Elizabeth Brown is the president and CEO of Community Foundation Sonoma County.(Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Championing community

In a way, Elizabeth Brown went into the family business. When she was growing up in Atlanta, Ga., her father was the director of a nonprofit foundation.

Now Brown — most people call her Beth — is the president and chief operating officer of the Community Foundation Sonoma County, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit organization that uses private money to solve public problems.

Her dad, George Brown, now retired, ran The Friendship Force, founded by former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, to promote travel between countries for cultural exchange.

Unlike that organization, and many nonprofit groups, Community Foundation Sonoma County, founded in 1983, wasn't created to champion just one cause. It's involved in all aspects of the community — education, health, the arts and much more.

"Community Foundation Sonoma County serves hundreds of donors who want to engage in supporting many worthy charitable causes throughout Sonoma County and beyond," Brown explained.

While the foundation itself has a low profile with the general public, the effects of its work can be seen all over the community. And Brown is at the forefront of the foundation's efforts to help others reach people in need.

"Beth has been working actively behind the scenes to make things happen for us," said Mike Johnson, chief executive officer of COTS (the Committee on the Shelterless) in Petaluma, which offers help for the homeless.

"She's been involved in helping us to get donors to fund our programs," Johnson said. "She was also the emcee at our fundraising breakfast last November, and she really got the crowd worked up."

With a staff of 11 headquartered in downtown Santa Rosa, Community Foundation Sonoma County manages some $160 million in total assets, including 450 different funds.

"Each donor family establishes and contributes to a separately-named philanthropic fund, and the foundation assists them by managing these dollars, and by providing expert program advice and technical support," Brown said.

Potential donors often have already been approached independently by charities. Some donors have very specific uses in mind for their money, and others need advice about what the community needs, which the foundation can supply.

"This allows schools, clinics, environmental and social programs, among others, to be given critically-needed support," she said.

Since taking over at the Community Foundation in January 2013, Brown has established a local reputation for listening and caring.

At 5-foot-2, Brown said she doesn't consider herself imposing at first sight. But she has proved herself effective in her contacts with local leaders. With alert green eyes, the energy of a laser, and a friendly face lit often by quick smiles, she welcomes new encounters. And she's a quick study.

"We hope many more people will know about her," said Dennis Collins, vice-president of the Sonoma Valley Fund, a similar organization which works with the Community Foundation. "She's showing all of the right stuff. She relates well with people, and she's a superior listener, a good analyst and a good strategist. Beth combines all of those, with a charming side."

Brown is trying to help, and at 44, she's been doing that all of her adult life, one way or another. She was born in 1970 in Charlottesville, Va., and soon moved with her family to Atlanta.

Armed with a bachelor's degree in political science from Davidson College near Charlotte, N.C., she dove deeply into the world of public service in 1992, while still in her early 20s.

"It had been my dream from high school to go live and work in Washington, D.C.," she said, and that's what she did.

By her late 20s, she was public policy director at the Council on Foundations, serving and representing charitable foundations across the country.

"I started there in a very administrative role and over seven years worked my way up," she said. "I was the youngest person to ever be in a director position in that organization."

While working at the Council on Foundations, she got a master's degree in creative writing through Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

"I loved living in DC. I had a perfect lifestyle. No car. I walked to work," Brown remembered.

Then she discovered California.

"I came to San Francisco for a conference in 2001. I had never been west of the Mississippi River. I fell in love with San Francisco, and I sent for my things. I told my boss, 'I'm going to have to move to San Francisco,'" Brown said.

While she was living in San Francisco, Brown began working farther north, in Marin County. From 2006 to 2008, she worked at Bank of America there, advising bank clients about philanthropic donations.

From 2008 to 2012, she served as a vice-president at the Marin Community Foundation, where her romantic partner, Tom Peters, is still president and CEO. When she started her current job, Brown moved to Sonoma County.

"We both have careers that are very community-based," Brown said. "So Tom lives in San Rafael and I live in Healdsburg, and we get together when we can."

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com.

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