Arizona foundation leader lands in Fremont

March 13, 2011
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FREMONT — Carla Roberts recently traded Arizona’s sunny clime for the snowpack of Newaygo County, and she couldn’t be happier.

The new president and CEO of the Fremont Area Community Foundation is busy getting to know the community and “planning to plan,” she said.

Roberts replaces Libby Cherin, who retired at the end of February. Cherin oversaw the foundation’s growth from $60 million in assets in 1994 to $192 million this year.

The foundation held an open house for Roberts last week.

“What attracted me to this position is, it’s about rural philanthropy,” said Roberts, who was vice president of affiliates for the Arizona Community Foundation and based in Phoenix. She traveled across the state to work with 16 related foundations that ranged from start-up phase to mature organizations in rural Arizona.

“Every community in Newaygo County is rural, and so it’s an opportunity to be focused where my passion and my heart have been, and where I believe my skills and talents can be put to best use for the community,” she said.

Roberts, who grew up in North Carolina, brings with her a background in the arts and international philanthropy. A board member of the national association Council on Foundations, she serves on its International Committee.

Her previous job as executive director of Atlatl, the National Service Organization for Native American Arts, took her to Mexico and Australia; she also served as a Transatlantic Community Foundation Fellow in Slovakia in 2003.

Roberts was active in several philanthropy and Arizona-based groups, including the Arizona Rural Development Council.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Alaska and a master’s degree in fine arts, cultural resources management, from the University of Iowa.

Roberts’ husband, Doug Lane, district manager for a facilities management company, remains in Phoenix with the couple’s dog, Max. Roberts said he plans to relocate and job hunt in West Michigan once the Phoenix home is sold.

“I don’t come with a vision of what I think it should be. What I come more with is a way of working and processes and belief that local people know what the local solutions are,” Roberts said. “By bringing the players together, you can get to the best plan. I’m planning to plan, in a collaborative way.”

Cherin joined the foundation in 1988 as program and communications director. Back in 1994, Cherin had been on the job as president and CEO for just a few days when baby food maker Gerber Co. was sold to Swedish pharmaceutical company Sandoz at 53 percent above the stock price.

Since most of the foundation’s assets were held as Gerber stock, overnight it grew from $60 million to $105 million, Cherin recalled. In addition, the sale brought wealth to people in Newaygo County who then wanted to share the good fortune with the community foundation.

The influx of cash brought challenges, as well, Cherin said.

“We really didn’t have a good investment policy at that time. We just didn’t complete one because of the high concentration of Gerber stock,” she said. “We needed to create that quickly and asset allocation that was going to take us to the future.”

Cherin said the foundation hired an investment consultant and turned for advice to other Michigan community foundations and the Council of Michigan Foundations, which at that time was led by Kathy Agard. Agard retired at the end of 2010 from the top post at Grand Valley State University’s Johnson Center for Philanthropy.

The asset surge allowed the foundation to expand the staff from three to 10 within a year and to bring on grant-making expertise, Cherin said. Program areas grew to include the arts, the environment, health and community development, in addition to the foundation’s strong focus on human services.

The foundation also presented all of Newaygo County’s nonprofits with $25,000 endowments and training in how to grow the nest eggs, Cherin added.

Cherin said she plans to spend three months relaxing, then travel, and eventually volunteer with local nonprofits.

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