On The Board and In The Spotlight: Shelley Cohn

by Shelley Cohn

How long have you served on these boards?

Fortunately for me, I have the honor of serving as the board chair of the Arizona Community Foundation and the board president of the Desert Botanical Garden simultaneously. I have also served as a board member for both of these organizations for more than ten years.

What drew you to this organization?

I am passionate about both the Arizona Community Foundation and the Desert Botanical Garden. These organizations work hard every day to support our community. I personally believe deeply in their missions and the work they do to make Arizona a better place to live for all. Their innovative leadership, passion and dedication from both the outside board members and the internal staff make serving on these boards very rewarding. Both organizations have worked hard to develop the strong infrastructure and systems to continue meaningful and sustainable impact in the community and the state.

What would you say is one of the biggest challenges for a businessperson serving on a nonprofit board?

I think the biggest challenge over the next five years for the Arizona Community Foundation is supporting the growing needs we see across the state. As traditional funding to support community needs diminishes, the foundation community is being asked to fund more of the social safety net. For the Desert Botanical Garden, it is finding the needed resources to successfully implement the long-term vision and goals of the organization. All organizations, particularly the nonprofit sector, have concerns about their capacity to fulfill their missions, and these organizations are no different.

What do you wish you had known before joining the board?

Neither of these organizations was new to me. I was quite familiar with the Desert Botanical Garden because I was a student at the Desert Landscaping School located at the Garden; and I served as a member of the Distribution Committee at the Arizona Community Foundation. There have been no surprises in working with these organizations, and I have become more committed to them based on the rewarding work I have had the opportunity to be engaged in.

How did you overcome that challenge and what about the biggest opportunity?

Board members are critical assets for these organizations, communicating the needs, aspirations and vision for these organizations throughout the community. They act as advocates by introducing the organization to their network of friends and associates, and they promote the overall impact achieved in addressing many of the most difficult challenges for the community. These board members are also the greatest source of referrals for connecting new members and introducing new collaboration opportunities to support the organizations’ goals.

What do you feel your greatest accomplishment has been during your time on the board?

Early in my tenure as a board member of the Desert Botanical Garden, I was asked to chair the strategic planning process. This two-year process engaged board members, staff, volunteers and community leaders, and created The Saguaro Initiative, a project that raised $18 million for new exhibits and vital new programs for the Garden. I am proud to say, The Saguaro Initiative successfully concluded recently with all funds raised and all identified projects completed.

At the Arizona Community Foundation, I was proud to serve on the Distribution Committee, which became the Philanthropic Services Committee. This committee is responsible for creating the plans to raise new funds and distribute dollars through grants that address vital community needs. At ACF, the expansion beyond traditional grantmaking to include prizes and low-interest loans, and social impact investment extends the reach and distribution of the overall philanthropic dollars.

What would you say to someone considering joining a nonprofit board?

In talking to people about serving on boards, I always make sure they are well informed about the mission and impact of the organization they are considering joining. It is important they are passionate and feel deeply about the causes the organization is engaged in and that they are clear about their responsibility and expectations as a prospective board member. No organization needs a place-holder board member; they want people who care and take action to further the goals of the organization.

Shelley Cohn worked for the Arizona Commission on the Arts from 1979 through 2005, including 21 years as executive director, where she advocated tirelessly for artists and arts organizations. Since 2006, The Shelley Award, named after her, has been awarded to people who have advanced Arizona arts and culture to create or support public policy beneficial to the arts in Arizona. Cohn consults with the Flinn Foundation on its arts and culture programs and has taught classes in arts entrepreneurship and public policy at Arizona State University. She holds degrees from Arizona State University and Washington University, and completed the Program for Senior Executives in State & Local Government at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Cohn is chair of the Arizona Community Foundation Board of Directors and president of the Desert Botanical Garden Board of Trustees. She also serves as previous president and current board member of Childsplay, and as the chair of Hillel at ASU’s Life & Legacy giving program.

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