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A Gift’s Impact: How Cole’s Fund Benefits Both Staff and Grantees

Colburn “Cole” S. Wilbur, former interim president of Cal Wellness, and current Cal Wellness President and CEO Judy Belk.

A small gift to The California Wellness Foundation in 2014 produced a legacy that continues to this day.

Colburn “Cole” S. Wilbur, former interim president of Cal Wellness, stepped away from the foundation in 2014 when current President and CEO Judy Belk stepped in. When he left, he decided to gift his remaining retirement benefit funds to Cal Wellness. He included a simple note with the check he mailed to the foundation: “The staff will know what to do with this.”

Indeed, they did.

A Grantmaking Program for Non-Grantmakers

Wilbur’s gift evolved into what became Cole’s Fund, a Cal Wellness program that allows non-grantmaking staff to learn the grantmaking process first-hand. Cole’s Fund grants are typically less than $5,000 and go to organizations in California with budgets of less than $1 million. In total, Cole’s Fund has given away $136,200 to 38 organizations since its creation.

“Cole’s Fund is an opportunity to really learn how to provide resources for smaller nonprofits, and to look statewide and at underprivileged areas and make an impact,” said Karen Wloch, grants administrator at Cal Wellness and participant in Cole’s Fund.

Cal Wellness staff who choose to join the Cole’s Fund committee engage in a multi-part  process. The committee first identifies a focus for their grantmaking. Past focus areas have included experiential learning for children, domestic violence, and senior nutrition. Secondly, each member of the group researches organizations in California whose mission fits the focus area, with the goal of spreading the grantmaking throughout the state. Committee members contact their chosen organizations to let them know that a small grant is being considered. At this time, the organization has an opportunity to ask questions as the committee member seeks to better understand the work of the organization and its impact.  The committee members then have an opportunity to share what they’ve learned and discuss their grant recommendation with the full committee. Finally, the committee presents to Judy for approval. One of Cal Wellness’ grantmaking team members serves as an advisor to assist the committee over the course of the process.

Cole Wilbur visits the current cohort of Cole's Fund.

Expanding Our Community of Grantees

“People who participate better appreciate the level of work that goes into grantmaking,” said Lauri Green, Cal Wellness program assistant and Cole’s Fund participant. “You are able to interact directly with grantees, and they have a real sense of gratitude when you call them up to let them know that they will be receiving this grant that they did not have to apply for.”

Potential grantee organizations for Cole’s Fund must align with the Cal Wellness vision, and possess both a health and California connection. Preference is given to organizations that do not normally receive grants from the foundation. Organizations cannot apply directly for a grant from Cole’s Fund – instead, staff identifies potential organizations once the committee chooses a specific focus area for the year.

“Putting on the shoes of a program director was very helpful and enlightening,” said Laura Ascencio Real, Cal Wellness senior grants management assistant and Cole’s Fund participant. “In the process, I also got to do writing that I don’t do as part of my day-to-day responsibilities. It really stretched my skill set in a positive way.”

Participating in Cole’s Fund also gives committee members the opportunity to sharpen their collaboration and presentation skills as well. In addition to presenting recommendations for CEO approval, the committee members present their final grants to the Cal Wellness board of directors.

“The chance to do public speaking was a great opportunity, and to present in front of the Cal Wellness board was a great professional development opportunity,” said Brandon Smith, human resources coordinator and Cole’s Fund committee participant.

“You have something at the end that you’ve worked together on, and you develop strong work relationships from that participation. You also get a better understanding and appreciation for the broad range of skills that people have and might not be using in their everyday work,” added Sandra Martinez, Cal Wellness’ director of public policy and 2019 advisor for Cole’s Fund.

Lasting Legacy

The Cole’s Fund program has become a mainstay at Cal Wellness, and current CEO Judy Belk has committed to keeping Cole’s Fund going so that staff continue to have learning opportunities around grantmaking. In addition, the program has kept Cal Wellness connected to Cole Wilbur.

“For the last two years, it’s been part of my committee role to be in contact with Cole to let him know about the grants we have made, and to let him know that he has this legacy at the foundation where we give back to small nonprofits every year,” Wloch said.

Cal Wellness staff who have taken part in the Cole’s Fund committee agree that participating is gratifying work.

“There’s a feeling you get when you get to recommend a grant—like you’re making an impact,” said Amber López Gamble, acting director of grants management and one of the initial participants in Cole’s Fund. “These are small organizations, and these grants really mean something even though it’s a small amount. There can be a lot of impact for not a lot of dollars, and it’s beautiful to be able to recommend those grant dollars for approval.”

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