Thomas Peters, Marin Community Foundation

TITLE: President and CEO

FUNDING AREAS: Education, affordable housing, poverty, health

CONTACT: tpeters@marincf.org, (415) 464-2500

IP TAKE: Although Peters' background is healthcare, he quickly became passionate about the other issues affecting Marin County. He can no longer can he be pegged as “the health guy,” since Marin doesn't give healthcare funding top priority. Affordable housing and elementary education is where it's at these days.

PROFILE: Thomas Peters might be the current President and CEO of the Marin Community Foundation, but his background revolves almost exclusively around healthcare. Before Peters joined the foundation in 1998, he served as the Director of Marin County's Health and Human Services and as Chief of Staff at San Francisco's Department of Public Heath for 17 years. He even went to school for health, as indicated by the doctoral degree handing on his wall from the University of Minnesota and his three-year fellowship at the National Institutes of Health.

This is an interesting background for someone who leads the Marin Community Foundation, because the strategic initiatives here revolve around education, housing, and poverty. Peters' role at Marin has forced him to become more well-rounded, as he has overseen the grantmaking operations that deviate from his prior passions.

After Marin made $2 million in elementary education grants, Peters said, “The foundation realizes that the earliest years of education, starting in preschool and continuing through the third grade, set the stage for life-long success, both in school and beyond. Research shows that without a grasp of basic skills at this young age, students rarely catch up later on.” In a recent press release about the formation of the Open Parks Coalition, Peters stated, “Historically, environmentally, and socially, state parks have a unique standing in California history, one well worth our intensive advocacy.”

One of the most crucial issues in Marin County is affordable housing, an issue that everyone talks about but no one does much about. When Peters' attention was shifted to the housing crisis in 2009, he said, “We want to work with cities and towns, put our heads together and search for constructive and respectful ways to find solutions—and that includes legally enforceable actions.” He went on to say, “We’re at a crossroads. If we take the left fork, we can be a vibrant and culturally diverse community by building and rehabilitating the housing we need. If we take the right fork and fail to do this, we can turn into a graying, gated community.”

However, Peters is definitely still passionate about healthcare, even though his job requires him to direct his attention elsewhere. When asked about Marin's shift in funding from environmental projects to grants for elderly and youth programs, Peters stood up for Bay Area children and senior citizens. He explained that the foundation “can't make up for government cutbacks and needs to funnel funds to the most vulnerable populations.” He is an avid spokesperson for the elderly, and he's part of the Buck Advisory Council for the Buck Institute for Research in Aging.

At the Marin Foundation, Peters is tasked with the responsibility of distributing about $1 billion in assets to organizations making long-term sustainable change in the county. About $50 million of that is passed out in grants each year. Although Peters is required to keep a local grantmaking focus, he is also given the freedom to consider the occasional national and international program.

Bruce Butch recently published his interview with Peters in the Examiner, where he highlighted a series of best practices and advice for maintaining relationships between nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Peters admits that given the size and breadth of his foundation, that his staff is only sometimes able to participate in funders' circles rather than quickly writing off their participation. He also encouraged nonprofits to set aside time to describe, quantify, and evaluate the work they are doing, especially during tough economic times. He also suggests that nonprofits should learn by example from the business world, tear sheets, and summary presentations.

If you're going to get along with Peters, you'll have to prove that your organization is adjusting to the needs of the community and evolving with the times. He looks at running a philanthropic foundation much as he would a Fortune 500 company. The simple principles of creativity, excitement, and synergy exist in both. To learn more about Marin's grantmaking program, study the program areas and check out the foundation's Grant Application Center.

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