By HARRIET PROTHRO PENROD
Until I met Kristi Gustavson at a recent press conference, we had only communicated by email after I contacted her about meeting for lunch. I knew she was the executive director of the Community Foundation of North Louisiana but, other than that, I knew very little about the 1996 Byrd graduate. Sitting outside at Ki Mexico and enjoying some incredible tacos, I heard a fascinating story about how she ended up at CFLA.
It’s funny how phone calls work.
In 2017, Kristi Gustavson was on the verge of calling Cook, Yancey, King & Galloway – the law firm where she had served as a senior associate – and telling them she wanted to return.
There was something about being in a courtroom and arguing a case in front of a judge that attracted Gustavson – and she missed it. It’s why she got her law degree at Tulane University (graduating cum laude) after getting her bachelor of arts in political science from Rhodes College.
After practicing law in New Orleans, Gustavson and her husband moved back to Shreveport in 2007 and she joined Cook, Yancey, King & Galloway – where she practiced commercial litigation, contract issues and bankruptcy. She chalked up trial experience in state district court, United States District Court, United States Bankruptcy Court, Louisiana State appellate courts, and city courts.
Then, in 2013, she got a call from Regions Bank – one of the law firm’s clients – about managing the trust department. At the time, Gustavson’s daughter Malin was two years old, and her husband was travelling a couple of weeks out of every month with his job at Red Ball Oxygen.
The change sounded good, so Gustavson left the law firm and joined Regions, where she served as a vice president and trust advisor. After four years in that capacity, however, she decided she wanted to return to the courtroom.
She was about to pick up the phone when something happened before she called Cook, Yancey to tell the firm she wanted to come back, however. Her phone rang.
On the other end of the phone was Paula Hickman, the executive director of the Community Foundation of North Louisiana.
“Paula called and wanted to take me to lunch,” explains Gustavson. “We (Regions) worked with the Community Foundation so I thought there might be something wrong with the account.”
On the contrary. As it turned out, Hickman was planning to retire after nearly 15 years leading the Community Foundation of North Louisiana and she had decided who she wanted to replace her.
“I had seen the advertisement for the position,” says Gustavson, “but I wouldn’t have applied for it.”
While Gustavson had always been involved in nonprofit work — the former ballet dancer served as president of the board of the Shreveport Metropolitan Ballet while at Regions — she had never considered doing it full time. The more she talked to Hickman, the more Gustavson realized that is where she belonged.
“I went home and told my husband, ‘I think this is my dream job,’” she says. “And he said, ‘What is the Community Foundation?’”
Established in 1961, the Community Foundation of North Louisiana oversees more than $183 million in assets for the benefit of North Louisiana. Its mission is to promote philanthropy and improve the quality of life in the community by serving as a permanent and growing resource of expertise and funds. The funds managed by the Foundation are invested for the community’s benefit and then are returned to the community in the form of grants to a wide variety of charitable endeavors. Since its inception, the Community Foundation has granted over $100 million in grants to nonprofit organizations.
After going through the extensive interview process, she was chosen for the job and started shadowing Hickman in the fall of 2017. In January 2018, Gustavson assumed her new role as executive director.
When asked what the biggest challenge of the new role has been, Gustavson pauses and says, “I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. I keep pushing. I had never managed an office of human beings. I had to find my way in my job and manage them. As a lawyer, I was a solo practitioner. As an only child, collaboration was a little outside of my nature. I never liked group projects in high school.”
And the most rewarding part of her job? “When the collaboration works,” she answers quickly.
With Gustavson at the helm, the collaboration has worked. In 2021, CFNLA granted over $8.5 million in grants and scholarships to 339 nonprofit organizations and 46 students.
“My job is to put groups together,” says Gustavson. “Those groups do research and data. I take what we have all collectively decided on and go to our board.”
The big question is, “How do we match the funds that we have monetarily with the needs of the community,” she says. “Sometimes, the hard part is not raising the money but spending it in a timely manner.”
In 2018, CFNLA set a lofty but attainable goal: “To change the course or interrupt the cycle of poverty for children through education so they may grow up and attain a living wage job by the age of 25.”
One of the major initiatives established by the Foundation to meet that goal is the Early Childhood Education Fund – to expand access and enrollment in quality early childcare by providing scholarships for children ages 0-3 in Caddo Parish. Thanks to generous donor support and a 1:1 match from the State of Louisiana, over $2 million was secured for the first year of the multi-year initiative.
The Foundation stumped for money from the City (of Shreveport) and the City Council early, according to Gustavson, and it paid off. “They stepped up,” she says. “They turned our $2 million into $6 million – unanimously. They said, ‘We see the value in this.’”
You can see by the way Gustavson lights up when she talks about this particular initiative that the Shreveport native loves what she is doing.
“I feel super privileged,” she says. “I get a lot of personal fulfillment from it. I get excited about what I do and am proud to tell my daughter about it so maybe she’ll want to come back here.”
Just like her mom.
Contact Harriet at email@example.com