Q&A with Kathi Littmann, new head of Greater Tacoma Community Foundation

Kathi Littmann
Kathi Littmann Courtesy photo

Kathi Littmann recently brought her experience in education, construction management and nonprofit organizations to help lead philanthropy in Pierce County.

The 61-year-old started July 1 as the president and CEO of the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, which helps support nonprofits and philanthropy locally.

She moved to the Gig Harbor area from Kingston with her adult son.

Approaching two months on the job, she spoke with The News Tribune about her background and the new position running the foundation.

The organization has more than $110 million in assets, and has distributed more than $97 million in grants in Pierce County over the past 34 years.

Question: You’ve had several different careers, correct?

Answer: I started out as a middle school English teacher, which I loved. Loved teaching, didn’t love school systems.

I left that career to go back and get what I thought was going to be a master’s degree in architecture. Along the way I started working for construction companies and others, because I wanted to have the real experience of the work.

That morphed into a 27-year career in commercial construction management, program management and big, big construction programs.

The last job that I did in the construction industry was the planning and design of a new campus for DreamWorks SKG.

Q: And you ended up doing work with the school system in Los Angeles?

A: I had all this extra time on my hands, and my boss said: “Why don’t you go volunteer over at the school district,” because Los Angeles Unified School District had a $3 billion bond and they hadn’t been able to build any new schools.

So I volunteered with a group of citizens to try to figure out how to help the school system.

I thought I was going to be gone for a year to help them design and get the program off the ground, and I ended up falling in love with it and staying for three years.

We did 175 new schools in areas that had not received schools in decades, that were the highest need.

Ended up at the (Bill and Melinda) Gates Foundation a few years ago, running a national portfolio of education system redesign. Loved the work, loved the people, hated the travel.

Wanted to put down roots in a community, and now here I am. It’s almost like I get to wear all my hats from all my different jobs in this one. Maybe it was all just training for this position.

Q: Any projects at the Gates Foundation that you were particularly excited about?

A: Oh, yeah, we had 35 districts, plus a number of network organizations and charter management organizations, that were all working on comprehensive system redesign, to focus on professional development for the teachers, with teachers at the center of the design, and empowering teacher voices.

The theory is if you can help the teachers get strong (and) better, then the kids get stronger (and) better.

Q: Anything you’re particularly excited about so far with the new job?

A: It’s really hard to pick any one thing, it’s like whoa, I can’t believe all the things that we do.

When you think about the diversity of grantees and donors and partners in our portfolio, there is so much. So my enthusiasm is like all over the place.

The other day I sat through a little review of all our strengthening community grants, and I could have spent a whole day on each one of them.

There isn’t anything in Pierce County that we don’t touch in some way, shape or form, just because of the passions of the people who are partnered with us.

That to me is just one of the coolest things ever, to be able to see that.

Q: How has the new position been going?

A: People have been phenomenally gracious in carving out time for me. And so generous in sharing their history and their networks. Introducing me to people.

What a privilege to come into a community that thinks that is the way we should treat each other.

Q: How long do you see yourself here?

A: I tend to think in 10-year chunks when you’re talking about the kind of work we get to do here. I’m actually thinking this is a very long-term relationship.

Q: What do you see your role as?

A: It’s really helping the board and the staff figure out how we build on and leverage the work that’s in place, and the relationships that are in place, to take it up to the next level of supporting the county.

I really see this role as one of connecting and supporting a lot of partner efforts toward the same things that we’re working toward.

Community foundations are kind of unique in that we get to really be responsive to people’s passions and interest and community need, and I see my role as making sure we make those connections and support the people and organizations to get there.