PROFILE: Janet Camarena and the Foundation Center

BayNet is doing a series of profiles of members who work in little-known libraries and information services around the bay. Janet Camarena has served as director of the Foundation Center-San Francisco office since 2001 and has worked for the Center in a variety of roles since 1995.

Describe a little about Foundation Center’s function.

The Foundation Center’s mission is to strengthen the nonprofit sector by advancing knowledge about U.S. philanthropy. Our San Francisco library/learning center has been pursuing that mission in the Western region of the United States for more than 30 years. Nonprofit and individual grantseekers rely on the free training and research tools available in our library/learning center to help them find funding for their work. Grantmakers use our information and research to help guide their funding decisions and make efficient and effective use of their limited funds. As a regional hub, our San Francisco resource center provides direct service yearly to some 12,000 people who visit our library and who take part in our educational programs on and off-site.

Beyond the local presence here in the Bay Area, the Foundation Center is a national nonprofit service organization recognized as the nation’s leading authority on organized philanthropy, connecting nonprofits and the grantmakers supporting them to tools they can use and information they can trust.  Every day thousands of people gain access to valuable resources through the Center’s web site and in its five regional library/learning centers (Atlanta, Cleveland, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.) and national network of more than 400 funding information centers at libraries, nonprofit resource centers, and organizations in every U.S. state, Puerto Rico, Mexico, South Korea, Thailand, and Nigeria. Our audiences include grantseekers, grantmakers, researchers, policymakers, the media, and the general public. The Center maintains the most comprehensive database on U.S. grantmakers and their grants; issues a wide variety of print, electronic, and online information resources; conducts and publishes research on trends in foundation growth, giving, and practice; and offers an array of free and affordable educational programs.  Some BayNet members may be familiar with the Center’s online subscription database, Foundation Directory Online, which provides detailed information about more than 95,000 U.S. foundations and corporate donors and 1.7 million grants. It can be used free of charge on site at all Center locations and affiliated funding information centers, known as Cooperating Collections.  To see a complete list of our Cooperating Collections, visit http://foundationcenter.org/collections/.

What is different about the San Francisco office from the others?

Aside from that pesky time difference thing, there are some things that make San Francisco an interesting place in which to do this work.  In terms of the demographics of our users, we are most similar to our New York office.  Some of these similarities include a high number of arts organizations and individual artists who use our collections, a large share of our audience that comes from both very small and large nonprofit organizations, a large number of foundation professionals working in our immediate regions, and a downtown location that attracts visitors day and evening.

In terms of things unique to San Francisco,  each of our offices often will pilot different projects we want to test to see if they might take off either regionally or eventually nationally.  As one might expect in California, a highly diverse state known for its technological innovations, some of the recent initiatives we have piloted here have focused on either using new technologies or serving under-served communities, or both.  In 2007 we were the first office to begin a Philanthropy Chat podcast series, in which we interview and record philanthropy and fundraising experts.  This effort rapidly proved popular with our audiences and today all Foundation Center offices around the country are also producing podcasts, which are available free of charge at the Events Archive on our web site or via iTunes.  When I checked our “ratings” or statistics midyear, I was pleasantly surprised to see that more than 20,000 people had accessed the podcasts produced by our San Francisco office this year.

Another example of a local pilot that is now being replicated elsewhere relates to our Spanish-language outreach efforts. Soon after the publication of the Foundation Center’s Spanish-language proposal writing handbook, Guía para escribir propuestas, we distributed copies of the book free of charge and provided free proposal writing training in Spanish throughout California, with support from the James Irvine Foundation. This project attracted the attention of other national funders, and the Center is now in the process of providing free, Spanish-language fundraising training and distributing the Guía in Texas, Florida, and Philadelphia with their help.

The San Francisco office also benefits from having many authors, thought leaders, and philanthropy experts who make Northern California their home.  This is a boon for us because we often invite guest speakers to present on panels or at educational events and there seem to be more authors who live and work in Northern California than anywhere else in the country!  We have a very popular “Meet the Author” series of events, and it’s generally fairly easy for us to secure an author to speak at these events since we have so many to pick from locally.

What kind of requests do you often get from your clients?

The number one question we always get, whether in-person, online or via chat reference, is “how do I find foundation funding for this XYZ cause or organization?”  Though fundraising is a profession and there are many savvy development professionals with years of fundraising experience, there are many small and grassroots organizations who lack access to this expertise, as well as volunteers, who rely on our free programs and free reference assistance to learn the ropes of securing foundation grants, or getting boards involved with fundraising, or generally developing their fundraising plans.

