Southern Willamette Valley

Steeped in the Nonprofit World, Donor Turns the Table to Support Community Needs

Lucy Vinis, currently serving as mayor of Eugene, opened the Vinis Family Fund of OCF in November 2021 to support nonprofits in her community.

As you look at your community, what are your big concerns?

I think we’re in a time in which everything is a cause for concern. We’re recognizing the ways in which we’re really not prepared either to adapt to climate change or haven’t gone far enough to mitigate the impacts of climate change. So I worry, particularly for our underserved communities, the people whose voices have not been heard — communities of color, Indigenous communities, our Black community, especially here in Eugene and Lane County — who are so disproportionately impacted by all of the issues we face: by climate change, by the housing crisis, by the disconnect between wages and the cost of living, and of course by opportunities. I think this is a place for private philanthropy because it can point the way to public policy.

Tell us about your background and your work before becoming mayor.

I spent my working life in nonprofit organizations, and mostly my role was as a public information or development director. I started out working on international issues, then I got very involved with environmental quality issues and agriculture issues, and then migrated to working on housing and homelessness. In all of those roles my main job was to communicate to people about the issues we were addressing and to engage their support. So when the opportunity came to run for mayor, it was a natural progression for me. Being a development director is very good preparation for being a mayor. It’s a very similar kind of role of bridging community understanding.

Did you grow up in a background where giving was part of what you were raised with?

I was raised in a family of journalists. The issues of the day were the dinner table conversation, always, when I was growing up. My parents were committed not only through their work, to understand what was going on in the community, but stepping outside of their work as reporters to wanting to make a difference locally. I grew up with parents who volunteered and who made donations. We weren’t big donors, although as my mother got older she had more resources and she gave more generously. I developed a habit of being the ongoing $100 donor, and I learned that habit from my mother who was this regular, reliable small donor to a lot of different organizations.

How did you first learn about Oregon Community Foundation?

I first heard about Oregon Community Foundation in my work with environmental organizations. For a long time I worked for an organization that is now called EarthShare Oregon. We initially represented about 30 environmental organizations, and so I became familiar with all of those organizations. I think the capacity of Oregon Community Foundation to support a higher level of work really hit home for me when I was working for ShelterCare.

When you worked for nonprofits, was there ever a donor gift that was make or break for an organization?

Yes, in multiple ways. People of my generation are experiencing a transfer of wealth that is coming down from our parents who are part of the Greatest Generation. When I was working at ShelterCare, we had people who were stepping up, who suddenly had the means to make pretty significant donations to the organization, that could really support a program or a capital project. We didn’t expect those surprise infusions. It wasn’t something that we went out and sought. People suddenly had the capacity to help us take a program over the top.

What prompted you to work with OCF for your own fund?

I’m experiencing this transfer of wealth and recognizing that that is a part of my white privilege — that my family has not been a wealthy family, but has been able to step up generation after generation to purchase homes and have capacity. All my life I’ve been chipping away at social or environmental issues that concern me with small donations. Now I’m realizing that suddenly, at this point in my life, I actually have the capacity to do something a little bit bigger that leverages other funds and other support. It was my desire to be able to continue to do what I do anyway, which is make a lot of donations, but then also to be able to leverage something a little bit more significant.

Tell us how your family is involved in the fund.

These funds are really a family legacy. I have two sons, one who’s 33 and one who’s 30. They’re now at a point in their lives where they’re thinking much more about their philanthropic role. They both have regular incomes and can manage their finances, so they have really stepped up in the last couple of years. My goal is to bring them on board with this process, and I think they’re both very excited about it.

Can you talk about what goals you have with that fund? What would you like to see funded?

My interests span an array. I have long supported education. I support environmental stewardship work. Of course, I support housing and homelessness work. I support equity and justice work. I look at this fund as my way of benefiting from Oregon Community Foundation’s capacity to identify needs, understand what’s happening locally and regionally, where funds could be well used and in a targeted way that would make a big difference. I wanted to benefit from OCF’s capacity to have a good big picture of what’s going on in society and who are the important players who can really make a difference, so that my funds are not just $100 here and $100 there, but enabling OCF to really use your insight and your capacity to direct money where it’s going to have the most impact.

What are some of the ways you’ll be learning from OCF?

I think this is a recognition that I don’t have a lot of time to do a lot of additional homework: I look at the issues that come my way, and I also have long-standing commitments to some organizations, so I’m really counting on OCF to use your expertise to maximize what limited time I have. I do expect on an annual basis, if not more often, to check in with OCF staff.

Is there anything that stands out to you about your experience with working with OCF?

I came up through the nonprofit world. I was always on the asking end—reaching out asking for support, asking for money, asking for understanding — and I always said, “Oh, I’d just love to be on the other side of this conversation. I’d love to be the one who is giving money, who is directing funds.” And so I have. It’s been so exciting for me to be able to do that and be able to work with the OCF staff who make the choices and opportunities very clear. It’s very iterative work, as you work with me to make sure that I have an increasing depth of understanding about what I’m doing, what I might do, how I might think about it. I’m recognizing that as I step into this philanthropic world, you will mentor me and share the information and the insights that I need in order to be the most helpful. That’s my goal.

What would you tell someone thinking about setting up a fund?

Step up and do it. It feels to me that as a prospective donor, it gives you an opportunity to have more impact and be targeted in what you’re doing.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

I recognize that we all contribute in different ways. For so much of my life, and I imagine for anybody who is reading this, we already contribute in all kinds of ways to the community. We volunteer. We show up. We pay attention to what’s happening locally. We’re a strong community because people engage in that way, and so I think this enables us all to just step it up one higher level. It’s incredibly powerful to recognize when you have that moment; that there’s a way of doing this that is not scary, not hard. It’s actually very easy to do. It’s an important way to have a big impact in our community. I wish that our tax dollars actually paid for all of the things that we need in this community, but they don’t. And so giving philanthropically is the way we make a difference where our tax dollars are just not reaching critical issues.