January 29, 2003 News & Features » Cover Story


Other People's Money 

It isn't easy managing a $400 million money machine. But Darcy Oman makes it look that way.

But it is. Seventeen years ago, the Greater Richmond Community Foundation was a one-woman operation with few assets. Last year, Oman and her dozen-person staff handed out 1,600 grants to people and organizations across the area totaling $22 million to $24 million — to teachers, families, community groups, environmental concerns, health-care services organizations. "It" most definitely is about her.

But Oman, the foundation's president, deflects praise, spreading compliments around like soft butter on a warm muffin, from staff to the community. "One of the privileges and distinctions of working with donors within the context of the Richmond Community Foundation is that people here have a very strong sense of place, which is a motivating factor," she says. "There's high quality of life; people like their community. They acknowledge the problems and will do something they hope will make a difference."

Her organization's recent name change reflects the difference that Oman has made. Now the Richmond Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia serves a much broader audience geographically than it did when it was just the Richmond Community Foundation.

Last year, with $409 million in assets and 12 staff members, it surpassed the top-ranked Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta (with $336 million in assets and a 30-member staff) to become the biggest community philanthropic foundation in the Southeast. It now ranks 25th among 600 such community foundations across the country whose combined assets total more than $30 billion. The Richmond Community Foundation is the Little Foundation That Could. And Oman is driving the train.

Getting the little foundation onto the fast track wasn't easy. When Oman was hired to head the Community Foundation in 1985, she was its first full-time staffer. The nonprofit had been around since 1968, but with no real infrastructure, it had little to show for its efforts. With its community profile barely on the radar, Oman had her hands full. "I had no idea what a community foundation really was or could be," she says. But it didn't take her long to figure it out.

In the first six weeks of her tenure, the foundation received a generous charitable bequest from the estate of Ruth Clune Boswell. Oman credits "luck" for that first big gift. "I had absolutely nothing to do with developing the bequest," she says, "but Mrs. Boswell's generosity went a long way to building confidence and early momentum." Perhaps. But it wasn't luck alone that the foundation quickly — as these things are measured — amassed about a million dollars in assets, spinning off $30,000 in grants.

With characteristic modesty, Oman credits "talented volunteer leadership" for getting the foundation rolling. But then, as now, the resourceful Oman was hardly sitting back, waiting for the money to roll in. She sniffed it out. She uncovered an opportunity from the National Endowment for the Arts under a program that was established to encourage community foundations to develop local endowments that could support small, emerging and minority arts organizations. She landed it. With the added $25,000 a year for grants to community organizations, she essentially doubled the foundation's grant-making budget. That meant the foundation could stay active in giving out money, while developing its endowment — the anchor to a nonprofit's financial ship.

Since those early days, the foundation has grown exponentially. And no matter how she deflects credit, Oman is the boatswain who sets the pace and maintains the momentum. Her colleagues say there are no tricks up Oman's sleeve. Instead, she is a straight shooter who gets the job done. She is a classic administrator: organized, prepared, efficient and effective. Says board member Beverley W. "Booty" Armstrong, "Darcy is a very capable person who has helped build RCF to a size much larger than the size of the city would dictate."

As the eldest of five children growing up in the great Northeast, Oman was at the top of the line of a handful of achievers. "It was leadership by consensus," says Philip, one of her brothers. "No one leader emerged. Everyone had their responsibilities, and everyone carried them out as expected." But big sister was, and remains, the sounding board for siblings on their way up. Once an executive for Radio Shack in Southlake, Texas, brother Philip often ran his leadership ideas by his big sister before putting a plan into action. "I always appreciated having a sister like Darcy, that I could feel free to pick up the phone and run an idea past and know it would be treated with the proper amount of seriousness and candor."

Growing up in the Oman home meant shared responsibilities as well as personal accountability. "We were expected to contribute to our college fund," says Darcy, so she learned early on how to handle money earned by lifeguarding and baby-sitting. "Half of the money I earned went into the college fund. The incentive to save was always strong in our household."

She also developed a sense of giving. Her family stressed the importance of community service, so the young Omans shared their study time tutoring less fortunate children. For Darcy, community activism was also part of the equation. When she outgrew trick-or-treating for UNICEF, she found other causes. "I remember in high school going with a fellowship organization to the first Crop Walk to Fight Hunger."

Beating it on the streets, in turns out, was as comfortable as Oman would be in terms of hands-on helping. After a brief stint in a graduate program at the University of Oregon, she followed "a former love interest" to Philadelphia, where she took a position working with adolescent girls in a short-term residential program in North Philly. There, her core audience was runaways, preteen drug users, shoplifters and truants. She was particularly affected by an 11-year-old mother-to-be. "She was in so many ways a child herself," Oman says. "It's always stayed with me."

But while her mission of service remained, Oman decided to strike out on a new path. "It became clear that my interests and strengths were on the administrative side of supporting charitable work, and that there were others who were better caregivers than I for these kids in great need." After going through a program in fund development, she went on to apply her studies to her work as director of sponsored programs at Russell Sage College in upstate New York. She focused on foundation and government support for the college, and veered toward the foundation side, inspired, at least in part, by a program officer with the Ford Foundation who passed through her orbit while she was there. The woman was Susan Berresford, now CEO of the Ford Foundation. "I always thought that the work would be interesting," Oman says, "and that I could make a meaningful contribution. I made a career goal to do something like that by the time I was 50."

