Controversy as Tacoma charity searches for director

The Greater Tacoma Community Foundation is not widely known, but for local nonprofits and social service groups, it’s a little bit like the god of money.

The foundation is a clearinghouse for charity donations. It solicits money from wealthy people, then repackages and distributes the money to organizations and causes throughout Pierce County.

The foundation has more than $112 million in assets, and during the past 33 years it has distributed more than $97 million in grants to recipients that range from summer camps and suicide prevention programs to food banks, arts organizations and environmental groups.

Not surprising then that the foundation’s search for a new president and CEO has created some angst in Pierce County’s nonprofit community.

Rose Lincoln Hamilton, who has run the foundation for the past 11 years, announced her retirement last September. She’s leaving in June.

To replace her, the foundation’s board of directors hired a Seattle headhunting firm that specializes in the philanthropy industry.

More than 200 people from around the country applied.

A search committee, made up of four of the board’s 15 members, is interviewing the top dozen or so candidates. They’ll pick the top four or five, who will be voted on by the full board.

Ed Grogan, who chairs the foundation’s board and also the search committee, said recently he hopes to have a new CEO selected by the end of this month.

Throughout the selection process, people involved in local social services have been lobbying the board for more of a say in who gets hired.

Some of those who want input also fault the foundation for various reasons — it’s grown too big and bureaucratic; its application process is too cumbersome; it’s too insulated from those in the social service trenches — and they’re looking at the selection process as a way for the organization to set a new course.

“This is an opportunity to correct some of the wrong direction of this organization,” said Kathryn Van Wagenen, a former foundation board member and now its most vocal critic.

Van Wagenen and others, including Margy McGroarty, who had Hamilton’s job for 17 years, argue that the foundation’s new president should be somebody who lives in Pierce County.

“They ought to be looking for somebody who knows our community,” McGroarty said. “I know I can’t second-guess what their thought processes are, but I would look for local talent — No. 1, because I think the community has a lot of it. They could hit the world running.”

After some arm-twisting, Grogan and the other three board members on the search committee agreed to meet with about 50 leaders of Pierce County social-service organizations last month to listen to their concerns and advice.

The search committee also conducted an opinion survey to hear what the nonprofit community wants in a new president.

And they’re considering — although only considering — providing an opportunity for concerned members of the community to meet with the finalists and ask them questions before the final vote.

Grogan said he welcomes the input, but he rejected criticism that the foundation is insulated or disconnected from the community.

“I appreciate their concern,” Grogan said. “I just don’t share it.”

“Our board is a phenomenal group of men and women who represent, or have represented, over 60 nonprofits in Pierce County,” Grogan said. “That’s over 60 nonprofits that we have some kind of direct knowledge of. It’s about as connected and transparent as an organization could be.”

Grogan said he’s well aware that many people would like the foundation’s next president to have strong Pierce County connections, and he said the feeling is shared by most members of the foundation’s board and staff.

“If we got down to two candidates and it was absolutely a dead heat, we would definitely choose the Pierce County person,” Grogan said. “Otherwise, if we find somebody who’s exceptional and happens to not be from here, that will not be a reason not to select them.”

Grogan said the search committee learned some valuable lessons from last month’s community meeting, one of which was the importance of the next president having direct experience with social justice issues.

As a result, he said, direct experience in social justice has been added to the list of qualifications for the job.

Another lesson they learned, Grogan said, is that you can’t listen to everybody.

“Sometimes the noise is just noise,” he said. “There are some people who will never be happy.”