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Shelly O’Quinn outlines vision for making a difference through charity

UPDATED: Tue., June 5, 2018

Spokesman-Review Editor Rob Curley interviews Shelly O’Quinn, the CEO of Innovia Foundation, formerly the Inland Northwest Community Foundation. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokesman-Review Editor Rob Curley interviews Shelly O’Quinn, the CEO of Innovia Foundation, formerly the Inland Northwest Community Foundation. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Shelly O’Quinn was born and raised here. She’s a Central Valley Bear. She went to college at Whitworth University.

She eventually decided to run for office to serve the community she loves. She spent four years as a Spokane County commissioner and easily won re-election in 2016.

Then a few months into her second term, she was offered an opportunity that she says would truly let her look out for the place she calls home.

About this time last year, O’Quinn became the chief executive officer of the Inland Northwest Community Foundation, which changed its name this week to Innovia Foundation.

As CEO of one of the region’s largest charities, O’Quinn gets to do the sorts of things most elected officials can only dream about. She says she enjoys having the opportunity to activate change and make lives better in our community without all the layers of bureaucracy that often accompany elected life.

I sat down with O’Quinn to talk about her career change and the future of the foundation in the first of what will be an ongoing series of conversations and podcasts with community game changers and innovators.

S-R: Tell us about your first year at the Inland Community Foundation. What have you learned and were there any surprises?

O’Quinn: It has been a great first year. It’s hard to believe that it’s been one year since I started at the foundation. I loved my job with the county. It was a great job, but coming to the foundation was an opportunity to take the foundation to the next level.

The (biggest) surprise I had was the amount of technology that needed to be upgraded in order for us to be able to reach out into our communities the way that we wanted to reach out. The amount of work that has taken to get us to the point where we can now roll out our new systems and be able to access our information from anywhere was quite an undertaking this year, but it’s been a lot of hard work and a lot of fun and we are now able to do it.

S-R: People must still come to you and ask, “What is the Foundation?” How do you respond?

O’Quinn: I respond that we are an organization that is transforming communities in Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho. We serve 20 counties, 10 in Eastern Washington and 10 in North Idaho and we connect our donor generosities to our region’s most pressing causes. We work with our nonprofits on the issues that are the most important to the communities they serve.

S-R: Tell us about the name change, what it means, and any of the backstory here.

O’Quinn: I knew that we had an opportunity to undergo a marketing campaign. And what started as a marketing campaign, turned into a rebranding as we realized we weren’t telling our story. We weren’t talking about the transformational impact we were having on our communities. We pulled together all of our different stakeholders and involved them in a process that talked about the foundation – our past, who we are currently and where they wanted to see us in the future.

There was this deep desire that the community foundation play a greater role in our community, rather than be just reactive in awarding grants, but be proactive in helping identify opportunities for investment, being a change-agent in this region, being an organization that would bring people together around important issues. So we used this opportunity to really dive deep and think about the future – who we want to be as an organization now, in five years, 10 years, 20 years and more into the future.

S-R: What does the new name mean?

O’Quinn: The new name is Innovia Foundation, and it literally means “innovative way.” The “I-n-n-o” reflects innovative and “via” is the Latin word for way. So the innovative way in our new tag line is “driving community transformation.” While it is a name that is a made-up word, and I liken this to the same transition that Washington Water Power made when they went to Avista, which is a made-up word. It was a difficult change when they first made it, but it’s now a household name. I want Innovia Foundation to be a household name in the future.

S-R: Your predecessor, Mark Hurtubise, was there for little over a decade. He really grew the organization that allowed you to make the changes you are making now. Talk about all that happened during his time.

O’Quinn: Mark’s legacy is that he grew the foundation from just over $40 million to $100 million. That growth in the foundation is what allows us to take that next step moving forward. So often foundations are defined by their numbers. And I’m proud of our numbers. We have over $120 million in assets as of today. We have over 500 funds, and we have distributed more than $70 million back to the communities that we serve. That’s phenomenal. Mark did a great job growing the foundation that really allows us to take the next step.

S-R: What do you hope to accomplish in the next year?

O’Quinn: We are going to be much more engaged in our communities. It’s important for me that we not sit in Spokane and make decisions. And in order to know our communities we need to be in our communities. So each staff member has been assigned a region and we will be out in our communities each month – at least once. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you think about our region we are just over 38,000 square miles and we have a million people. It takes over eight hours to drive from the southern tip of our region to the northern tip of our region. So we cover a lot of territory.

We are going to be intentional about creating partnerships in those regions. We realize that we cannot be everything to everyone, and that we cannot do this work alone. It’s going to take us collaborating with other organizations and other partners to create that sustainable change.

We also are establishing a new research and community impact program at the foundation. We were awarded a Murdoch grant this past spring that allowed us to hire a director of research and community impact. He just started this week. He will be developing our community impact program, which will allow us to look at the data around the issues in each of our communities that we serve.

The final piece of that is we want to bring greater awareness to the importance of philanthropy in our communities. You’ll be seeing us roll out a local initiative around Giving Tuesday, which is the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, and being intentional about bringing greater awareness of the opportunities of folks to use philanthropy as a tool to move us forward in this region.

S-R: I try to tell people we should be the community we want to be, not wait for others to help us.

O’Quinn: Absolutely. We have always been an organization that has provided grants throughout the region and we will continue to provide a competitive grants program for the communities that we serve that will not change. Information about our grant programs can be found on our new website, but we do plan to be much more intentional about developing initiatives targeting specific areas of concern. So we’re looking at issues and opportunities in our region that we can be a catalyst and drive change.

S-R: That feels like a move toward advocacy. Is that intentional?

O’Quinn: If you want to see long-term sustainable change, it’s going to require advocacy. Not in the political sense, this is not a partisan issue. But rather one focusing on issues that we can advocate for our communities.

We have a million people in our region. The majority of those people live in Spokane and Kootenai counties. So, of our 20 counties, 18 of them are rural. And so to think that the same issue that faces folks in Lewiston, Idaho, or Grangeville, Idaho, is the same as Spokane County or the same as Colville – they’re not. So in that long term it’s being able to show our impact that we’ve had on those communities that we serve. And not just in the numbers in funds or how many dollars that we have, but really by that showing that we’ve moved the needle on the issues important to them.

To hear the full interview, please visit spokesman.com/podcasts/

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