Sheila Blair (right) became the first paid Executive Director of the Community Foundation in 1992. Mimi Tynes (left), the Foundation’s first Program Director, became Executive Director in 1998 (she passed away in April 2024); and Kate Nielsen (center), the Foundation’s first development officer in 1995, served as President from 2000-2013.

When Kate Nielsen retired at the end of 2013 from her position as president of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, she worried about losing touch with her community. For more than 13 years she’d had her finger on the pulse of the needs of Blount, Jefferson, St. Clair, Shelby, and Walker counties. Now that she was stepping away from her post, she wondered how she could continue to make a difference. Then she realized that even though she was no longer at the helm of the Community Foundation, she could still make an impact through the organization. And she does that through a Donor Advised Fund.

After setting up a Donor Advised Fund, donors can be directly involved with grantmaking by serving as fund advisors and recommending grants from their funds to their favorite charities. Donor Advised Fund participants also have the opportunity to co-invest with the Community Foundation in its competitive grantmaking.

We talked with Nielsen about the power of a Donor Advised Fund.

What are the greatest benefits of a Donor Advised Fund?

To me, the magic about a Donor Advised Fund at the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham is that you get to leverage your giving by joining forces with the Community Foundation. And you get to benefit from the knowledge of the Community Foundation. And you can also continue to support those agencies that are near and dear to you.

With a Donor Advised Fund, you establish it with a minimum amount of money, and you can suggest grants from that fund to other nonprofit organizations. But again, the magic of having a Donor Advised Fund is that you know what the Community Foundation is supporting and you can add to what they’re doing.

My husband and I are both retired, so we’re traveling a lot. I really count on the Community Foundation to tell me what is going on in the community, where are the greatest needs, and where are the greatest opportunities. It allows me to be away from Birmingham, but still make a difference.

What does the Community Foundation do to stay informed about the needs of the community?

One of the things that I am most proud of is that we listen to the community. We spent a lot of time and money surveying the community to learn what the community wanted for itself. And I think this has continued.

It’s not about what we think, it’s about what the community wants. We want to listen to the community, and we also look at data. If you want to be successful in your giving, I think it’s important to look at those things. It can’t just be your wild idea that you think is going to save the community.

What are some of the things the Community Foundation supported during your tenure in response to feedback from the community?

One of the things that I am proud of is what we call the Three Parks Initiative. Railroad Park, Ruffner Mountain, and Red Mountain were all starting campaigns and we saw that these three campaigns were going to come to us and other foundations and philanthropists at the same time. We were interested in it because a survey had been done that showed that there were three things that were most important to this community — education, transportation, and green space. Would you have ever guessed, green space?

But we said, okay, they want greenspace. So we gathered around the leadership of those three parks — two non-existent, one existing — and we said, what would you think about a joint campaign? All three of them said, in a nanosecond, yes, this will be great for green space. And I think this says so much about Birmingham.

Today, people are so proud of all three parks. It’s visible change. That investment has just been phenomenal.

What causes have you been able to support through your Donor Advised Fund?

People who know me know that I’ve never met a nonprofit I didn’t love. So we do support a lot of nonprofits in a lot of areas. Because of my career at the Community Foundation, I know how important the arts are, even though I’m not creative, and I know how important the environment is — the parks, the trails.

My husband and I are both wanting to understand root causes of problems. So right now, we are very interested in education because we do think that a lack of education is the root cause of so many issues that our community is facing, and not just Birmingham, but everywhere. Be it at a public school, a private school, a charter school — we just want every child to have an opportunity to learn and move forward.

What advice would you give to someone considering starting a Donor Advised Fund?

First of all, I think there’s no wrong way to give. Everybody can be a philanthropist. A philanthropist is someone who gives back. When you give back, you are blessed tenfold. To go give and go serve – that is the only way to get through life, to have a fulfilling life and a joyful life.

If I were considering starting a Donor Advised Fund the first thing I would do would be to listen to the Community Foundation. What are they saying? Does it match up with my interests? I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t! But I think that’s a good way to start.

To me what is telling about Donor Advised Funds is that when people start one, they always continue to put money in it, which shows they are satisfied.

A lot of people ask the question, why don’t I just start my own private foundation? And of course, there’s no wrong answer there, but it is complicated to have a private foundation. And it’s expensive. A Donor Advised Fund gives you all the advantages of giving back, and it makes it easier.

When you give through the Community Foundation you know the nonprofit organizations have been vetted. And a lot of Donor Advised Fund holders go on site with the staff so they can see for themselves if this is the kind of nonprofit that they want to support. When working with the Community Foundation you can be sure that your investment is going to be effective.

Learn more about meeting with a member of our dedicated donor team here.