After taking the job of running/leading/being the Richmond Community Foundation in 1985, Oman hit the first of many challenges four months in. Following the sudden death of local actor Kim Strong, a handful of his friends wanted to cement his legacy. All of the half dozen were either writers or in theater.

"We had a notion that we wanted to honor our friend, but we didn't have clue how to do it," remembers Bruce Miller, artistic director for Theatre IV. Someone mentioned Oman's name. "We had heard that they had dynamic new leadership at Richmond Community Foundation," recalls Miller. The foundation had been around since 1968, but it was not a name on everyone's lips until Oman arrived. "We'd heard great things about her from the rest of the 'asking community.'"

Oman delivered the bad news first: It would take $10,000 to begin a viable named fund — a real choker for folks who were used to dealing in fewer zeroes. The benefits began. Swift Creek Mill Playhouse put on a special performance of "Little Shop of Horrors." Theatre IV did the same with its hit, "Quilters." And the local arts community and theatergoers who remembered Strong, the actor, sent in personal checks.

"It came in $10, $25 and $100 increments from local actors, actresses and stagehands," Oman recalls.

Miller credits Oman for her leadership. "She was completely willing to work with those of us who had no knowledge whatsoever about what we were doing," Miller says. "She was patient and encouraging. She instilled in us that this was an appropriate thing to do and a doable thing." That was early 1986. Now The Kim Strong Fund for Theatre and Literary Arts has built to approximately $35,000.

Oman had plenty to work on at the foundation, too. In 1986, she had been there barely long enough to clutter a desk when she set about getting some legs under the organization. "If we could get the Community Foundation to critical mass," she says, "then defined as $5 million in permanent assets, we would double or triple the foundation's assets every five to seven years." With that goal, Oman led a quiet, all-out campaign for big money. "The board authorized a one-time solicitation of major individual and corporate donors to get RCF to critical mass," she says. Within two years, that goal was accomplished — thanks in part, if not in total, to Oman's organizational strengths.

Oman's childhood "leadership by consensus" has been a good formula in her professional life. "Darcy's first and foremost core value is the belief in a strong volunteer-led organization," says Bobby Thalhimer, the foundation's assistant director. Board involvement is key. When Oman recounts the foundation's growth, she charts it in terms of board chairmen. "Under Paul Riley's leadership as board chair from 1985 to 1990, we built the policy infrastructure," she says. "Wally Stettinius [Board Chair 1991-1992] encouraged the board to think big and to define our vision to become the leading resource to promote philanthropy in the region. ...." And on she lists each evolutionary step by board chairmen.

But volunteer leadership doesn't mean Oman can sit back and watch things happen. "When you're managing an organization with assets of over $4 million, things have to be transparent, open to scrutiny and a lot of people who know what's going on," Thalhimer says. "That's the way RCF is run." Adds board member Armstrong, "She keeps the board very well informed. She runs the board meetings very efficiently. They last an hour and a half, and they're almost always on time. There's not a question you ask that she doesn't have the answer for. And the right answer."

Oman shrugs off compliments on her leadership. But there is one designation she doesn't mind. "People throw around leadership styles. Someone once said, 'Oman, I've finally figured you out. You're a servant leader.' If that's true," she says, "that's a person who can be helpful and supportive of others doing their jobs well and setting standards of excellence. But the light doesn't have to shine on the servant leader."

For Oman, it's all about balance. "She has a strong sense of privacy," Thalhimer says. "But when she's working, she's working 110 percent. When she leaves, it's private. She expects the same of everyone else. She doesn't want people working 80 hours a week without balance." Oman doesn't require, but does encourage, staffers to do their own volunteer work, separate from the foundation. Sometimes, she allows some work time to be devoted to personal volunteer work. "It helps us do our jobs," Thalhimer says. "It's seen as part of being a community foundation, that people should individually get involved."

To maintain her balance, Oman counters her busy workweeks, spent meeting with people and discussing money matters, with weekends in a small, rustic cabin in West Virginia. Her husband often arrives ahead of Oman and their daughter and gets the fire going, she says. "We get in the car, NPR is on, I'm talking with my kid. The country opens up." Three hours later, a glass of wine awaits to take off the chill before it's time to chop wood or collect rainwater off the roof for cooking and cleaning. Oman relishes the privacy, she says. "We're seven miles outside of a town with 900 residents."

Oman still gathers with parents and siblings at an annual Fourth of July camping trip at her parents' home on 42 acres in the Vermont middle-of-nowhere. And it's just like the old days. "We all chip in. Everyone does something," Philip Oman says. "There's some wood chopping, some hikes, some swimming in the pond. We just enjoy one another's company."

In her downtime, Oman sometimes reflects on the future of the Richmond Community Foundation and the legacy she'll leave, although no one knows when that will be. "After 20 years in Richmond, I've been a small part of helping to create a tremendous asset for the Greater Richmond area," she says. "And I'll have left an organization that will continue for years after I'm gone. If I get hit by a truck tomorrow, we've built a great staff, great community support and a great resource for the community. The work will go on." S



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