In past years, foundation overcame challenges

New executive director, board and investment strategy put Homer Foundation on a steady track.

Another in a series of short historical reminiscences to mark the 30th anniversary of the Homer Foundation, Alaska’s first community foundation. The series has been produced by the foundation and written by board member Tom Kizzia.

Small town organizations sometimes go through challenging transition periods. That applied even to the umbrella organization that provides funds to the Homer area’s many nonprofits. A few years ago, as the Homer Foundation neared its 25th anniversary, the foundation faced its own period of challenges, involving changes to staff, founding board members and investment policies.

Joy Steward, the smiling face of the foundation since she was hired in 2000 as the first executive director, was getting ready to retire. Her familiarity with internal policies, federal tax rules and the local nonprofit scene would be difficult to replace.

Ken Castner, a foundation founder and its longtime board president, who has been providing free office space to the organization since 2004, was finally ready to step down as he launched a successful race for Homer mayor.

Under the board’s new term limit policy, other board veterans were also leaving, including the invaluable contrarian Phil Morris of Kachemak City, whose esoteric discussions of Federal Reserve policy graced several annual reports, and whose small-government, anti-tax philosophy dovetailed with his extraordinarily generous commitment to personal philanthropy. The last of the early directors, the widely connected retired college director Carol Swartz, departed in 2020.

In the nonprofit world, this moment of transition from the generation of founders is the kind of thing consultants write books about. Sometimes it leads to an identity crisis. At the Homer Foundation, new board members were nervous.

As it turned out, the foundation got lucky. In 2019, the organization found a new executive director with the right combination of professional experience, low-key social skills, and eagerness to live on the Kenai Peninsula and go fishing. Mike Miller, a U.S. Air Force retiree with municipal manager experience, was new to the Homer area, but had served as director of the Food Bank of Alaska in Anchorage and understood how nonprofits work.

Miller joined Lauren Seaton, a former teacher hired as a part-time assistant to take on the foundation’s growing administrative work. The board moved through the transition under the steady leadership first of middle-school social studies teacher Bonnie Jason and, currently, local lawyer Terri Spigelmyer.

One of the biggest challenges faced by the revamped board was rethinking how the foundation’s money was invested.

For some years prior, the foundation’s endowment had been handled by an investing committee whose strategies did not conform to the usual cautious approach of foundations. The independent spirit that gave Homer the state’s first community foundation worked well on the investment front for many years, beating the financial markets and providing outsized earnings that were distributed in the community. Then, in 2015, the strategies stopped working and the foundation lost money — even as the markets were going up. A major revamping of investment policy followed.

Today, as Alaska’s first community foundation marks its 30th year, all of the Homer Foundation’s funds are invested with Vanguard, a traditional management company, under a conservative strategy that tracks the general financial markets and leaves specific investment decisions in professional hands. Over the past three years under Vanguard management, the foundation has seen an average annual increase in its investments of more than 12.5% — bringing relief to board members and fund holders alike.

Homer Foundation 30 years logo.