Story by Wakeelah Crutison
Photos by Cortney Shedd
Passing by the corner of Austin Avenue and Ninth Street, most people wouldn’t know that the ninth floor of the unassuming office building houses a light that makes Waco’s nonprofit community shine.
Amid the insurance companies and doctors’ offices, the Waco Foundation, a $60 million enterprise, serves to help fund the community’s nonprofit organizations by giving grants and scholarships to organizations and students in the Waco community.
Many Baylor graduates aspire to use their newly acquired skills to better the world. Ashley Allison, a 1991 Baylor graduate, gets to do just that as executive director for the Waco Foundation.
Community centers vary from state to state and the Waco Foundation is Waco’s only community center, Allison said.
“We are a nonprofit, but not the kind that most people think of when they hear ‘nonprofit,’” Allison said. “Most nonprofits focus on certain groups of people they can help. We are the helpers and the givers. We do all the little things in between to make sure that the groups are efficient, and we can be a go-between for them and nonprofits.”
Allison, who joined the Waco Foundation staff in 2007, said helping donors connect with nonprofit groups in need in the community is a fulfilling part of her job at the foundation.
“I get to work with two kinds of people: people who need help and those that are trying to help,” Allison said. “We get to meet everybody doing all of the good in the community. We get to see the best in people, the best intentions and efforts. It’s humbling, inspiring and a privilege to be a part of. ”
The Waco Foundation helps organizations around Waco by providing them with grants and provides leadership training for organizations to help them run more efficiently, Allison said.
The Waco Foundation provided more than $345,000 for nonprofits such as Cameron Park Zoo, Family Abuse Center, Habitat for Humanity and Talitha Koum in fall 2010. The foundation also helps sponsor initiatives focused on education, such as Education Alliance and the Early Childhood Initiative and provides scholarships for students in the community.
The MAC Scholarship helps ensure that all McLennan County high school graduates have access to financial aid to pursue higher education, according to the Waco Foundation website. The MAC scholarship provides aid for nearly 25 percent of the estimated 2,250 graduates.
Angie Vega, a Baylor junior from Waco, received a MAC scholarship in 2005 that brought her one step closer to living up to a family legacy.
“It runs in my family. My mom’s a teacher and she’s been teaching for 17 years. It’s part of my faith and I think it’s my calling,” Vega said.
Vega, an education major, aspires to teach elementary school, but until then, she has turned her focus to helping high school students get scholarships at the Waco Foundation.
“As the MAC program assistant, I work students in the community and I help out the Hispanic community. I’m all about helping other people and doing something I know is worthwhile,” Vega said.
Allison said the Waco Foundation looks at the big picture of the community’s needs as opposed to focusing on a single aspect of the community.
“Instead of looking at one nonprofit group like the homeless or just the family centers, we see the community as a whole and how the organizations fit together in the community,” Allison said. “We look at it all together, so it’s a different perspective than most nonprofits have.”
Allison said the foundation works with the other organizations to help the community.
“So it works in that we’re doing our job and they’re doing their jobs, and ultimately we get the job done,” Allison said.
Erica Ancira, director of technology and administration at the Waco Foundation, worked for an attorney’s office for 12 years, but after having a baby, she decided to go in a different direction.
“I wanted to do something where I could see what’s being done. It was more of an impact we can make and where we can see what we do for people,” Ancira, a part-time lecturer of real estate at Baylor, said. “The best part of working at the foundation is talking with nonprofits that we’ve helped. Getting follow-up calls and hearing what it is that we’re partially responsible for accomplishing.”
Vega said the close-knit staff helps everyone do their jobs to the best of their abilities.
“I like working with the people here [at the foundation]. Everyone is so knowledgeable and willing to put forth the extra effort to help people, especially the executive director. She really does a lot for the foundation,” Vega said.
The foundation’s staff works better with a small office, allowing the staff to function and help people, Ancira said.
“We can thrive on a personality and strength, and we can get things done,” Ancira said. “Plus, we have an understanding boss [Allison].”
But having small numbers also adds pressure on the staff members, Ancira said.
“Because we’re the only community foundation in Waco and because we’re a small office, we have a lot on our plates,” Ancira said. “So the length of the day is a challenge, and the most difficult thing is time and how to spend it.”
Whether Allison is preparing for community meetings, keeping up with the business brought before the board of directors, receiving and signing donation checks, approving expenses, responding to constituents or managing and advising the staff, Allison ensures the foundation lives up to its responsibility to the community.
“This is a position of leadership,” Allison said. “It requires engaging in the community and meeting with other leaders in the community. Thirty percent of my time is spent being a part of the bigger leadership community, and it’s not all during the work day — sometimes it requires evenings or the weekend.”
It takes a lot to manage the foundation: overseeing the funds, other nonprofits and donors Vega said.
“Especially establishing relationships with other leaders in the community. [Allison] works with the mayor and the former mayor, other Waco nonprofits and other leaders in the community. She works hard,” Vega said.
Allison said managing the foundation and having other obligations can be difficult, but knowing she makes a difference makes it worth it.
“I believe my doing my best will help someone,” Allison said. “It’s life work and not drudgery. I like knowing that I’m helping people, so my home life and work life are synergistic.”
Allison said that the flexibility of working for a nonprofit is, at times, a double-edged sword. On one hand the unpredictability eliminates monotony, but it can also introduce an added pressure of the unknown.
“There’s always some sort of change that’s happening,” Allison said. “You can’t be rigid, and you have to learn to adapt. But the very nature of flexibility that’s appealing can be stressful. With the community changing, it’s stressful to not really know what to expect.”
As a committed member in the Waco community, Allison comes into contact with many other leaders in the community. As a community leader, networking is one of the most important things you can do, Allison said.
“Networking is how you expand your contacts and your horizons. You need to have good relationship with the board,” Allison said.
Having a network of colleagues to turn to during a crisis is also important, Allison said.
“As a community you’re very similar in the things you do, so if you run across a problem you’ve never had before, you can always find out what someone else did.”
Allison advises students looking to go into nonprofits to learn business.
“Lots of people don’t realize it or think about the business side of things when they think about helping people,” Allison said. “Even though profit is not the main goal, you still have to function. … You have to break even or your organization will go under. The better business skills you have, the more people you can help in the long run.”
Allison said community awareness is also a major part in the success of a nonprofit.
“We’re more than you think,” Allison said. “We’re diverse in the types of things we do. We’re here to help and have lots of different types of help to offer. The foundation encourages the community to turn to us for help.”
Ancira said a pitfall of working at the Waco Foundation is the fact that they could help more people if more people were aware of the foundation.
“The sad part is that you can’t help everyone,” Ancira said. “People don’t know that the foundation’s here or how much we could help if they donated and what we’re capable of doing with the amount of money we have. We have the brain power and financial means to do lots of great things in the community.”