Want to know how to bring a community together? Welcome to Seymour, Missouri.
Dr. Ron Giedd likes to tell people how he and his wife, Joanne, moved to Seymour, Missouri, in 1992 after firing a dart at a United States map.
The story is pure malarkey, but coming from the usually disheveled and grinning Giedd, his eyes twinkling, you are almost ready to buy it. Giedd is one of our favorite things about Seymour, along with its wonderful local newspaper, the Webster County Citizen. He tries hard to be a “character,” but he is in reality an extremely intelligent and thoughtful retired physics professor from the University of Connecticut, who moved to this small Ozarks’ community of 2,000 because of nearby relatives.
Giedd and the Greater Area Seymour Foundation are an inspiration to every small community. That’s why Giedd, current GSAF President Janice Blankenship, and other board and community members are featured in a new video the CFO produced to show that, yes, philanthropy can be very successful even in small communities that don’t have a lot of wealthy family or institutional benefactors.
People often tease Ron about the “Greater” adjective, asking him if the old rail stop Diggins, six miles to the west, is Seymour’s largest suburb. However, the adjective Greater is appropriate—not for geography, but for effort. Due to the tireless work of Giedd and his successor, Janice Blankenship, to educate and engage, the Greater Seymour Area Foundation has established 42 charitable funds, started a local arts council, initiated a family literacy program, renovated an historic building on the square, and accumulated total endowment assets of nearly $1.5 million—all of this in 13 years of existence, and in a working-class community with its share of rural poverty. With planned giving commitments already in the pipeline, this grassroots community foundation will play a pivotal role in the future of Seymour and its surrounding neighborhoods.
Giedd finds collaboration integral to the process of building a rural community foundation, and he insisted on patience from his fellow board colleagues.
“It just takes time,” he says. “People have to understand that building a strong community foundation will not happen immediately. That is why we have worked so hard to involve everyone in the community—because patience only follows trust.”
One of the foundation’s latest projects is an example of how Giedd and his board colleagues have brought community groups together. Vision 2026 was an ambitious idea brought forward by the Greater Seymour Area Foundation board of directors. At its heart was the notion that Seymour would be better served if the community had a clear sense of what it wanted to be 20 years down the road.
Taking a page from Nebraska’s Heartland Center for Leadership Development playbook, Vision 2026 was a daunting project for a town with a small city staff, lean school administrative team, and an all-volunteer community foundation.
Still, by taking time to plan, and by ensuring that all sectors of the community were involved, the Vision 2026 leadership committee was able to procure project funding, hire a consultant, conduct a community-wide survey, and produce a report that should guide city planning for years to come. In addition to its community-wide benefits, the effort has tangible good outcomes for the local community foundation.
First, it positions the foundation as a visionary leader in the community, and, second, the completed report provides the foundation with a good tool to focus its community grants program. The end result is a stronger community and a stronger community foundation. Within two years, Seymour’s Vision 2026 had led to the construction of a community storm shelter, a new fire station, and sidewalk reconstruction around the square.
Blankenship describes her partnership with Giedd as one where he brings the brains and she brings the brawn. That sells them both short, but she’s continued his advocacy with an annual auction of hundreds of donated items, active grantmaking, a successful fall dinner and support for a busy youth philanthropy chapter that this year produced its first member named to the affiliate board.
These kinds of collaborative efforts are on the cutting edge of what experts think are the key future roles of rural community foundations. The recent Ford Foundation report, “On the Brink of New Promise,” specifically highlights the concept of shifting from “competitive independence to coordinated impact.”
The authors write, “community foundations cannot rethink their own strategic roles without developing a deeper understanding of how they fit into the larger network of community philanthropy organizations and vendors.” While other organizations or institutions can accomplish this to some degree, community foundations are positioned to do this best. “Free from electoral cycles and bottom-line pressures,” the report finds, “community foundations can capitalize on their independence by demonstrating their interdependence.”
Ron Giedd intuitively understood this concept all along. His closely held wisdom was only betrayed by a wink. And Seymour, Missouri, is all the better for it.
Gary Funk is president emeritus of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks.