CFON is a national leadership and action network of community foundations committed to achieving equity and opportunity in our communities and was created in early 2016.

CFON includes leading community  foundations from every region in the US. Participating foundations serve communities with a spectrum of geographic, demographic, racial, and socioeconomic diversity. We welcome additional community foundations and other change-oriented funders.  Since our inception, the following national foundation partners have also supported the network:  Annie E. Casey Foundation, Fidelity Charitable Trustees’ Initiative, Ford Foundation, The Heinz Endowments, Skillman Foundation, and W.T. Grant Foundation.  Advisors to the group have included Dr. Robert Putnam, Richard Reeves, Nisha Patel, The Urban Institute, Frameworks Institute, New America, Zero To Three, and other leading thinkers on related issues of opportunity, mobility, and equity.

The Challenge

Wealth inequality and declining social mobility are the defining challenges of our day. Contrary to the American myths of opportunity and meritocracy, the chance of a young American doing better than her parents has declined by 40 percent since the 1960s. A growing body of evidence bears this out: if you are born poor, statistically it is highly likely you will die poor. And if you are a child of color, your chances of pulling out of poverty are even lower. As Robert Putnam detailed in his groundbreaking book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, millions of kids are falling through the “opportunity gap.” Their wealthier peers have better outcomes because they have better opportunities. It’s an arms race, and poor kids are losing.

Morally, that is deeply problematic and reflected in indicators such as increasing suicide rates characterized as “death by despair” that are the tenth leading cause of death in our country. Economically, it is debilitating, reducing our Gross Domestic Product by trillions of dollars in the years to come.

If there is consensus on the problem, there is also remarkable agreement on the solutions. Papers by Putnam, Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute and, most recently, the US Partnership for Mobility from Poverty, among others, provide clear blueprints to narrow the opportunity gap, increase mobility from poverty, and restore the promise of America. We know what to do.

Just because there is agreement on the solutions, however, does not mean that implementation is simple. To the contrary: since the causes of inequities in opportunity are complex and highly situational, even proven solutions must be emergent and adapted to the distinctive needs and characteristics of individual communities.

And that’s where community foundations are stepping up.  Putnam has said that community foundations, as part of the “civic backbone of America”, are uniquely positioned to sustain attention on the opportunity gap and drive effective action to narrow it. Other major demographers and social change leaders have also called on community foundations to respond more robustly – not only in our communities, but together. Many of us have taken up that challenge.

Community foundations are driving proven solutions to narrow the youth opportunity gap and are channeling philanthropic resources into interventions that work. They are connecting donors who are deeply rooted in local communities to effective solutions tailored to the unique requirements of those communities. They are building cross-sector partnerships. They are driving public policy changes. They are creating systems change. They are all pursuing a common goal: increase opportunity and equity for America’s marginalized young people.

Structure and Objectives

CFON is designed to empower foundations and their partners on the ground to learn faster, develop new approaches, prototype those ideas, attract significant philanthropic investments, and scale innovations and strategies that produce results. To achieve that, CFON operates on three interconnected paths to action, each building capacity for the other:


Path 1: The Learning and Sharing Network  is the common ground for the participating foundations to learn from each other, benchmark with each other, and understand and develop the preconditions for success at the local level. This includes virtual and face-to-face gatherings, access to resources and thought leadership, and facilitated ways to connect with one another.

Path 2: The Strategy Action Lab is the “proving ground” for foundations to rigorously test strategy and develop or strengthen the preconditions necessary for leadership resulting in measurable improvement. The SALs serve cohorts of 4-6 CFON participants focused on strategies around a common area (recent Labs centered on Access to Good Jobs, Early Childhood Development, and  Equitable Housing).

Path 3: The Aligned Action Network:  NEON is designed to attract and deploy significant philanthropic capital to accelerate the work of dismantling structural and systemic racism and achieving economic and social mobility in communities where the participating foundations have demonstrated the capacity to lead and influence these outcomes.  This capacity was highlighted by Alex Daniels in the Chronicle of Philanthropy (Network of Community Foundations Hopes to Attract ‘Big Bet’ Money from Foundations, October 3, 2019).

To organize its work, CFON has adopted the strategic framework developed by the US Partnership for Mobility from Poverty (with permission), adding an explicit emphasis on equity, belonging, and inclusion.

Our Leadership Team

CFON is led by a volunteer Leadership Council comprised of CEOs and senior staff of participating community foundations.

  • Dick Ober, CEO, New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and CFON Chair
  • Sherri Brown Grosvenor, VP Community Impact, Community Foundation of Broward
  • Eileen Ellsworth, CEO, Community Foundation for Northern Virginia
  • Frank Fernandez, CEO, Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta
  • Michele Frix, Chief of Staff, The Seattle Foundation
  • Pamela Gray Payton, Chief Impact & Partnerships Officer, The San Diego Foundation
  • Ellen Katz, CEO, Greater Cincinnati Foundation
  • Pamela Ross, VP Opportunity, Equity & Inclusion, Central Indiana Community Foundation
  • Javier Soto, CEO, The Denver Foundation

CFON is supported by part-time staff and consultants.

  • Terry Mazany (former CEO of Chicago Community Trust) serves as CFON’s Network Executive
  • Amy Daly-Donovan (Daly-Donovan Consulting) is CFON’s Director.
  • Lisa McGill (LM Strategies Consulting) supports NEON and facilitated the Strategy Action Lab focusing on “Access to Good Jobs”
  • Nisha Patel (Powered by Shakti) serves as the Chair of NEON’s Advisory Council and provides guidance on the development and implementation of NEON
  • Tom Kelly (KEL Advising) provides guidance on data and evaluation for NEON