By Courtney Westlake
Editor’s Note: This new column by Courtney Westlake examines what drives successful business people. During a luncheon interview with Courtney Westlake at Café Brio, she will address issues like how they approach their business; how they make a tough decision; when do they decide to add staff; dealing with customers; interacting with competition; share successes and what missteps they have made and corrective actions. The column is to give insight into their thought process, and to demonstrate what concerns readers can learn or share with them.
There is an inside joke among the staff members of the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln about executive director John Stremsterfer’s favorite question.
Though his colleagues laugh about hearing this nearly every day, Stremsterfer embodies the mission of the Foundation when he asks his staff with a smile: “who’s ready to change the world today?”
I first got to know John when he invited my husband Evan and I to be a part of the Young Philanthropists, a group of young professionals dedicated to charity giving within the foundation, back in 2008. As I have become involved in the Young Philanthropists, serving on and chairing the grant committee and now serving on the steering committee, I have seen the foundation and its various giving circles grow immensely and transform lives around the community, all under Stremsterfer’s reins.
If you ask him, Stremsterfer will tell you he was just in the right place at the right time and attributes it all to his board of directors and staff. But it’s obvious to those involved with the foundation and within the community that Stremsterfer’s passion, vision and leadership have propelled the CFLL from holding assets of $800,000 at its inception in 2003 to assets of $17 million today with 125 different funds.
Thanks to my parents’ influence of giving back while I was growing up, I have always had a heart for the mission of the community foundation, and I have been fascinated by its inner workings. Stremstefer confirmed during our lunch at Café Brio what I have witnessed over the years of my involvement with the foundation: his goals and passions are so aligned with that of the CFLL that it is difficult for him to even answer a question about himself without the conversation returning to the foundation.
John admitted that he enjoys virtually all aspects of the fundraising and fund-giving involved in his job, even the mundane tasks of working to develop and implement systems and policies (“I love how systems work, and we have such a strong board now because of the systems we put in place at the beginning,” he told me). But at the core of his role, what drives him each day, is building relationships.
What Stremsterfer described as “connecting the dots” has meant that he has built relationships all over central Illinois with charities and agencies, volunteers, families and individuals in order to figure out ongoing needs or problems within the community and find ways to solve that problem – whether it stems from the foundation helping an existing agency incorporate that solution into its mission or assisting a family who wants to start a fund at the foundation.
Stremsterfer enjoys nonfiction reading and attending national conferences, but the information that occupies his mind every day comes from the local media. Ingesting community news allows him to constantly be learning about the people that the foundation is serving and to help him in his problem-solving endeavors.
“If you’re paying attention, you can always find opportunities to align your work with the community,” he pointed out.
Stremsterfer originally entered his career in government with the same goal of his current career: to help people. His path took him to development for his alma mater, Ursuline Academy, where he discovered a true passion for fundraising and the nonprofit field. We laughed as he admitted his goal of “Saving Ursuline,” which jump-started his very successful career in development despite the fact that Ursuline is now defunct.
Obviously that did not deter John from going forward to lead a foundation in giving away more than four million dollars in 10 years to enable local programs to fulfill their mission to better the lives of those they serve.
“I get to help people give away money; what’s not to love about that?” he smiled.
I asked him if it’s difficult for him to ask people for money, and he told me that it’s not hard when he sees the real community impact every day. Many of the people who set up funds with the foundation come to him with a simple need for guidance, and the foundation is then able to utilize its resources to put that money to the best possible use to benefit others.
Despite 10 years of leading the Foundation, John is still moved by each act of generosity he witnesses. We agreed that helpful, involved people generate a certain energy and culture that inspires others to help and become involved.
“It’s still very heart-warming to know that people actually give their money away to help other people,” he said.
By the way, I had Café Brio’s Shrimp BLT, and it was delicious.
Courtney Westlake is a freelance writer from Springfield.