An In-Depth Look at Fairfield County’s Community Foundation Workplace Culture

Dec 07, 2023

The following podcast episode was originally published by The Business of Giving, a podcast focusing on solutions to today’s complex social problems. Recent events have compelled nonprofit organizations to change the way they get work done, how they deliver their services, and what they do to achieve a more just and equitable society. So, The Business of Giving has connected with those organizations that are doing this exceptionally well in a segment called: The Paths Forward. Because there is more than just one way.


Denver: Today we’ll hear from members of the team at Fairfield County’sCommunity Foundation. Informed by three decades of partnering with and serving the Fairfield Connecticut community, they have awarded more than $390 million in grants to nonprofits.

We’ll begin with their CEO, Mendi Blue Paca, who will speak about being an equity-centered organization:

Mendi Blue Paca: And peeling back the layers because a big part of our current culture, I think, is connected to our equity values. Five plus years ago, we started thinking about how we could become… embed equity more in our organization. We’re now at a place where we want to be an equity-centered organization, but the implication of that is there is a really critical learning journey that I think you have to commit to across all dimensions of equity. So, sort of what is your individual commitment in thinking about your identity and how you show up and how you engage.

What’s that interpersonal dynamic between staff, between board, between us and our partners? And then, what is really our sort of institutional policy and procedures commitment to equity? And then kind of the last thing, but the thing that I think a lot of people, unfortunately, pay most attention to is: How do we show up in an equitable way in the community? But if you don’t have the first three, I’m really convinced you can’t get to the last one.

The secret sauce to the culture of the organization is human capital and that starts with the hiring process as Rebecca, Chin and Julian illustrate:

Rebecca: We’ve taken a frustratingly long time to fill really critical roles at times. And I think it’s because we’re not willing to sacrifice competency or our values.

And I think fit can often be used to sustain a lot of unequitable practices in organizations. But I think for us, making sure that we’re finding people who are really committed to our mission, not just people who can get the job done, but people who can do both, that’s not been something that we’ve been willing to sacrifice on. And we’ve really taken the time to find people who can do both, who check both boxes. And I think the other thing that’s really unique about this organization is that because we are a convener and a collaborator, there’s a lot of folks who take talent from the community foundation. And I think we have been really blessed to maintain those relationships and view them as an extension of our family, of our community, of the work that we’re doing.

And it strengthens our work to know that those people who are committed to this mission are in leadership roles doing this work at other organizations working alongside us.

Chin: And it was reflected in that kind of response, right? Like, if you have someone that you’re eager to bring on, yeah, it’s going to make a big deal. If the CEO is saying that they want to go second in the interview process now, it made me be like, wow, you’re serious and you take my resume and my experience as to be something really credible to fill this role

Julian: But your lived experience and your connection to your community, especially if you want to work at a place like a community foundation with a North Star-like system change for racial equity, the things that you experience in your life, the folks that you make connections with, the deep ties that you have with issues, the way you experience them, the sense of self and genuineness and authenticity you bring to the work are going to be just as important.

And I think our hiring, once again, especially over the last few years, have been very indicative to that………..

But if we really want to shift the pendulum in the way that we say we do, we need folks that are movers and shakers and have invested a part of their life, their livelihood, into doing this work already before entering the circle of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation. And I think that’s been a joy to see.

After an employee arrives at FCCF the organization invests in their success as Rebecca and Sarah explain.

Rebecca: I think one, there’s definitely been some discreet investments in dollars in me pursuing different professional development opportunities, including conferences, including certificate programs, and things of that nature.

And I think there’s been open discussion around sort of what the opportunities I’d like to pursue are, and feedback from others in terms of what would really strengthen me as a professional, and what skills would be additive and most valuable to the department and the organization.

Sarah: So I think something that I appreciate working at the foundation is that I think people are very giving with their time. I can think of multiple times in which my fellow staff members have been down to help and assist me. But I think I can think of one where, essentially, it was kind of like past hours and like this person didn’t need to assist me any further. Like it was something that I was like I could figure it out on my own. But they still kind of went the extra mile to assist me with this thing and that was something that I really appreciated.

Trust is what allows the Foundation to be so effective in serving Fairfield County. Rebecca and Julian share their perspectives on trust.

Rebecca: And I think as we try to change the way we do our work to be more aligned with our values, there’s I think we’re trying to find the right balance in terms of having sort of many voices weigh in and like row together, but also allowing folks to like go and do right that adage between if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together. And I think we have to have some kind of balance.

