Written by Amanda Allen
Photos by Steve Babin
Stuart Obermann is CEO and President of The Community Foundation of Greater Huntsville. The Community Foundation strives to improve the quality of life for all citizens of Huntsville through philanthropy.
EVENT: Tell our readers a little about yourself.
SO: I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and studied Mechanical Engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology and Purdue University. I really never imagined I’d stay in Huntsville for more than 3 decades, but the community and the work environment was ideal for my family – providing a wonderful environment for starting and growing small tech businesses.
EVENT: How did your work at Community Foundation of Greater Huntsville come about?
SO: After spending over 20 years as an entrepreneur in the commercial tech sector, I got involved in several nonprofits as a volunteer and board member. Our son Eric graduated from Grissom High in 2000, and shortly after that began exhibiting symptoms of a motor-neuron disorder, that turned out to be ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and eventually, as the disease progressed, he had to withdraw from his computer science studies at Georgia Tech. My wife Marcia and I both took extended leaves from our careers to care for Eric, and we founded a chapter of the ALS Association to serve ALS patients and families across Alabama.
Eric passed in 2010 at age 28, and a few years after that, I decided to re-enter the job market. I looked at a few opportunities to lead start-up or early-stage tech companies, but did not find anything that I could really get excited about in the for-profit world. Then early in 2013, I learned that the Community Foundation was seeking someone to replace their original Executive Director. I applied for the job and started that summer. I found that my passion was in the nonprofit sector.
EVENT: What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?
SO: I love that the mission of the Community Foundation is very broad and encompasses all aspects of our community. With ALS and most other nonprofit organizations, you are focused on a specific societal problem or population. At the Community Foundation we take a holistic view of our community, and recognize that to improve our quality of life here, we have to invest strategically and in many different areas – including education, neighborhoods and communities, basic needs, lifestyle and cultural organization, the environment, and more. Our work can impact everyone living in our community. I enjoy working with donors to help them develop a plan for their charitable giving which meets their specific needs, provides them optimal tax benefits, and gives them a way to have a greater impact on our community with their philanthropy. We can see the very tangible ways that our donors’ dollars are making a positive difference in the lives of others in our community, and that is very rewarding.
EVENT: What do you find most challenging?
SO: While we are very fortunate to live in a growing, thriving community with a strong economy, there remain a great many needs in our community that are not being addressed. We are also blessed that so many people and companies here are very generous and give back to the community both with financial support and as volunteers. It can be a real challenge to prioritize the many needs we have and match those to the resources our donors are willing to commit to help solve these problems. We look for or develop programs that provide the greatest “return on investment” and will address issues that are of interest to our donors.
EVENT: What are some things that people who aren’t really aware of all that the Community Foundation does might be surprised to learn? How can they get involved?
SO: One common misperception is that the Community Foundation is only for the wealthy. This is really not the case, as middle class families form the backbone of our diverse group of fundholders. While we do offer specialized funds for wealthy families and create legacy endowment funds through planned giving, we have many funds that welcome donors with gifts as small as $25. For example, a group of millennials recently started the give256 Fund (named after our region’s area code)which is a “giving circle.” Like-minded people of all ages can join give256 for a gift of $256 a year and actively participate in making grants to support various causes in our community. By pooling resources, a group of donors making relatively small gifts can make significant grants that make a real difference. We view this as the democratization of philanthropy – making it accessible for anyone who may be interested to participate.
EVENT: What do you do to unwind?
SO: A few years back, I had the opportunity to purchase a beautiful piece of undeveloped land on the bluff near our home, and have developed a small residential subdivision called Oak Bluff on Green Mountain. Our family has always loved the outdoors and enjoys traveling, especially to visit national parks and other places of unspoiled beauty. I also enjoy tinkering with my vintage BMW, and occasionally take it to a car show to meet other car nuts. I try to stay active and became a runner fairly late in life – I really enjoy running races and duathlons – which are like a triathlon for people who don’t like to swim (racers run and cycle.)
EVENT: What is the one thing you really want the people of Huntsville and the surrounding areas to know about The Community Foundation and the work you do?
SO: The Community Foundation is a resource for everyone in our community. We are here to help anyone who is interested in improving our great community through charitable giving. We support the nonprofit community by making grants and offering professional development seminars, and we provide corporations with a very low-cost and transparent way to give back to our community. And finally, we can create a way for families to create a permanent legacy by creating a fund that will support the causes that matter most to them.