Beyond fundraising, given the current economic conditions, other frequently asked questions we receive include those related to jobseeking and job transitioning, assistance with scholarships and financial aid, and questions about obtaining or tracking stimulus dollars.  While our expertise is in securing foundation support, because of our audience’s current interest in tracking stimulus dollars, we have started looking at the reach of stimulus dollars in the field of education.  A new web portal, Foundations for Education Excellence, developed by the Foundation Center with a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, was launched in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Education. It connects foundation funders in education to information and tools that will help them support American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s education reform goals.  For more information, visit:  http://foundationcenter.org/educationexcellence/.

Janet Camarena

Janet Camarena

How did you become interested in this type of work?

I think I was destined for this work.  Like many librarians, I spent much of my childhood in libraries, so one of my favorite aspects of my work is the opportunity it gives me to see first hand the power of the library institution.  I grew up next door to a public library and soon became a regular user, library lover, and volunteer.  Being a first-generation Mexican American whose language at home was Spanish, the library was really an important window on understanding a new culture, language and traditions and many transformative hours were spent in my local library.  Later on, I attended Mills College where I majored in English and Communications, and actually worked my way through college as a library assistant at the Berkeley Public Library.

After completing my undergraduate degree I realized I was still passionate about libraries, and was even more intrigued about librarianship having learned about the flexibility of the degree in terms of the variety of institutions that employed librarians.  At that time I thought I might end up working in an academic library, which is actually a good way to think about what I do now, since the Foundation Center regularly issues original research and provides many educational programs.  During my time at San Jose State University’s library program I held an internship at the Exploratorium’s wonderful special library and one of my assignments while there was to research grant funding for the Exploratorium using the Foundation Center’s databases, and I remember really enjoying the assignment and the power of quickly being able to identify potential sources of grant funding.  From my early experiences I had always known libraries held the keys to the knowledge universe, and this database seemed like one more piece of tangible evidence of the power of libraries.  At that time, the Foundation Center’s database was only available online to DIALOG subscribers, and even then I was impressed with the information it contained and the funding it enabled us to research.  I am proud to work in an institution that today provides free access to its funding databases in more than 400 locations nationwide.

What was the most memorable experience you had at the Foundation Center?

An anecdote I frequently like to share because it illustrates the diverse communities we serve here at the Center is something that actually happened on my first day at work at the Center.  One of my first patrons at the reference desk was a Roman Catholic nun looking for funding for a humanitarian mission to a developing country.  Immediately after assisting her with identifying how to research faith-based funders as well as those interested in international work, another patron was waiting for me.  This next patron was a young woman who was seeking support for unionizing sex workers in San Francisco.  That’s when I knew I was really going to like working for the Foundation Center!  I thought, what an interesting special collection that can assist both of these constituencies!  This connection to the great variety of nonprofit groups is one of the many things that continue to keep our work vital and interesting.

What do you think has had the most positive and negative impact on the information services in the nonprofit industry?

As a publisher of nonprofit information, we have found similar challenges and opportunities to publishers in other fields.  Specifically, in this new online information marketplace, our audiences expect more information, more rapidly, and they expect it to be cheap or even free.  On the positive side, innovations in technology have made it possible to be more creative and innovative in the way in which we collect and present information and interact with our audiences.  For example, our educational services have greater reach now that we are offering our educational programs via webinar, since anyone, anywhere can access these sessions provided they have internet access.  And today many foundations are starting to electronically report their grants to us, instead of making us wait for the year-end tax form that contained this information, thus greatly expediting the currency of our data.  And recently we have launched a new data visualization tool, Philanthropy In/Sight, which is a one-of-a-kind data visualization platform designed for those seeking to understand the reach of philanthropy throughout the world. Users can quickly create customized Google maps to explore giving patterns, emerging trends, and funding relationships globally, nationally, or at the community level.

We are continuing to explore other ways to harness new technologies as well as social media to better accomplish our work.  Some of the projects under development include Grantspace and Glasspockets.  Grantspace is a web platform that will, in essence, be a virtual field office, where grantseekers around the country can build community by networking with one another and tracking their learning progress online.  Glasspockets will be a new web platform dedicated to foundation transparency and accountability.  The purpose of Glasspockets will be to provide factual information about foundations, aggregate lessons learned from philanthropic efforts, provide an overview of how philanthropy is impacting some of the major issues of our time, and inventory ways in which foundations are being transparent and accountable.  I think this kind of capacity to adapt, re-invent, and re-think the ways in which publishers and libraries collect and present information is essential to surviving and thriving in the future and I’m proud to work at an organization that is not afraid to tackle new ideas, new technologies, and new approaches.