And I think building trust is something that is very important to finding that right balance. And I think that there’s a lot of like push and pull and figuring out what that feels like as things continue to change

Julian: I was watching a war documentary the other day and they were talking about mutually assured destruction and I was thinking of work, and I was thinking of mutually assured success, where if all the gears are spinning in the right direction, and I understand that if I do A, B, and C, then D, E and F will get accomplished down the other end of the foundation, and then we all rise, right?

That makes the path forward a lot clearer. And I think we have an organization that’s small enough where there really is a mutual understanding across departments that if we all do our role to the best of our abilities, that the foundation as a whole will succeed. We’ve seen it time and time again across programs.

A very distinctive feature of the FCCF culture is to reach out and ask for help when it’s needed. Chin and Julian will explain:

Chin: Feel free to reach out, feel free to ask what you need. Like there’s a heavy emphasis on being bold in the workspace for asking for your needs and trusting that the rest of your team is here for you to get it done. So it’s something I’m very appreciative of because I came out a very high stress previous situation, so it’s made a very big difference in my daily life.

Julian: So I think what makes us really strong is that we know that when we don’t know something, we don’t try to figure it out. We bring in the people that know what they’re doing. So we’re not afraid to bring in consultants.

We’re not afraid to talk to our partners. We’re not afraid to speak with foundations that are bigger than us in our own state or outside of it.

We speak to the folks who have already been through what we are trying to do, maybe something similar to what we’re trying to do, or folks that maybe have just thought about what we’re trying to do and have been through some of the pros and the cons and learned from their experiences. Our vetting process is, once again, sometimes long, tedious for some, because we’re a bunch of change makers. We want to see change happen.

We’ll conclude with a final thought from each participant. Rebecca will speak on sticking to values; Rebecca on listening to the community, Chin on their Equity Incubator and Julian on Collaborating in a virtual environment.

Rebecca: And I think that as we continue to more fully live our values and introduce new programming, there are also really tough decisions that have had to be made around how we allocate our dollars, how we allocate our staff time, what our priorities are, and what work we’re going to let go of to make space for new things.

Whether that means if we’re carving out new grant dollars to invest in advocacy organizations and grassroots organizations, that means those dollars are to some extent being taken… hopefully the fundraising team can do our job and increase the size of the pie overall. But in some ways, it means that some organizations that are used to being funded are getting less, or those dollars are being reallocated.

So I think we’re figuring out how to really stick to our guns and stick to our values, and work in partnership to make decisions and make sure that our partners understand how we’ve arrived at decisions in ways that make sure we’re really living our values, whether we’re making the popular decision or the expected decision or not.

Chin: For instance, we are creating a community equity incubator, which we will be literally housing up to 10 start-up organizations to get them through their first two years of existence, make sure that they have what they need to stabilize.

A lot of people are out there trying to do good work, but when you ask them what they need, yes, of course there’s always money, but many times it’s just the know-how and knowledge of what’s necessary to make sure you stay in compliance with being 501(c)(3), or what does it take to put together a board and how should your board be structured based on the needs of your organization.

Sarah: So I would say the secret sauce here at Fairfield County Community Foundation, I think, is the willingness to adapt and really listen to nonprofits and the communities that we aim to serve. I think about some of the work that Julian does with PT Partners and really also amplifying the voices of the communities that are important to us and what we call communities of opportunity.

Julian: I think if you’re able to inject that earlier on in the process, and you’re able to come up with the idea more organically earlier on rather than just trying to bake too much of the cake independently, [inaudible] I think can happen a lot in a virtual setting, when you’re siloed, you’re home and not in the office, when you’re constantly surrounded by everyone and that type of communication, you have to have the extra effort. You have to put forth that effort and actually reach out to folks, right?

Sometimes it takes an email, sometimes it takes a Team’s message, and not necessarily just walking past that person in the hallway. So intentionality, I think if you want to pinpoint a best practice, intentionality of communication, pre-planning, making sure that everything in terms of what you need in a project, who you expect to do it and make sure that they’re aware of that expectation as early as possible, is going to be a very critical tool to doing anything cross-departmentally.

Denver: I want to thank all those who participated in this piece: Chinedum Nnodum, Julian Pierce, Rebecca Mandell, Sarah Omotunde. And to learn more about the organization go visit their website at or visit and catch my earlier interview with Mendi Blue Paca, the President & CEO of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation.