally ponied up the cash (in payments over time) to cover the losses. I sit on a couple of nonprofit boards. Aside from the fact that I don’t have that kind of money, it’s safe to say that my wife and I would have to think long and hard about doing the same in similar circumstances, even if we were financially able to do so.

My son posted a graphic this week on Instagram that reads, “Your best teacher is your last mistake.” That’s the tone Johnston took when he discussed the foundation’s pending nonoperational status. He said there are several takeaways. Among them:

  • Full board commitment is critical for organizational success.
  • React quickly to the first signs of organizational difficulties, even if that requires hiring people to ensure that required tasks are performed in a timely manner.
  • Make sure you have the full backing and support of the recipient of your activities, something Johnston said was not the case with either the Fairfield-Suisun School District or the Travis School District.
  • Don’t bite off too much for the volunteers to handle.

That last one is critical.

In the case of the Fairfield and Suisun Public Education Foundation, a bare handful of people comprised the board. They stepped forward nearly from the start by trying to raise tens of thousands of dollars – perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars – in a very short period of time to help offset cuts in the Fairfield-Suisun School District.

The board could have aimed lower and taken the time to grow the board from a half-dozen to a couple of dozen key members. That may have served them better.

These are people who saw a need in the community and sought to do something about it. They are people who have a wealth of community connections, proven track records of community support and the drive to get things done.

To meet the steep financial need on a tight timeline, the board chose to resurrect the candy festival. They aimed high and fell hard.

Now Johnston heads up the Solano Community College Educational Foundation – a paid position – and is working to grow that board over time with strong support from the college. He and his volunteer board are working to spread the word about the foundation and its mission, and to grow the board to include key members from all areas served by the college district.

It’s a process born from the harsh lessons of the Fairfield and Suisun Public Education Foundation’s three years of work.

Johnston is not alone. Current foundation president Jim Dunbar, for example, remains active on a number of community committees and boards and is completing his second consecutive term as president of the Solano County Library Foundation, one of the boards I sit on.

Even in failure, all past and current board members should take comfort in the knowledge that they, at least, tried to help while so many others sat on the sidelines. Johnston in particular should hold his head up high. Not only did he try, but he and his wife covered the losses so the foundation can wind down cleanly and everyone can move on to bigger and better things.

That shows true dedication to the community – no matter the cost.

Reach Managing Editor Glen Faison at 427-6925 or gfaison@dailyrepublic.net. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GlenFaison.

Glen Faison

Glen Faison

Glen Faison joined the Daily Republic as managing editor in September 2009. He has worked as a reporter and editor for daily and weekly newspapers in the San Joaquin Valley for 20-plus years. His experience includes time as editor of the Golden Eagle, a military paper serving the Lemoore Naval Air Station. He graduated from Fresno State University with a bachelor's degree in journalism and bleeds Bulldogs red. He is an avid Washington Redskins fan, and attended the 1988 NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings at RFK Stadium. He married his wife, Jill, in 2005, and has three children: Courtni, Tyler and Hayli.
LEAVE A COMMENT

Discussion | 3 comments

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  • Typical County WorkerDecember 08, 2013 - 6:52 am

    I would like to hear more about this issue "Make sure you have the full backing and support of the recipient of your activities, something Johnston said was not the case with either the Fairfield-Suisun School District or the Travis School District." I have heard donations to the district is difficult.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Jason KnowlesDecember 08, 2013 - 12:47 pm

    How did the foundation board not know about the filing deadlines for their 501(c)3 status? Their efforts were noble, but given the experience members had with running those types of projects, it would seem that they should've known better. And why did the FSUSD leaders not support Johnston's efforts? Such a shame...

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Typical County WorkerDecember 08, 2013 - 5:54 pm

    What did the districts say about the possibility of receiving money?

    Reply | Report abusive comment
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