Columbia Foundation leader leaving

After 18 years as president, Lawson looks for change

March 28, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

These days, Barbara K. Lawson keeps a notebook on her kitchen counter. "Every time I have an idea, I jot it down," she said. "What are the things that are not finished in my life? What other work would I like to do? What other experiences would I like to have?"

So far, she said, her list includes "everything from becoming a detective to running a retreat." Though she plans to stay in Howard County and remain active in the community, she could not keep the excitement out of her voice as she noted, "The world is wide open to me."

After 18 years as president and executive of the Columbia Foundation, Lawson has announced that she will step down this fall. "I think it's age-related, you can put it that way," Lawson said. "Last summer, I turned 60."

The Columbia Foundation, an organization that provides funding for nonprofit groups in Howard County, was started by Columbia developer James W. Rouse in 1969. In its first year, it had assets of $12,367. When Lawson took over in 1989, it had an endowment of about $1 million.

Under Lawson's direction, the endowment has grown to $15 million, allowing the foundation to give away more than $400,000 a year to nonprofit organizations ranging from the Domestic Violence Center to the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society.

"This community is so much better because she's been a part of it," said Michael W. Davis, chairman of the foundation's board of trustees. "Jim Rouse created a vehicle to build nonprofits in the community, and Barbara's the driver of that vehicle."

"The woman is fabulous," said Buffy Beaudoin-Schwartz, a member of the board of trustees and communications director for the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers.

"She is an absolute asset both to Howard County and really to the world of philanthropy across the state."

Maryland has 13 community foundations, but the Columbia Foundation is the oldest. It is unusual because it grew with Howard County and can claim responsibility for helping many organizations get off the ground.

Beaudoin-Schwartz said Lawson helped bring together the state's community foundations, creating a more formal group about six years ago called Maryland Community Foundations. "That sort of networking and working together has been incredibly beneficial," she said.

She also credits Lawson as a visionary who helped create the Women's Giving Circle of Howard County, a philanthropic group that helps women and girls and is one of about 200 named funds within the foundation.

"The Columbia Foundation has been looked at as a model on how to host a giving circle," Beaudoin-Schwartz said. "They have been written up in national research that is providing best practices and lessons learned."

Lawson said one of the most satisfying aspects of her job has been matching the needs of nonprofits with the desires of donors.

"Sometimes the nonprofits are so into their program, and they're working so hard, but they don't know how to speak to the donors or the community about what they're doing," she said. "They don't know how to sell themselves."

Meanwhile, she said, "I find that many people have kind of an undefined want in their life to do something, but they can't quite get their arms around what it is they'd like to do."

Lawson described herself as a translator who helps the two groups understand one another, but Davis called her a mentor, too. "She is recognized pretty much throughout the county as a resource," he said. "She meets with executive directors of nonprofits. She's always there to give advice and give help."

Lawson plans to leave her post in the fall but noted that she is flexible as to the exact day and will stay as long as necessary. "I've worked too long and care too much about this institution," she said. "It's a very important community asset, and I'm not going to do anything to jeopardize that."

A search committee has been formed, Davis said.

Lawson, who grew up in the Seattle area, worked for the American Red Cross, the Department of Justice and the National Institutes of Health, she said. She was a financial counselor for several years before taking the job at the Columbia Foundation.

The job appealed to her because "it seemed to me that it put kind of all of my training and skills to work," she said.

"I had done a lot of grant review for the Department of Justice. I had a financial background because I had done that for a couple of years, I had a master's in public administration and had managed a refugee camp. It seemed like I had all the right skills, and it seemed like a good match for the experience I had, and I was less interested in traveling all the place," she said.

Before joining the Columbia Foundation, Lawson said she had never held a job for longer than three years. She would go in, solve the problem and move on. But the foundation has provided her with a steady supply of challenges and learning experiences.

Though the Columbia Foundation has grown tremendously under her tenure, there is more work to be done, she said. It will just have to be done by somebody else.

"I think we've at least put down a good launching pad for the next growth spurt," she said.

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