Karen Lee Spaulding thought she was heading for retirement in 2013 when she began planning her exit from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery after a 36-year career in the museum world.
Instead, she was persuaded to put her experience in nonprofit management, governance and strategic planning – including interim director at the museum – into developing a new role with the John R. Oishei Foundation as vice president of philanthropic support.
She's been there for the last eight years and has worked with hundreds of nonprofits, providing help in areas that are largely outside the foundation’s traditional focus.
“Our community partners indicated we scored high for grantmaking and relationship between program offices, but what they really felt they needed was that capacity-building and the problem-solving support beyond grantmaking,” she said.
Spaulding spent nearly a year just listening, getting to know who was doing what in the community and how she could provide assistance and connections with agencies and resources.
“The work we’re doing is to work with organizations to help them understand where they are in their own evolution and what they need for the next step,” she said.
She met those needs three years ago when she developed the Oishei Fellowships for Leaders of Color, now selecting its third cohort of 24 executives.
Participants come from all career levels and range in age from 20 to 60. They described the initiative as transformational by giving them the opportunity to learn from each other and grow as leaders, she said.
“I didn’t have a crystal ball about the fellowship, but what I did have was an instinct that this was going to be a really important moment for the fellows who were participating in it,” Spaulding said.
Robert Gioia, president of the Oishei Foundation, said Spaulding’s role has been game-changing for the foundation and the community.
Gioia said no one knew how the fellowships would work out when the program started, but it’s been clear it was something the community needs.
“She’s been able to really create a dynamic for our foundation going forward to help and be supportive of organizations within the philanthropic community,” he said.
A Long Island native, Spaulding began her career at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, then joined the Albright-Knox after moving to Buffalo in 1976. She lives in Eden on a 150-acre farm, tending a “small” flock of 48 sheep.
As she prepares to retire again at year-end, she said she leaves behind a program that sparks purpose and confidence.
“It’s about limitless horizons and the confidence and clarity to step into and step up to those courageous places in their world,” she said. “What I love about this work is it’s not a strictly lateral ascent, it’s not about the next best job or moving from one organization to another, it’s really about finding one’s purpose."
Karen Lee Spaulding
Day job: retired from Albright-Knox Art Gallery
Community: John R. Oishei Foundation
Favorite superhero: Wonder Woman, of course!
What keeps you up at night: How about what gets me up in the morning? Helping nonprofits and nonprofit leaders do their best work.
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