Community Foundation Chief is Making a Difference
Oct. 9, 2013
A few weeks ago, Rick Clark called Kristi Knous with a problem.
Minneapolis developer Sherman Associates wanted to sink $16 million to transform the Randolph Hotel, a rundown downtown Des Moines landmark that's home to about 100 residents. "We wanted to help residents relocate to a better living situation," said Clark, the Des Moines city manager. "But with limited incomes, it was going to be difficult."
Within a few hours, Knous, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, had a private donor willing to kick in about $25,000 to help the city with its $225,000 cost to help residents with utility and rent deposits and other moving expenses. A nonprofit group also is working individually with residents to find new homes.
"Kristi makes things happen," Clark said.
The 45-year-old has a gift for making connections between the people who need help and those Iowans who can give help, say her admirers, including former bosses Barry Griswell, who retired July 1, and Johnny Danos.
"She cares passionately for the work the community foundation does," said Griswell, who led the group for five years after retiring as CEO of Principal Financial Group, one of the largest retirement plan companies in the nation.
Knous took over leadership of the community foundation at a critical time. The foundation is becoming a more high-profile leader on community issues, gets ever-more complicated giving requests, and works with other foundations across the state to help residents invest in their communities.
"When you hear about the incredible need in this community, and you're working with the people with the resources to help address that, you want to connect the dots, you want to close the gap," Knous said. "We really want to inspire people to join together around community issues.
"It's a job foundation leaders have groomed Knous to tackle, and one she has worked hard to land.
Knous, a former child advocate at Blank Children's Hospital, decided she needed to beef up her financial training as a foundation executive and received a master's degree in business administration from Drake University.
Strong financial management has always been at the center of the foundation's mission, she said. The nonprofit manages 1,140 donor endowment funds and $244 million in assets, as of July, an amount that was less than $100 million in 2000.
The only blip in the group's strong upward march in assets was 2008, when the global recession gripped the state and nation.
Assets fell 21 percent, but the foundation has since regained the losses, and assets are 33 percent above the pre-recession high.
Knous said 70 percent of the funds are endowed, meaning spending from them is restricted so community initiatives and projects will be supported for decades.
"What's important to the community is long-term, sustainable funding" that supports projects like the Principal Riverwalk and the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, she said. "It gets people thinking in forever terms."
She said others saw her potential before she did. Former foundation presidents Griswell, Danos and Monroe Colston all were important mentors.
"I don't know anyone in Des Moines who has been as fortunate as I have been," said Knous, who joined the foundation in 2002.
"Even when I didn't have the confidence in myself, they continued to really be encouraging," Knous said. Foundation and board leaders "got me in front of audiences that I should be in front of or talked about continuing my education."
Colston, who led the foundation when it moved out from under the chamber's umbrella in 1992, was "a natural convener" and taught her the "art of listening ... to really bring people together around an issue," Knous said. Danos pushed her "to really stretch and step out of my comfort zone." Griswell encouraged her and the foundation to think more like a Fortune 500 company and to step up as a community leader.
"He really encouraged me to discover what those community issues are and position the Community Foundation as a leader around that table," said Knous, who along with Griswell, Danos and other board members worked with a national consultant on how to become a more effective community leader. That work helped lead to creation of the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families and the Capital Crossroads five-year visioning plan for the region.
"It was very intentional. If we want to be seen as a community leader, we'd better act like it," she said.
Christine Hensley, a Des Moines City Council member, said Knous works as easily with donors and CEOs as she does with nonprofit directors or homeless residents.
"She brings a real openness and understanding of the issues facing the community," Hensley said.
It's that depth that helped Knous and the foundation convene meetings around what was a highly contentious discussion about a new location for the downtown homeless shelter, said Hensley and others.
"It's a project that took nine years," said Tony Timm, executive director of Central Iowa Shelter & Services, now located in a new $15 million facility on Mulberry Street. The Community Foundation provided $100,000 for the project.
"She was able to start a conversation about what made the most sense for everybody in the long term," Timm said.
Jay Byers, the Greater Des Moines Partnership chief executive, worked with Knous to organize and help fund Capital Crossroads, the five-year visioning initiative that has involved hundreds of volunteers and has the potential to touch most areas of central Iowa residents' lives, from how they work, play, learn and help people in need.
"Kristi is smart and hard-working," Byers said. "She asks tough questions and is able to think big."
Among Capital Crossroads' most challenging goals is to work with residents in Des Moines' urban core to reduce poverty and improve education and job opportunities.
Solving significant community challenges will require governments, businesses and nonprofits all working together, said Clark, the Des Moines city manager. "The normal way of doing business just isn't good enough anymore," he said.
Knous is positioned to help the community find the right path.
The mother of two said she knew the Community Foundation was her destiny after interviewing more than a decade ago with Danos.
Danos, a former executive at accounting firm KPMG, said he's recruited about 500 professionals over his career. But Knous is his best hire, he said.
In the years ahead, Knous said she hopes to generate "more strategy and inspiration around giving that will really make a difference in the community on issues big and small."