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2012 CFO OF THE YEAR: Kay Whitaker

Sam Stall
November 28, 2012
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Top Honoree, Not-For-Profit

Managing the Central Indiana Community Foundation is an almost mind-numbingly complex task for its CFO, Kay Whitaker. The $584 million public foundation is a sort of “community chest” that manages more than 850 charitable funds, each of which is handled separately to adhere to the wishes of individual donors and advisors, yet managed as a single entity when it comes to the Foundation’s investment pool.

“Our staff collaborates with over 800 funds under the CICF umbrella, which give nearly $40 million to this community, funding everything from the Indianapolis Cultural Trail: A Legacy of Gene & Marilyn Glick, to helping a family achieve self-sufficiency,” Whitaker said.

CICF was established in 1997 as a partnership between the Indianapolis Foundation, which has served Marion County since 1916, and the Legacy Fund, serving Hamilton County since 1991. Whitaker joined CICF in 2007, just in time to watch the group’s assets whither from $670 million to $471 million when the market cratered.

Age: 53

Family: husband Scott

Hometown: New Winchester, Ind.

Education: bachelor's degree from Indiana University; MBA, Indiana University Kelley School of Business

Civic Involvement: Helped found Grameen American Indianapolis, a micro-lending venture with close to 500 members; Indiana Writer’s Center; Trinity Episcopal Church

Hobbies: Spending time with family and friends, walking her dog, writing, bicycling, sewing, supporting the arts

Since then, the fund has rebounded to $584 million. “When the market dropped 20 percent in September of 2008, community need exploded,” Whitaker said. “Fortunately our investment strategies held up, so we were in a position to rush in while others were running out.”

During the dark early days of the recession, CICF and its partners co-created the Community Economic Relief Fund in order to get a quick $3.2 million to charitable organizations so they could respond immediately to pressing needs. As for CICF itself, the staff somehow trimmed 30 percent from a budget that was 70 percent personnel, without cutting jobs.

Under Whitaker’s leadership CICF transferred its investments to Cambridge Financial Group, providing access to a higher-yielding portfolio. Unfortunately the complex portfolio is sometimes a bit too challenging for some donors, necessitating rather lengthy explanations. “We are such an ‘immediate access’ world that investing directly in oil fields that do not report their returns on a 15-minute delay somehow seems less certain than an [exchange-traded fund] that is a derivative of an oil field company’s stock,” Whitaker said. “Trying to explain the nuances of this complex portfolio is always challenging.”

Fortunately Whitaker has a lot of experience explaining things—and in the subtle art of keeping multiple irons in the fire. She’s served on more than 20 not-for-profit boards and is instrumental in the strategy and coordination of the Grameen Bank of Indianapolis, a micro-lending agency that seeks to end intergenerational poverty in central Indiana.

As for the finances of the state (and the nation), she sees better times ahead. Hopefully.

“I am privileged to sit in a seat that has access to the thoughts of the best investors in the world,” Whitaker said. “Before the Wall Street meltdown, everyone was chasing yield, believing that tomorrow would always be better. Now we are equally certain that we are uncertain about just about everything. We can never actually know, but we can choose a path and adapt. Right now many indicators show evidence of a global healing and correction.”

While the economy may go up and down, the needs of the underprivileged remain constant, and pressing. One of the biggest issues locally is the state’s growing population of seniors. Something that strikes close to home for Whitaker, whose father suffers from dementia. “Watching his struggle has been both bitter and sweet, and it has brought into focus how important our work is at CICF,” she said. “So this year has presented a unique challenge, which is to continue to contribute at a level our community demands and deserves, even when my heart hurts.”

While a CFO at a private firm can look to the bottom line to judge how well he or she is performing, it’s a bit different at a not-for-profit. Such organizations traffic in “soft power” such as respect and influence, not cash or direct authority. Because it’s awfully easy to walk away from an organization that you don’t trust or like.

“At CICF, our bottom line is our reputation for being good stewards of people’s time, talent and treasure,” Whitaker said. “Our metrics are just as solid, but very different from private or governmental entities. I smile when I hear from colleagues in the midst of the transition from corporate to not-for-profit work say, ‘This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.’ My view is that not-for-profits are akin to start-up companies, but stripped of all the organizational trappings and utterly focused on purpose.”•

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Click here to return to the CFO of the Year landing page.

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