Novato resident leads launch of Sonoma County Resilience Fund
Elizabeth Brown is a firm believer in taking chances. The president and CEO of the Community Foundation Sonoma County credits her success in part to those who have taken risks to help her advance her career. So, the leader of the Santa Rosa-based nonprofit pays that forward through mentorship and leading by example in the wake of 2017’s deadly wildfires.
“I have a special passion for working with women, and when I have an opportunity to mentor women leaders, it brings me a lot of joy,” said the 49-year-old Atlanta native.
Brown and the Community Foundation Sonoma County, a stalwart local nonprofit, have been at the forefront of disaster recovery, funding a host of programs to bolster healing and resilience.
Brown had long held an interest in policy and philanthropy, and has worked for more than two decades in related roles in the nonprofit and private sectors.
After graduating from Davidson College in North Carolina with a bachelor’s degree in political science and government, Brown was hired to an administrative role at the Council on Foundations. She was soon promoted to serve as the director of public policy for the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit leadership association, becoming the youngest woman to ever hold the job at age 27.
Brown was hired at the Community Foundation Sonoma County in 2013, a post where she manages more than $175 million in assets and nearly 20 staff members and interns. She said she thought the CEO job was a “long-shot,” but she now uses her position to foster the growth of others through her role as a manager and a “coach.”
“I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve had a lot of opportunities that have been entrusted to me, and in general, nonprofits have been places that are ahead of other sectors. Women have been in leadership roles and are set up to succeed,” said Brown, who lives in Novato with her husband.
The CEO role requires Brown to be agile and resourceful while still embedding herself in the community, said Community Foundation Sonoma County board of directors member Lisa Carreño.
Carreño, who is the first woman to hold the title of CEO and president of Santa Rosa-based United Way of the Wine Country, praised Brown’s leadership. Brown has both honed the focus of the foundation and enriched its staff, Carreño said.
Brown brings a “really refreshing open-mindedness,” and “a modern and equitable approach” to philanthropy and community building,” she said.
“The Community Foundation’s staff has grown under Beth’s leadership, and the young women who work with the foundation and that team are smart, thoughtful, inspired and inspiring additions to the organization’s capacity,” said Carreño, 56.
For Elly Grogan, the philanthropic adviser for the Community Foundation Sonoma County, Brown’s leadership has been “invaluable.” Grogan, 35, was hired as a program associate and was eventually promoted to her current role.
“I just remember that first meeting with Beth. Toward the end of the interview she said, ‘Well, I could really see you being in an executive director role one day.’ … That really stuck with me,” Grogan said. “I will always remember that, because from the very beginning, she had this attitude of believing in me and trusting me.”
In the last five years, Brown and others at the foundation worked with Grogan to adjust her schedule when she had children, and helped her navigate sometimes tenuous dynamics in male-dominated scenarios. Brown’s confidence and authenticity are “infectious,” Grogan said.
“Beth has a vision for what’s possible and she’s bold with that,” she said. “Even in the short term, when there might be some challenges or some growing pains, she manages to stay above the fray and not get bogged down with negative challenges. It’s that bold vision, that personal quality of warmth and empathy - that she cares about us as whole people and that positivity and gratitude coming from a place of humility that are huge for setting the tone of an organization.”
When the fires ignited in 2017, Brown’s leadership was put to the test immediately. She awoke in the Healdsburg home where she lived at the time to an onslaught of text messages and calls alerting her about the infernos.
After ensuring all her employees were safe, she got to work with other community leaders, including Cathryn Couch, the executive director of the Sebastopol-based Ceres Community Project. Plans for providing food were put in place, and Brown started reaching out to other community foundations that had previously dealt with large natural disasters to identify the best role her nonprofit could play.
“What I really want to speak to is not only the level of intention and leadership that Beth provides across the community, but also how she really showed up in the way she led the Community Foundation to respond to the fires, both in the short and long term,” said Couch, 63.
Brown ushered in the launch of the foundation’s Sonoma County Resilience Fund, which has amassed about $15 million from more than 7,000 donations for long-term local recovery.
So far, about $4 million has been doled out in grants from the fund, which is focused on helping people impacted by the fires, healing trauma and providing housing solutions, Brown said.
“One thing that always struck me about coming into this community that’s been different than others I’ve worked in is the collaboration,” Brown said. “The community in a way has become more collaborative out of necessity, but it’s only the case because of the many trusting relationships that are already here and the culture of collaboration ... it’s almost like a collaborative of collaboratives. There’s so much going on, and that will stick post-fire.”
Brown’s job requires a breadth of knowledge across a variety of sectors, a generalist position that only stokes her passion for her craft. To counter the inherent difficulties women face when leading organizations, Brown launched a leadership circle of local women, including Couch and Carreño.
Brown said she enjoys the challenges that come with balancing many roles.
“If you feel it’s a calling, it’s so much more than a job,” she said.