Community isn’t a dirty word

By Joy Portella, President, Minerva Strategies —

Community \kə-ˈmyü-nə-tē\: a group of people who live in the same area (such as a city, town, or neighborhood); a group of people who have the same interests, religion, race, etc.

“Community” is one of the most overused words in the lexicon of nonprofits. It’s often employed as a program-speak alternative to the word “people” because it provides a hint of group consensus and common benefit. But it’s usually vague to the point of being useless – think about the “global community” endorsing a certain development agenda or a “community-based organization” conceptualizing and driving a local education or energy strategy. We don’t know where those communities are, who belongs to them, or what interests and passions they share.

Because of this jargon and vagueness, I’ve been “anti-community” for years.

That was my first mistake.

For the past several months, Minerva Strategies has had the pleasure of working with the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation (GTCF), which works to build a more thriving and vibrant Pierce County. GTCF is entering its next phase of development, with a strong new business plan and an excellent new CEO and President Kathi Littman. They are investing in the overall work of small, effective non-profits, helping larger groups grow their most promising efforts, boosting the initiatives of individual social entrepreneurs, and helping young people thrive as students and leaders.


Before working with GTCF, Tacoma was largely unknown to me. In my decade as a Seattleite, I’ve glossed over the city and its Pierce County environs, viewing it as the quirky little second city down the freeway – kind of like New Yorkers view Philadelphia.

That was my second mistake.

Place can be a powerful organizing principle, and Tacoma is a powerful place. The people I’ve met through GTCF – donors, grantees, board members, teenagers, elder pillars of the city, both supporters and critics of the organization – all love their place. It’s got a certain spirit: no pretenses, people ready to roll up their sleeves and go to work, and an openness to new ideas. Many people who live here were born and raised in Pierce County, but others hail from far-flung locales and made it their adopted home. All are dedicated to making Pierce County a better place for everyone who lives here.

One of my favorite GTCF initiatives is called Spark Grants. These are $1,500 “micro-grants” that inspire grassroots leadership and action. Spark Grants fuel go-getters, grassroots organizers, and community trailblazers who have great ideas to make their neighborhood a better place but need a small boost. These grants have been leveraged to finance innovative projects including music and theater camps for kids, a support group for single dads, and a wood splitter to provide firewood for families who cannot afford to buy it on their own. So far, 29 Spark Grant projects have reached 4,500 people.

Celebrating Community

I recently had the opportunity to attend GTCF’s annual summer event, a celebration of the foundation’s inspiring work with its partners and grantees. New CEO and President Kathi Littmann made her first public appearance and spoke eloquently about how everyone has a role to play in GTCF’s efforts – whether it’s volunteering as a mentor, sharing your ideas and feedback, or donating to support the foundation’s work. The crowd of more than 300 people nodded enthusiastically; they were obviously on board and they care deeply.

Tacoma is, for lack of a better phrase, a very special community, and GTCF is right at its center with the funding, networks, and knowledge to make positive change start and stick. It turns out that “community,” when it has a meaning, can be an incredible thing.