Create lasting change: the role of community foundations

Jun 13, 2016

Fairfield County’s Community Foundation’s response to the tragedy in Sandy Hook

December 14, 2012 – the day when 20 small children and 6 staff members lost their life at Sandy Hook elementary school – is a day etched into the memory of not only Fairfield County residents, but the world.

As communities struggled to come to grips with the understanding that the unthinkable can happen anywhere, two paths lay in front of them – fear and divisiveness, or coming together to respond and heal. For senior staff and executives at Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, the second path was the only option.

Together, they made a commitment to collaborate with partners on a united, long-term approach to address the issues underlying the Sandy Hook shooting.

After a tragedy, deciding how to take action

Community foundations fuel local philanthropy by investing donors’ pooled assets. But these organizations can also be far more than investment vehicles; they can play the vitally important role of bringing together people, solutions and funding to make an impact where it’s needed most.

“I always tell donors that we’re more than just an ATM,” says Nancy von Euler, Fairfield County’s Community Foundation’s VP of Programs. “There are so many ways we can amplify your work, leverage your giving and bring together other partners to create a lasting impact.”

After learning about Sandy Hook, von Euler recalls, Community Foundation staff held an emergency summit to discuss how they could most effectively respond. They knew that other nonprofits were already springing into action to provide crisis relief. The United Way of Western Connection was taking the lead in fundraising, while organizations like Kids in Crisis and Family Centers were providing counseling to survivors.

But looking down the road, Community Foundation leaders saw that long after the initial shock wave had passed, the challenge of effectively addressing mental health issues would remain.

“We knew there would be a ripple effect from this tragedy, all across the nation,” says von Euler. “Four or five years out, our community would still be reeling. And we would still be dealing with the broader issue of mental health.”

Community Foundation staff knew there was a very real chance that the fear, trauma and heartbreak of the Sandy Hook tragedy could shut down conversation, and further isolate individuals and families dealing with mental illness. Mental illness is one of the few remaining taboo topics in our society. While the majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent, the association of mass shootings with mental illness increases the stigma, making it more difficult for sufferers to reach out for the help they want and need.

So the organization decided to commit to a long-term response – a proactive approach, not a reactive one – that could be put into action across Fairfield County.

“We wanted to promote conversation that would reduce stigma, let people know where they could get help, and identify how we could improve our current system,” recalls von Euler.

“Our goal was to serve as a thought leader for how we talk about these issues, and to empower our own community to create lasting change.”

Action & advocacy: empowering community stakeholders to make strides in mental health

After Sandy Hook, several families partnered with the Community Foundation to start charitable funds that support mental health. Mary’s Fund, named in honor of one of the first educators killed in the shooting, is dedicated to continuing Sandy Hook psychologist Mary Sherlach’s work of providing mental health services to children and teens, with a focus on those who might not otherwise be able to get the help they need.

And in June 2013, when President Obama called for a national dialogue on the issue of mental health, the Community Foundation responded by issuing a small grant of $9,000 to the Southwest Regional Mental Health Board, funding a series of community conversations. These facilitated discussions gathered people who were working across Fairfield County to report on mental health challenges they frequently encountered.

Healthy Minds – Download the Full Report

The findings were gathered in a research report called “Healthy Minds, Healthy Communities,” which recommended action steps for fighting the lack of awareness and stigma surrounding mental illness, as well as increasing access to care. The report did not exactly cause a media splash, von Euler remembers – bearing out the report’s findings on the taboo surrounding mental illness.

But in engaged segments of the community, there was no shortage of interest. The report flew off the shelf, and was reprinted several times to meet demand. And it served as more than just interesting reading material. In 2015, the Redding Mental Health Task Force utilized the report to advocate and secure budget funding for their town’s first municipally-funded social worker, as well as mental health training for key town and school personnel.

By stimulating conversation on mental health awareness and working with community partners, Fairfield County’s Community Foundation had sparked real action.

Community foundation, community leader

In any neighborhood, there are challenges that are too complex for any one organization to tackle alone. Fairfield County’s Community Foundation has taken on the role of charitable hub, bringing together information, knowledge, resources and influence for the greater good of Fairfield County.

As a community leader, one important function of the organization is to coordinate solutions to the region’s most pressing issues. This means commissioning regional research to define and detect current challenges; evaluating solutions that are working elsewhere; and bringing to the table experts, nonprofit leaders, civic officials, community leaders, and private funders to develop pilot programs that address these challenges.

Programs are then monitored to measure results and adjust the approach to maximize impact.

This is all done through a collaborative model of partnering with donors, nonprofits and other stakeholders across Fairfield County. It’s “beyond the grants” work that enlists the input and support of grantees, like the members of PT Partners, a community development initiative formed through a public housing development in Bridgeport. And it is driven by the deep engagement of donors, like the group of philanthropists who came together to seed the Connecticut FoodBank’s Kids’ Backpack Program and ensure that children who are eligible for free or reduced school lunches do not go hungry over the weekend.

For the Community Foundation, it’s all about serving as a connecting force to amplify the work that is being done to build up Fairfield County. And it means embracing and empowering stakeholders throughout the community to serve as a true driving force behind long-term solutions.

“We have a vision of Fairfield County as a vital, inclusive community where everyone has an opportunity to thrive,” says von Euler. “Our partners and donors share that vision.”


As a trusted nonprofit partner and thought leader, Fairfield County’s Community Foundation brings together community organizers, business experts and philanthropists to solve our region’s challenges. Our goal is to create a vital and inclusive community, where every individual has the opportunity to thrive. Find out how you can support this work and give back in your community by visiting

Together we thrive.