Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin still has more than four months remaining before she leaves City Hall, but she’s already giving plenty of thought to her next challenge.
Swearengin, who will wrap up her second mayoral term in the first week of January, has been hired to become the new president/CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation, a local nonprofit clearinghouse for charitable contributions, grants and bequests from philanthropists.
The nonprofit foundation serves as a steward of those funds, managing and investing the money to build up the endowments and award grants for charities and projects across the San Joaquin Valley.
“My passion is community and economic development; that’s what I did for 10 years before becoming mayor,” Swearengin said in an exclusive interview with The Bee. “That’s been my focus as mayor, and so it seemed like the next logical step to continue that work through the community foundation.”
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That aligns with what the foundation wants to accomplish as well. “Ashley’s focus is on economic development in poorer areas, and that’s a perfect fit with what we’re trying to do,” said Dr. Alan Pierrot, the foundation board’s chairman. He added that the board’s vote last week to hire Swearengin was a no-brainer, even if the organization must wait until the end of Swearengin’s term for her to start the new job.
“There are constructive things we can do to prepare for her arrival, but if it was our choice she’d be here right now,” Pierrot said.
Ashley’s focus is on economic development in poorer areas, and that’s a perfect fit with what we’re trying to do.
Dr. Alan Pierrot, board chairman, Central Valley Community Foundation
Swearengin will step into the position last filled on a permanent basis from October 2014 until mid-June. In doing so, she will transition from the helm of an organization with more than 3,300 employees and a budget of about $1 billion to a nonprofit with about a dozen staff and annual expenditures that amounted to about $10.6 million last year – including about $8.1 million in charitable grants.
As mayor, Swearengin drew a salary of $135,000 plus benefits in 2015. While neither Pierrot nor Swearengin would say how much she will make with the foundation, the nonprofit organization’s Internal Revenue Service filings for 2015 showed that the previous CEO earned almost $162,000 plus benefits. “It will be somewhat higher than that,” Pierrot allowed.
The transition from public office to the nonprofit sector marks a return to familiar territory for Swearengin. Before she ran for mayor in 2008, she was director of Fresno State’s Office of Community and Economic Development and chief operating officer of the Regional Jobs Initiative. Before that, she was director of the Central Valley Business Incubator, a nonprofit program based in Clovis that provided support and technical assistance to small businesses.
“I sort of boiled it down to three categories of work,” Swearengin said of prospects for her career after elected office. “I was considering going into an academic role, doing something in the nonprofit arena, or something for-profit going back to the business sector. And I was looking at each one pretty closely.”
The turning point came in June, as Swearengin was talking with some of her professional mentors about continuing to boost economic development and raise venture capital to help launch new businesses in Fresno and the central San Joaquin Valley. “And they were saying, ‘That’s the work you need to do after mayor. We need you to keep focusing on that,’ ” she said. “That’s about the time the (foundation) position was available, so a couple of my mentors reached out to the foundation board and said, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing with that, and have you thought about approaching the mayor?’ ”
Pierrot and Swearengin subsequently met and their discussions eventually came to fruition.
“It’s going to be a great opportunity to continue to work on the things I love most, and that’s bringing additional resources to Fresno and the Valley,” Swearengin said.
Pierrot said the foundation is eager to benefit from Swearengin’s experience in nonprofits and in government. “She has the skills, we believe, and the drive and the interest,” he said. “She has very special knowledge of how government works and how the community works, and has ideas for economic development in the community. … I think we’re the perfect platform for her.”
The foundation board and Swearengin both have ambitious goals for the organization’s future. “Our strategic plan is to grow the foundation’s size so we can do more good things for the community,” Pierrot said. “The larger a community foundation’s assets are, the more community services it can provide.”
Swearengin said the foundation has a 50-year history of raising funds and reinvesting it back into the community. “My hope is that we can take that history and build on it, doubling or even tripling the assets,” she said.
The foundation’s IRS filings indicate that its net assets and fund balances have grown over the past 15 years, from less than $10 million in 2002 to a high point of $50.4 million in 2012. Over the same span, charitable grants and awards to projects and programs across the Valley have also generally increased, from a low of about $1.8 million in 2003 to a high of about $9 million in 2014.
Politics ‘off the table’
Two years ago, Swearengin took a stab at statewide office, running as a Republican for state controller but coming up short against Democrat Betty Yee in the November general election. At that time, she assessed the chances at about 50-50 that she would run for another elected office after leaving City Hall.
Now, however, “political ambitions are off the table,” she said. “My next assignment in life … is to do everything I can with partners and the board and the stakeholders we can bring together through the foundation to bring additional philanthropic dollars to this area. … It’s a lot of work, and it’s a big lift, so I’m thinking about things in an eight-to-10-year horizon.”
As mayor, I’ve had to cast a vision, put things in place to execute that vision, and attract the resources needed to implement that vision. I think I’m well-trained to do the same thing in the private sector in a philanthropic situation.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin
And while Swearengin’s new role will hold some big differences from serving as the mayor of California’s fifth-largest city, she said there will be some parallels as well.
For one thing, it may afford her more family time with her husband and their children, a 16-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son. “Nobody fully appreciates the demand of being the public spokesperson, the face of a major city,” Swearengin said. “I learned early on, it’s not so much the hours of the job as it is having to be on point and being the spokesperson on so many different types of issues.”
“That goes away, so there’s a completely different dynamic,” she added. “There’s a big difference between being in the office and spending every hour advancing what you want to accomplish, versus 10 hours a day being pulled in 100 different directions.”
But as she did as mayor, Swearengin said she expects to proselytize in other areas of the state on behalf of Fresno to broaden the foundation’s fundraising reach. “As mayor, I’ve had to cast a vision, put things in place to execute that vision, and attract the resources needed to implement that vision,” she said. “I think I’m well-trained to do the same thing in the private sector in a philanthropic situation.”
Swearengin said her travels around California have shown there is growing interest in Fresno and the Valley by movers and shakers outside the region. “My hope is that certainly we can improve giving among people in this region,” she said. “But I think there are a lot of people (outside Fresno) who, if we can demonstrate that we’re investment-worthy, will want to help Fresno get to the next level and be (an economically) viable place for the people who live here.”
Like politics, she added, philanthropic fundraising “is always a matter of fit.”
“Depending on the project you’re supporting, there are some people who love the idea and it’s totally consistent with their vision, and they want to be a part of it. So you’ve got to find those folks.”
Central Valley Community Foundation
▪ Established in 1966 as the Fresno Regional Foundation (changed name in 2015).
▪ Serves Fresno, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Merced and Tulare counties.
▪ Manages and invests charitable grants, donations and bequests from philanthropic donors across the region to build up fund assets, and awards grants and allocations to charitable projects and programs throughout the Valley.
▪ 2015 income and revenue from donations, grants, services and investments: $17.8 million
▪ 2015 net assets and fund balance: $40.3 million
▪ 2015 charitable grants and allocations awarded: $8.1 million