September 16, 2014


Damon Circosta: Marshaling energy into positive change for social good

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Damon Circosta, Executive Director of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, pauses at his stand-up desk on what was once the sun porch of Alfred Johnson Fletcher’s Raleigh home.

If you don't believe that success has a lot to do with a person's ability to think on their feet, meet Damon Circosta.

Working from a stand-up desk and office in what was once the sun porch of Alfred Johnson Fletcher's house in downtown Raleigh, Circosta is literally on his feet most of the day while he runs the influential A.J. Fletcher Foundation (AJF). While he will officially mark his first anniversary as executive director on March 30, he couldn't resist slipping in early to get things started a year ago this week.

"It's hard work and I feel like I never have enough time," admits Circosta, who at age 36 is younger than 75 percent of the country's CEOs and CGOs, according to the Council on Foundations. "But it's a blessing because I'm learning something every day. My job here is to get all those positive ideas and powerful energy marshaled into meaningful change."

The clout and resources of the Goodmon family, A.J. Fletcher's heirs, have made a great deal of good works possible over the years. Founded in 1948, AJF reported revenue of more than $14.7 million in 2010 and awards between $2.5 and $5 million annually in grants.

While the dynamic Barbara Goodmon still serves as AJF president, the hiring of Circosta made it possible for her to spend less time working at her late grandfather-in-law's desk. Husband Jim Goodman, A.J. Fletcher's grandson and longtime CEO of the Capital Broadcasting Company, continues in his role as board chairman. Their sons, Jimmy and Michael, also serve on the board and play key roles in the family's diverse business holdings.

"Everyone we interviewed had unbelievable skills," says Barbara Goodmon. "Since we are a family foundation with four active members, we needed to select the person that could best integrate into our culture. It is not easy dealing with four very opinionated Goodmons."

Circosta admires the family's commitment to doing good in the community. "They care about this place in a way that goes well beyond your typical philanthropic entity. It's in the fiber of their being," he says while sipping coffee in an upstairs conference room that once was A.J. Fletcher's bedroom. "They are sincere about picking up the rope and helping everyone else tug."

One of Circosta's first projects was to oversee restoration of the Fletcher home, located at 909 Glenwood Ave. The house was sold after A.J. Fletcher's death in 1979 and changed hands several times before Jim Goodmon noticed a for-sale sign once again at the curb. In January 2012, AJF moved its headquarters there from its former offices in the historic Briggs Hardware building, which it also restored.

"It turned out to be a nice way to plant a flag and say, ‘This is the home of the fund'," says Circosta. "It all connects to the importance of legacy and innovation."

Circosta, who previously led the N.C. Center for Voter Education, adds that innovation is central to the AJF legacy. The foundation's first focus was to provide support for A.J. Fletcher's beloved Grass Roots Opera, which evolved into the National Opera Company and later the Fletcher School of Performing Arts.

Under Barbara Goodmon's tenure, the foundation expanded its view to address such community concerns as human services, illiteracy and the health and wellbeing of children. 

"She transformed us into an agency that really cares about the community, and a community is only truly successful is everyone in it has the chance to be successful," Circosta says. "I was hired because I fervently believe that human beings exist to live and work in a community. We have to get everyone to the starting line. That is the priority of this foundation."

One way Circosta aims to help others get up to speed is through creation of a new foundation position to oversee online engagement. "The whole world is moving online, but nonprofits are lagging in this arena," Circosta says. "We want to take the lead on this, and we hope they'll come along."

***

In the next two years, Circosta will take what he calls “four great dives” into endeavors intended to level the playing field for more of North Carolina’s citizens – and especially children – to achieve success. AJF is concerned, for example, that charter schools do not have to offer transportation or free-lunch programs, which effectively exclude children of low-income families.  “We cannot let that erode or diminish the idea that every single child in this community has a top notch education,” he says. 

Increased support of early childhood education is the second concern. Circosta notes that Jim Goodman was among the first to back the Smart Start initiative introduced by Gov. Jim Hunt 20 years ago. "Dropout rates are finally dropping in our state, and it's because of the investment in Smart Start all those years ago," Circosta says. "There's a ton of research that says, if you don't get kids prepped on how to learn before kindergarten, it's like starting a baseball game 20 runs down. You'll never catch up."

The third "dive" will take AJF further into new media, including support of the Raleigh Public Record, to help citizens be aware of and involved with government issues that affect them. When people are informed, Circosta says, they become empowered to become part of positive change.

The fourth will be an expansion of AJF's East Durham Project, which was launched four years ago and is based on the Harlem Children's Zone model. They will continue to leverage local resources to "turn the neighborhood into a vibrant place" while not displacing current residents through gentrification.

Circosta has grown accustomed to being one of the youngest people at the table and brings youthful energy and confidence to problem solving.

"None of the problems, the difficulties we have in this community, are so big that they can't be fixed.  But they're not so small that we can count on others to fix them," he says, growing animated as he leans in to make his point. "We're not talking about this in the way of some sort of movement, a let's-get-a-campaign-going thing that comes and goes.

"We harbor no illusions about being a single transformative force. We don't have enough juice to go it alone, nor would we want to," he adds, rising to his feet. "It's just what we're going to work on. We'll put our shoulder to the wheel and hope that others join us."

Note:  Before it became a program of the Institute for Nonprofits in January 2010, Philanthropy Journal was based at the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which remains a supporter. Barbara Goodmon was a driving force behind the creation of the Institute 10 years ago and continues to serve on its External Advisory Council.

 

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