Strengthening the Local Nonprofit Community

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The Claude W. and Dolly Ahrens Foundation has a mission, vision, and core values. But a seven-word motto most succinctly expresses its goal: Leave it better than you found it.

Claude W. Ahrens lived by those words, says granddaughter Julie Gosselink, president and CEO of the foundation. In 1993, after a successful career in the playground and agricultural manufacturing fields, Ahrens put his sentiment to work by establishing a family foundation. Named for Ahrens and his wife, the foundation has been an Exponent Philanthropy member since 2005.

The foundation focuses on carrying out Ahrens’ motto in its central Iowa hometown of Grinnell. But it has been in the national spotlight since January 2010, when it won the Council on Foundations’ Critical Impact Award for its Community Support Services program. The program builds capacity and promotes collaboration among the local nonprofit community through shared staff and administrative functions. Through the program, the foundation provides consulting, assistance, and training in administration, human resources, and finance.

Leaving It Better

The foundation launched the Community Support Services program 5 years ago, collaborating with its local community foundation and working with just six partner organizations. Now three foundations, 10 nonprofits, and three capital campaign projects are involved. The capital campaigns have yielded a $12 million expansion to Grinnell High School, a $9 million new public library, and $3 million for a local aquatic center. The Ahrens Foundation donated $1 million to the high school expansion. “We came forward as an initial funder conditional on the passage of a local option sales tax,” says Gosselink. “It was the largest gift we’d ever given.”

Of the program, Gosselink says, “We just kind of invented it as we went along. There was always a learning curve because it was a completely new concept, creating these economies of scale.” Its success has drawn notice not only from the philanthropy sector but from others as well. “We’ve had interest from city officials and colleges, among others,” says Gosselink. “It’s interesting to see how people are looking to apply the concept to their situations. It’s really all about collaboration.”

The Community Support Services program may be the Ahrens Foundation’s latest way of serving Grinnell, but the family has loved and thrived in the town for generations. The foundation also supports parks and recreation, education, and health. The foundation has enhanced its own structure as well: Instead of Gosselink working alone out of her basement, the foundation now has an official headquarters and three additional staff, and it is partnering with Grinnell College to hire students as part-time interns.

The foundation’s creative, forward-looking attitude is also reflected in its reasons for being an Exponent Philanthropy member and supporting Exponent Philanthropy with grants above dues. “We see value in connecting and networking with peers in the foundation world,” says Gosselink. “We need one another, and we’re here to help one another.

“We want to make sure Exponent Philanthropy is able to offer excellent service, and we hope our insights, innovation, and leadership will help other members. We’re all in this together.”